Large Bipartisan Majorities Favor Prohibiting President from Using Nuclear Weapons First Without Congressional Approval

Eight in Ten Support Nuclear Arms Control with Russia, Disagree with Trump Decision to withdraw from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

A new in-depth survey on U.S. nuclear weapons policy finds that 68% of voters (including 59% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats), support Congressional legislation prohibiting the President from using nuclear weapons first without Congressional approval and a declaration of war.  An overwhelming 8 in 10, of Republicans as well as Democrats do not support a policy shift  in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review that explicitly declares the U.S. would consider using nuclear weapons first and specifies examples of non-nuclear attacks that would prompt such consideration.

Support for nuclear arms control remains very robust across party lines.  More than eight in ten (83%), including Republicans (84%) and Democrats (83%), favor the US continuing to have arms control treaties with Russia.  Eight in ten (82%, Republicans 77%, Democrats 89%) favor the United States agreeing to extend the New START Treaty.  Overwhelming majorities (87%, Republicans 85%, Democrats 90%) approve of the US continuing to abide by the moratorium on nuclear testing.

The study was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), both in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.  The Center for Public Integrity consulted on the content of the questionnaire. It was fielded January 7 through February 1, 2019 with a national probability-based sample of 2,264 registered voters.

“A large bipartisan majority opposes ideas for making nuclear threats a more usable instrument of policy and favors continuing efforts to constrain and reduce nuclear weapons through arms control treaties,” comments Steven Kull, director of PPC.

To ensure that respondents understood the issues, they were given short briefings on current debates on US nuclear weapons policy issues. They were also asked to evaluate competing arguments before making their recommendations. The content of the policymaking simulation was reviewed by experts with a range of perspectives on nuclear issues to ensure the briefing was accurate and balanced, and the strongest arguments were presented.

Overwhelming majorities of both parties agree that the US must have a retaliatory nuclear capability destructive enough that no country could think that there would be any advantage in attacking the United States with nuclear weapons.

The public is not convinced that having intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is necessary. Six in ten, including a majority of Republicans, favor phasing out the 400 US land-based ICBMs that are aging and are vulnerable to a first strike. However, only one-third favor unilaterally reducing the net number of strategic warheads in the U.S. arsenal to 1050 rather than adding warheads to U.S. submarines and bombers if the Russians still have 1550 warheads (the number allowed under New START).

Respondents were introduced to the debate about whether the US needs to have nuclear forces over and above this minimum retaliatory capability, such as whether it needs more options so that it could always retaliate with nuclear weapons similar to the type the enemy used, in terms of their explosive power, their speed, and how close they are to the area of conflict.  A current example of this debate is the question of whether the US should put low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine launched missiles so it can retaliate in kind more quickly to Russian use of a low-yield nuclear weapon than it currently can with low-yield nuclear bombs on planes in Europe.

Although two thirds favor the specific proposal to put low yield warheads on submarines, only 43% endorsed the general principle that Russian capabilities should be matched.  A plurality (49%) preferred the principle that having a minimum retaliatory capability is sufficient.

When asked about using nuclear threats to deter non-nuclear attacks, a bipartisan majority of 57% favor continuing to be ambiguous about whether the US would ever use nuclear weapons first. Only 18% supported explicitly declaring that the US would consider using nuclear weapons in response to a wide range of non-nuclear strategic attacks. A slightly larger number (22%) favor explicitly declaring that the US will never use nuclear weapons first.

Respondents were also told about the debate over how to handle U.S. concerns regarding Russian compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that was underway while the survey was in the field. The Trump administration had announced plans to withdraw in response to Russian developments it sees as Treaty violations, but did not officially start the six-month withdrawal process until February 2. Russia has accused the US of violating the Treaty as well and has proposed steps to address both sides’ concerns. Informed of the controversy, two thirds, including 55% of Republicans and 51% of those who voted for Trump, oppose withdrawing from the INF Treaty and instead favor remaining within the Treaty and redoubling efforts to work with the Russian to address concerns of both sides.

“Americans see arms control as an essential component of a comprehensive strategy to reduce nuclear risks. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF treaty is a rare action that goes against what a majority of his base actually wants him to do,” observed Nancy Gallagher, director of CISSM.

The survey was conducted online from January 7 through February 1 with a national probability-based sample of 2,264 registered voters.  The sample was provided by Nielsen Scarborough from Nielsen Scarborough’s sample of respondents, who were recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households. The full sample has a margin of error of +/- 2.0%.  Some questions were asked to half-samples, providing a margin of error of +/- 2.9%. The study was conducted with support from the MacArthur Foundation and the Yamamoto Endowment for Policy Research.

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