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The Growing Nuclear Peril | The Nation

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The Growing Nuclear Peril

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On June 12, 1982, 1 million people assembled in Central Park in New York City to call for a freeze of the nuclear arms race. In the years that followed, the cold war waned and then ended, and the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union were not only frozen but cut to about half of their peak. In the early post-cold war years, it seemed conceivable that nuclear arms might be on their way to obsolescence, and nuclear danger pretty much dropped out of the public mind.

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About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

There is a revolution afoot—one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land.

It's now clear that these hopes were ill founded. The nuclear dilemma was not going away; it was changing shape. Four years ago, I asked in a special issue of this magazine whether the nuclear arsenals of the cold war were "merely a monstrous leftover from a frightful era that has ended, and will soon follow it into history, or whether, on the contrary, they are the seeds of a new, more virulent nuclear era." The seeds have now sprouted, and that new era is upon us in South Asia and elsewhere.

Today, twenty years after the June 12 demonstration, some of us who were present at the event believe that the time has come again for the public to make its voice heard in protest against the direction of nuclear policies, and we are therefore issuing the Urgent Call on the following page. As one of its signatories, I wish to explain why I think this is necessary. Passages from the Call are in bold print; the commentary is in ordinary type.

"Despite the end of the cold war, the United States plans to keep large numbers of nuclear weapons indefinitely."

According to President George W. Bush, the recently signed Moscow Treaty, under which the United States and Russia have agreed to a limit on deployed strategic weapons of no more than 2,200 each, "liquidates the legacy of the cold war." Rarely has more contradiction, misdirection and confusion been compacted into a single phrase. Let us count the ways.

(1) The cold war--the global ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union--in fact ended definitively in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the face of the earth. The President at the time, Bush's father, told us so. As one Russian wag recently commented, "I'm tired of attending funerals for the cold war." The cold war is over. Long live the cold war.

(2) Does liquidating the legacy of the cold war then perhaps mean liquidating the nuclear arsenals that were built up in the name of that struggle? No. Not a single nuclear warhead will be dismantled under the treaty. Even the deployed weapons will, when the reductions are complete, be quite sufficient for either country to blow up the other many times over. It is better that the excess warheads will be in storage than on hairtrigger alert, but the move only reduces the overkill. All the kill remains. In other words, at the treaty's expiration, in 2012, more than two decades after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the nuclear policies--as distinct from the active and alert force levels--of the two nations will not have changed in the slightest particular.

(3) If neither the cold war nor its nuclear arsenals are being liquidated, does the treaty at least consolidate a postwar friendship between Russia and the United States? On the contrary, the United States has introduced a fresh note of suspicion into the relationship by insisting on storing rather than dismantling the "reduced" weapons in order to "hedge" against some undefined deterioration in relations with Russia--notwithstanding the new consultative relationship of Russia with NATO. One day, the United States thus declares to Russia, 2,200 nuclear weapons may not be enough for dealing with you; we may again need 10,000. That message is reinforced by a shortening of the usual six-month withdrawal time in treaties to three months.

(4) Does the treaty liquidate anything, then? Yes--nuclear arms control. The Bush Administration, which resisted putting even the Moscow agreement in treaty form, has let it be known that it intends no further arms control treaties with Russia. On June 13, the United States will formally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. The world, President Bush is saying, has had all the nuclear disarmament it is going to get out of the end of the cold war. But if the twice-announced end of that conflict cannot get Russia and the United States out of the trap of "mutual assured destruction," what can? Nothing is on the horizon. Woodrow Wilson fought the "war to end all wars." George Bush has signed an arms control treaty to end all arms control treaties.

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