Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.
--President John F. Kennedy, September 25, 1961
At the peak of the Cold War, we relied on the leaders of both sides to understand the “balance of terror” – the knowledge that a nuclear exchange would destroy all of us. Even our principal adversary Nikita Khrushchev warned that, should nuclear war occur, the survivors would envy the dead. This perverse rationality acted as a strong restraint against war. Judged by most measures of human morality, the arms race was tragic and ethically bankrupt. But as long as the weapons remained in the hands of America and Russia, it was believed that sanity would prevail. Quietly under the surface was the fear that other nations, and worse, those applying a less thoughtful risk management calculus, would seek to join the ranks of the nuclear powers.
In To Seek a Newer World (Doubleday & Company, 1967), Robert Kennedy argued that halting the spread of nuclear weapons “must be a central priority of American policy, deserving and demanding the greatest additional effort.” Kennedy, possessed with the knowledge that for 13 days in October 1962 the world stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, recognized that if nuclear weapons became generally available, “each crisis of the moment might well become the last crisis for all mankind.” He questioned whether “our politics can grow up to our technology” for he knew that it is “far more difficult and expensive to construct an adequate system of control and custody than to develop the weapons themselves.” Moreover, even with controls, human errors are inevitable. “In a world of nuclear weapons, one [mistake] could be fatal.”
Kennedy further recognized that nuclear weapons could not solve the problem of national security or act as a substitute for sound policy. The struggle of other nations for prestige and independence, power and recognition, has served as a powerful motivation for them to develop and possess armaments of death and destruction. As I write, Russia and the United States together possess more than 23,000 nuclear missiles (including reserves), and hundreds more are in the hands of Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China, with North Korea now also believed to have nuclear capabilities. That volatile nations in unstable regions, and non-state terrorists out to harm America and its allies, seek to develop and possess nuclear weapons is a risk the global community cannot abide. Unlike the Cold War policy of deterrence, however, the threats associated with nuclear proliferation are undeterred by massive firepower.
Robert Kennedy’s vision of a world disarmed of nuclear weapons was for him a moral imperative. In the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he asked rhetorically, “What, if any, circumstance or justification gives . . . any government the moral right to bring its people and possibly all people under the shadow of nuclear destruction?”
Kennedy's concern and vision is one now embraced by some of this nation’s wise and elder statesmen, including former high-ranking cold warriors George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry. These men believe that a world without nukes is, in the long term, both achievable and essential. As reflected in a 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial (“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”), they contend that, with the rising threat of nuclear terrorism, the world urgently must reduce the number of nuclear weapons to zero. These former hard liners are no longer worried about a cold war nuclear missile exchange, but they do worry about jihadists seizing fissile material from an unstable Pakistan, or a possible Middle East nuclear race involving such countries as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. They also worry about human errors and mistakes by the traditional nuclear powers. As former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, recently told the Christian Science Monitor, the United States and Russia remain on a five-minute “quick launch” timetable, a policy “bordering on insanity.” And as more countries turn to nuclear power to solve their energy needs, there will be an exponential increase in the reprocessing of plutonium and uranium, the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb.
The continued existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. As Robert Kennedy foresaw 43 years ago, to control the spread of nuclear weapons, we must recognize “the need to lessen our own reliance on nuclear weapons, and to halt the growth of the overwhelming nuclear capabilities” of the United States and Russia. We cannot expect existing nuclear states to disarm, nor can we expect others desirous of nuclear weapons to forego their development, if we are unwilling to reduce substantially our own destructive forces. “[I]t is the prestige associated with nuclear giantism, humbling and infuriating smaller nations, that leads them to think that only a nuclear power is heard in the councils of mankind.”
Equally important is the need to lock down known fissile material and its attendant technology, to prevent even a small amount of plutonium from falling into the wrong hands. The ambitions of North Korea, Iran, and other volatile nation states, and the stated desires of Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups to possess and use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, makes evident both the difficulty and urgency of this issue. To that end, we must strengthen the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sets international standards to prevent new states from developing or possessing nuclear weapons; and we should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions on Earth whether for military or experimental purposes.
A modest effort in the right direction occurred on April 8, 2010, when President Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev entered into the most substantial nuclear arms pact in a generation. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will shrink the limit of nuclear warheads to 1,550 per country over seven years and presents a fresh opening in relations with our former Cold War antagonist. Although the nuclear arsenals of both countries still allows for mutual destruction several times over, the arms reductions nevertheless signal that the United States and Russia -- which between them possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- are serious about disarmament and the further spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty is the culmination of a movement started in the mid-1980’s by then President Ronald Reagan, who like Presidents Kennedy and Obama, have called for a world free of nuclear weapons.
[T]hose who disparage the threat of nuclear weapons ignore all evidence of the darker side of man, and of the history of the West. . . . Twice within the memory of living men, the nations of Europe, the most advanced and cultured societies of the world, have torn themselves and each other apart for causes so slight, in relation to the cost of struggle, that it is impossible to regard them as other than excuses for the expression of some darker impulse. . . . The camps and the ovens, the murders and mutual inhumanities of the Eastern front, the unrestricted bombing of cities (with deliberate concentration on areas of workers’ housing), the first use of atomic bombs – truly this was war virtually without rules or limits.