In early December, a disconcerting piece of news seeped out of the White House. The nation’s plans for fighting a nuclear war had been revised by a Presidential Decision Directive (a so-called P.D.D.) for the first time since 1981, when, at one of the tensest moments of the cold war, President Reagan had just begun his first term in office. No public announcement had been made, but reporters got wind of the change, and the Clinton Administration confirmed the news. It was, of course, disturbing in this peaceful time merely to be reminded that the United States still had plans for nuclear war. On Thanksgiving Day, just days earlier, President Clinton had proclaimed, "In this new world, our children are growing up free from the shadows of the cold war and the threat of nuclear holocaust." The P.D.D. appended a decidedly jarring footnote to the President’s assurance. If we were free of the threat of a nuclear holocaust, then what need was there for nuclear arsenals, or for revised plans for their use?
The jolt was not eased by the few cryptic fragments of explanation that were offered by the Administration. In an interview with R. Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post, Robert Bell, who serves on the National Security Council, sought to draw a clear distinction between the new directive and its Reagan-era predecessor. The new one, he proudly stated, "removes from presidential guidance all previous references to being able to wage a nuclear war successfully or to prevail in a nuclear war." That innovation, however, could scarcely qualify as a bold departure from cold war policy. After all, in 1985 President Reagan and the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, had jointly declared that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Was the public now to understand that it had taken twelve years–during five of which Bill Clinton was President–for this high-level affirmation of rudimentary sanity in the nuclear age to travel down the spinal cord of the military machine from the Commander in Chief to his subordinates at the Pentagon? And was it to understand that this delayed implementation, six years after the end of the cold war, of a policy announced six years before the end of the cold war was the most significant change wrought in U.S. nuclear policy by that revolution in international affairs?
Far more striking than any differences from early-Reaganite excesses was the continuity of the new directive with orthodox cold war nuclear policy. Just as the doctrine of nuclear deterrence had guided U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, so now it guided our policy toward Russia. Just as the Soviet government and military had been targeted for destruction, so now the civilian and military leadership of Russia was being targeted. In the event of attack, Bell stated, nuclear retaliation "would be certain and overwhelming and devastating." In light of all this, his general conclusion was not surprising: Nuclear weapons were to remain the cornerstone of U.S. security for "the indefinite future." There were, it is true, a few modest changes. The directive was to be implemented with a maximum of about 8,000 strategic warheads–the number mandated by the START I treaty, which was signed in 1991 and went into effect in 1994. The list of targets in China had been expanded (prompting a remonstration from China’s foreign minister). And a few new countries–those judged to have "prospective access" to nuclear weapons–were added to the list. (No countries were named, but it seems likely that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are among them.)
Russia, of course, also retains large nuclear arsenals and has plans for using them. In other words, nuclear deterrence remains in force on both sides of the now-missing Iron Curtain, dictating that each side maintain nuclear forces that, in the event of an attack by the other side, can destroy its society. The question today is, Who wants these reciprocal threats of annihilation, and why? Communism was the issue between the Soviet Union and the United States. The government now in power in Russia overthrew Communism, and today relations between Russia and the United States are cordial. The great nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union were created as instruments of the cold war. Now that that conflict has been dissolved, can’t the arsenals be dissolved? Now that the war is over, can’t we stand down the arms that were built to fight the war? Over a period of years, the peoples of the Soviet empire dismantled the system of totalitarian terror under which they lived. Can’t we and they together now dismantle the system of nuclear terror under which we have all been living? Can’t we, at long last, abolish nuclear weapons?