Today the thinking by many national security experts has shifted as the threat of all-out nuclear war has faded and terrorist organizations with potentially global reach, like al-Qaida, are trying to get their hands on a nuclear device.
"Hagel's views reflect the growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. security establishment that whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War are now outweighed by the threat they present," said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which supports efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Hagel was co-author of a Global Zero report last May that proposed, as an interim step, reducing the U.S. arsenal to 900 weapons within a decade, with half deployed and the other half in reserve. That compares with a current U.S. stockpile of 5,000, of which 1,700 are deployed and capable of striking targets around the globe.
The report said these cuts could be taken unilaterally if not negotiated with the Russians or carried out through reciprocal U.S. and Russian presidential directives. It called the unilateral approach "less good" but feasible. At a later stage China and other nuclear weapons countries would be brought to the table for negotiations on further cuts on the path to global zero, it said.
The White House last year weighed options for substantial new cuts in the number of deployed weapons, possibly to about 1,000 or 1,100 and probably as part of a negotiation with Moscow. But a decision, following a lengthy review of U.S. nuclear targeting requirements, was put off prior to the November election. Officials and private experts close to the administration believe Obama will soon embrace those cuts.
Previous secretaries of defense have supported reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile under certain circumstances and have paid lip service to the United States' commitment under the 1970 nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to eventually eliminate its nuclear arms. But none has pushed these ideas like Hagel has.
"It's historic," said Bruce Blair, a co-founder of Global Zero and a former Air Force nuclear missile launch control officer.
"We will have, if he's confirmed, a secretary of defense who's committed to the sharp reduction of nuclear weapons, leading down a path toward their elimination," Blair said in an interview last week. "I don't think any sitting secretary of defense has ever come anywhere close to Hagel's advocacy for this cause."
Leon Panetta, the current defense secretary, has not taken a public stance on future nuclear reductions.
Some Pentagon chiefs, like William Perry, became public advocates for eliminating nuclear weapons after leaving office.
At least one apparently harbored doubts about the conventional wisdom while still serving.
In his 1995 memoir, Robert McNamara, who served as President John F. Kennedy's defense secretary, wrote that by the time he entered the Pentagon in 1961 he had privately concluded that nuclear arms served no useful purpose. But he could not say that publicly, he wrote, because it contradicted established U.S. policy.
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