Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dreams of a Nuclear Free World

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

Growing up in the 1960’s, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present, an essential ingredient of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States pointed thousands of nuclear warheads at each other, the possibility of unimaginable destruction the push of a button away, the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings hanging in the balance. Although the two countries maintained a cold peace through a policy of mutually assured destruction, we flirted with catastrophe for decades, escaping the worst only because our civilian leaders thankfully refused on several occasions – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, even Vietnam – to acquiesce reflexively to the recommendations of certain overzealous Generals.

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.

There are, of course, skeptics who argue that the goal of a nuclear-free world is both impossible and dangerous, that total disarmament would lead only to rogue states and terrorists in possession of nuclear arms, with law abiding nations held hostage. This is not a frivolous concern. No one, however, is advocating unilateral disarmament. The United States cannot dismantle all its nuclear weapons without absolute, verifiable assurance that no one else possesses them. Whether this is feasible in my lifetime is doubtful, but as former Secretary of State Schultz has said, “If a few leaders of nuclear-armed states stepped forward with conviction . . . to seek the prohibition of nuclear weapons, many obstacles that seem immovable today might become movable.” The fact is that the global community has previously banned certain weapons deemed immoral and unfit even for warfare (e.g., 1972 Biological Weapons Convention; 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention). That certain rogue states and terrorists may attempt to circumvent international conventions does not mean we should secretly possess such weapons, but instead we should work with law-abiding nations to ensure that no one obtains the ingredients or capacity to develop and manufacture these weapons.

If we fail to pursue a solution to the nuclear issue, we do so at our children’s peril. As Robert Kennedy wrote in To Seek a Newer World:

[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.
That the so-called civilized nations of the West, in the middle of the 20th century, were capable of the most cruel and inhuman atrocities imaginable does not bode well for the 21st century, when jihadists and non-democratic forces seek the weapons to destroy us all. As President Obama warned last week during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the dangers associated with nuclear terrorism present “one of the greatest threats to global security [and] to our own collective security.” Only a concerted effort by the global community can reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, for “the problems of the 21st century cannot be solved by any one nation acting in isolation – they must be solved by all of us coming together.” On this we should all agree, for the challenge of nuclear security is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative; it is a matter of inescapable morality, of planetary survival and the future of humankind.


  1. Mark,

    On March 9, 1945, 325 American bombers brought hell on earth to Tokyo, Japan, creating “tornadoes of fire” that consumed the lives of 100,000 human beings. According to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” This was war on the eve of the nuclear age: unimaginable brutality and horror; as it had been for thousands of years and still continues in too many places today. Despite this devastation the Japanese people were still prepared to fight to the last child for their false god, or to commit suicide on a mass scale. A few months later, Colonel Paul Tibbets, “the man who won the war,” as Bob Greene’s dad used to say, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima killing 80,000 more Japanese. The Bushido code, used to justify the brutal murder and torture of American prisoners of war and the slaughter of 15 million Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos, still proved defiant. It took one more use of the ultimate weapon to force the surrender of an enemy that had declared war on the U.S. more than three years before.

    If not for these nuclear weapons, American fighting men would have been forced to invade Japan; been forced to kill civilians who were being trained for “Ketsu-Go,” total war; been forced to take aim at children with weapons and decide in a blink of an eye on a course of action that would haunt them forever. . . if they chose correctly.

    It is estimated that, in absence of nuclear weapons, the continued “conventional” war would have cost the lives of 500,000 Americans and 1.5 million Japanese.

    Ironically, one of those Americans saved because of the use of the atomic bomb was civil rights activist and Second Amendment defender Charlton Heston, who would go on to level his famous curse, “Damn you, God-damn you all to hell!” upon a future world that had destroyed itself with the ultimate weapon. He was, nevertheless, clear-eyed in his assessment of the use of the war-ending weapon, “The politically correct view is that the atomic bombs were inhumane, even a shameful atrocity. Never say that to any of us who were facing Operation Downfall. Invading Japan would’ve cost millions of lives, most of them Japanese.”

    Chuck also knew that our actions kept the murderous Soviet Empire in check; quite an accomplishment considering its holocaustic and Imperialistic history. He and Harry Truman understood that much of the world respects only brute strength. President Reagan’s joke about bombing Russia made liberals wet themselves, but sent the exact right message to the Evil Empire (as did his use of “Evil Empire”). His strategy for fighting the Cold War was even more blunt: “We win, they lose.”

    Years later, President Bush’s use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq and his philosophy that “all options are on the table,” convinced Muammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program. Not until recently, while Gaddafi watched, with amusement no doubt, our bowing apologist-in-chief did he resume his chest thumping.

    Leaders who do not engage in moral equivalence, who understand that America is great because it is, and not because everyone thinks their own country is swell, understand that the greatest and most moral country should and must have the best and most advanced weapons. It follows then that the sheriff of the world has the moral authority to prevent madmen from gaining those same weapons. It is not hypocrisy to say we have them but you can’t. To think otherwise is to imagine the police laying down their guns in hopes that the Crips and Bloods would follow their noble example.


  2. So far the history of nuclear weapons is one of war ending and war prevention and the saving of millions of lives. It can be argued that 58,000 brave American fighting men and the millions of others who died during and after the Vietnam War died needlessly because we failed to put every option on the table. The argument over the decision to go to war there is a valid one, but are you suggesting that once the decision was made, that 58,000 American lives and millions of other lives were a small price to pay for refusing to use our most powerful weapon?

    Because the world is not as enlightened as the average liberal, strength is the universal guarantor of peace. The one sure way to avoid needing to annihilate your enemy is by having the capability and will to annihilate your enemy. When we exercise our strength, the violence ends. When we stand our ground, as Reagan did when he walked away from negotiations with the Russians at Reykjavik to preserve SDI, we prevent future aggression. We should be investing in new and more accurate (and therefore more humane) weapon systems, such as bunker-busting nukes. We should be weaponizing space in fulfillment of the number one rule of military engagement: control the high ground. Had our president listened more and lectured less to General McChrystal, or if he spent one minute with the “corpse”-men that salute him every day, he would have learned that his promise not to weaponize space, the ultimate high ground, was a sign of weakness and a gift to our enemies.

    The goal should not be the elimination of nuclear weapons because that will never, never, never-ever, never-never, ever-ever happen, unless, of course we really do destroy ourselves, but even then we will have to hope that no text books survive the firestorm or that the monkeys don’t learn to read. This wish, for a nuclear free world, just makes one look naive. Better to wish that only the good guys have them and that the good guys have steel backbones when it comes to preventing the crazies from getting them.

    Because our national backbone at the moment seems made of pewter, it looks likely that Iran will get the nuke.

    But then again, Israel has had, in the past, no shortage of men – or women - with steel backbones . . .

    Rich R.

  3. Rich,

    As always, you set forth some interesting and provocative perspectives. You articulated the case for why many believe that our decision to drop atomic bombs on the civilian populations of two major Japanese cities was not clearly immoral -- though this is a fascinating topic that I hope to explore some time in the future. I understand and fully acknowledge the suggestion that anyone who seriously dreams of a nuclear-weapons free world is perhaps naive, but I also made clear in my essay that such an outcome is not likely in my lifetime; in any event, exploring the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons from the world puts one in the company of some pretty strong hardliners, including Kissinger, Nunn, etc. Call them a lot of things, but naive is not usually appropriate with them.

    That the Japanese were willing to die to the last person makes them like Americans -- if we were in an epic struggle on our soil, I believe most Americans would do the same. That the United States is a great country, the greatest on earth even, is a view I share, but whether we are the sherriff of the world, whether we have the unilateral right to use nuclear weapons, whether we are a more moral country than all others, whether our people have more right than the citizens of other countries to flex their muscles, is highly debatable.

    From a strictly moral perspective, the use of nuclear weapons during a conventional war -- such as Vietnam -- cannot be justified. If one believes that the loss of 58,000 American lives was not worth the effort, that is a reflection on the war itself, not whether nuclear weapons should have been used. The reason we need to rid the world of such weapons (irrespective of whether we ever will), is precisely so that no one ever uses them in an offensive manner again. But this is, for me, a fascinating topic that I hope to explore further, when I have the chance to really look at all angles, moral, philosophical, strategic, and political.