Gone Nuclear: How the World Lost Its Way
Undoing the Damage
With the election of George W. Bush, US nuclear policy started going backward. Regaining control of Congress could get us back on track.
RANDALL CAROLINE FORSBERG
The mainstream military analysts who shaped US nuclear policy during the cold war wanted thousands of nuclear weapons to create a nuclear "ladder of escalation." The ostensible purpose of the nuclear tripwire was to prevent another conventional confrontation like World War I or World War II. Great power wars of conquest and empire date back millennia. How could we prevent such a war indefinitely? The analysts reasoned that the best way to prevent a conventional war that could go nuclear was deliberately to make escalation from conventional war to nuclear war all but unavoidable.
But by the early 1990s, all fears of a major conventional war between East and West had disappeared--the Warsaw Pact disbanded, the Soviet Union dissolved, Soviet troops gone from Eastern Europe, Germany unified and Russian armed forces in ruins. Why, then, did the United States and Russia keep thousands of nuclear weapons?
One reason probably lies in the partial successes of antinuclear efforts. Huge cuts in US and Russian nuclear arsenals were actually made at the end of the cold war . The cuts began with the treaty to ban intermediate-range nuclear forces (the INF Treaty) and the START I Treaty. The INF Treaty did not apply to very large numbers of weapons, but it banned all US and Russian missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 miles. The START I Treaty provided for the verified destruction of intercontinental missiles and aircraft that had carried thousands of warheads.
Equally important but virtually unknown to the public, in August 1991, in reciprocal unilateral steps, George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of nearly all of the so-called tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons from service with ground, air and naval forces around the world. In the United States, this involved an estimated 10,000 weapons, and in Russia about 6,000. These weapons were the nuclear "tripwire" that would have made any major conventional East-West war go nuclear.
In the mid-1990s decisions were made in Moscow and Washington not to produce any new types of nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles or aircraft). The United States, Russia, Britain, France and China permanently ended or suspended all nuclear weapons tests, and plans were made for deeper cuts in the remaining roughly 10,000 nuclear warheads in the active US and Russian arsenals (a total of around 20,000, down from 50,000 at the peak of the nuclear arms race). By 1995 all of the goals of the 1980s nuclear freeze movement had been achieved, and the deep cuts in nuclear stockpiles meant to follow the freeze were under way.
All progress came to a halt, however, with the Republican takeover of the US Senate, where nuclear treaties must be ratified. With arch-conservative Jesse Helms as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, additional nuclear arms reduction agreements negotiated under Clinton were rejected. Then, with the election of George W. Bush, US nuclear policy started going backward. At the direction of Bush's ultra-conservative team (Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney), the United States ended the ABM Treaty, launched a big program to put weapons in space, allocated funds to develop and produce new types of nuclear weapons and expand related facilities, and refused to negotiate any further verified destruction of nuclear warheads withdrawn from service in the United States or Russia. The United States put the world on notice that it might resume testing nuclear weapons and announced that it would consider using nuclear weapons against countries that do not have such weapons.
This tragically counterproductive nuclear policy includes virtually everything a would-be Third World proliferator might consider an enticement, challenge or provocation to acquire nuclear weapons. Far from strengthening US security in any way, the Helms-Bush actions of the last decade actually encouraged the proliferation of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan in 1998, as well as the more recent steps toward proliferation in North Korea and Iran.
In recent years, along with many other longtime activists, I have struggled to find a way to alert the public to this terrible turn of events and mobilize opposition. But the messages seem to have been falling mostly on deaf ears. Even in the religious community, long a source of powerful opposition to the nuclear arms race, the issue no longer resonates.
Why? Part of the answer lies in the success of antinuclear efforts. More than half of the arsenals have been eliminated, including the weapons most likely to start a nuclear war. At the same time, the end of the cold war and the new relationships between Russia and Western nations have created a sense that there is no real danger of a nuclear war. And we must recognize that the danger today is, in fact, less than it was in the mid-1980s, at the peak of US and European popular antinuclear movements.
But the thousands of nuclear weapons on intercontinental missiles that remain in service are still on alert and could still be launched on a false warning of attack. Those most at risk are the people who live in or near large cities in the United States and Russia. US nuclear policy has already triggered new nuclear weapons programs in Russia and China, which are likely to lead to further buildups in India and Pakistan. Apart from North Korea and Iran, new proliferators could emerge, and we could still lose the long struggle against widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Though not much debated, nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policy divides Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. The way to get back on track in this area, as in many others, is to win back control of Congress and then again press our case for nuclear disarmament measures.