Nuclear Abolition

April 1, 1998

More than 100 notable international figures, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter of the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, have signed up to the “distant but final goal” of completely eliminating nuclear weapons. Their declaration was announced Feb. 2 by retired Air Force Gen. Lee Butler on behalf of the State of the World Forum and the Committee on Nuclear Policy.

Again–as in December 1996, when he was a principal in presenting a similar statement from an international group of retired generals and admirals–Butler made an impassioned speech, tracing his own journey from his days as the last commander of Strategic Air Command to his emergence as the leading spokesman for the nuclear abolition movement. He first disclosed his newfound beliefs in 1996 when he and former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were the US members of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

In his February speech, Butler said nuclear weapons “intensified and prolonged an already acute ideological animosity.” He (and we) perceived “the Soviet Union and its allies as a demonic threat, an evil empire bent on global domination.” While “we clung to the notion that nuclear war could reliably be deterred, Soviet leaders derived from their historical experience the conviction that such a war might be thrust upon them and if so, must not be lost. Driven by that fear, they took Herculean measures to fight and survive, no matter the odds or the costs.” Meanwhile, for us, “invoking deterrence became a cheap rhetorical parlor trick,” he said.

Others, whose experience and knowledge are at least as good as General Butler’s, disagree. Soviet policies and nuclear forces during the Cold War were an all-too-real threat. The actions of Stalin and his successors cannot be explained away as by-products of Western paranoia. There is every reason to believe that deterrence worked.

In such instances as the Cuban missile crisis, the shadow of nuclear weapons led the superpowers to proceed most carefully or to step back from the brink of armed conflict. Deterrence also seems to work in some regional situations. Iraq, which had earlier used its chemical weapons against Iran and which had biological weapons ready, refrained from using them in the Gulf War, apparently because the US might have retaliated with nuclear weapons.

By the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, the United States and other nations subscribe to the elimination of nuclear weapons whenever international conditions and safeguards make that step feasible. At present, we are nowhere close to achieving such conditions and safeguards. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction continue to proliferate.

As retired Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, himself a former commander of Strategic Air Command, says, “The thought of a nuclear-disarmed United States being confronted and coerced by a nuclear-armed rogue nation is terrifying.” Rogue nations want weapons of mass destruction because that is the easiest way for them to trump US conventional superiority. In a newspaper column last year, Brent Scowcroft and Arnold Kanter said that “it is precisely when others have foresworn nuclear weapons that those who want to change the world–or at least their place in it–will find possession of nuclear weapons most desirable.”

Nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. The recipe for producing them is not difficult to obtain. “And so?” General Butler shot back in a recent interview with The Nation, arguing that the problem can be overcome by constructing “systems of enforcement” and “capabilities for intervention.” In case of nuclear breakout by a rogue state, response by “the family of civilized nations” would be “virtually automatic.”

We should not be too optimistic about the family of civilized nations. In the most recent Gulf crisis, a remarkable number of those nations declined to stand firmly with the United States and Britain to shut down Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons factories. Some of them were among his suppliers and supporters.

We are moving as rapidly on arms control as prudence will allow. START II, still pending ratification by the Russian parliament, would reduce nuclear warheads to a third of their Cold War levels. Meanwhile, the Russians, supposedly cash-strapped and unthreatening, are developing a new ICBM, a new SLBM, a new Air Launched Cruise Missile, and a new strategic ballistic missile submarine. For post­Cold War Russia, the importance of nuclear weapons has increased rather than declined.

A ballistic missile defense system would lessen our vulnerability to nuclear weapons. We could share the technology with our allies. It might even diminish the attractiveness of nuclear weapons for rogue states. Ironically, ballistic missile defense is staunchly opposed by the leaders of the nuclear abolition movement on the grounds that it could undercut the arms control process.

We must not give up on deterrence until we find something better to replace it. If nations that possess weapons of mass destruction are too irrational to be deterred, that is all the more reason not to trust them by leaning too far forward on disarmament deals. An adversary who doubts that we would use our nuclear weapons is one thing. An adversary who knew for sure that we did not have any nuclear weapons would be an entirely different consideration.