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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger | The Nation

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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger

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Some of the material in this article is drawn from Jonathan Schell's just-published The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.

'Let's Do It!'

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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 abolition idea aired at Reykjavik arose out of the confluence of several historical currents in the cold war's last decade. One was the evolution in Reagan's thinking, moral as well as strategic, regarding nuclear arms. Another was the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. Reagan had opposed it in harsh terms, calling it "a dangerous fraud" perpetrated by those "who want the weakening of America." Yet he could not ignore the freeze. One of its many important victories was a sharp decline in the popularity of his nuclear buildup, which had dropped in the polls from 80 percent to 20 percent. Administration officials hoped the SDI/abolition package would steal the freeze movement's thunder--an aim in which it in fact appeared to succeed. For example, in 1984 Reagan's National Security Adviser, Bud McFarlane, wrote in a memo to Reagan, "You have thrown the left into an absolute tizzy. They are left in the position of advocating the most bloodthirsty strategy--Mutual Assured Destruction--as a means to keep the peace." Yet at its peak in 1982 and '83, the freeze movement created the political conditions that permitted Reagan's abolitionism, dormant until then, to appear. Unknowingly and unwillingly, the freeze movement and Reagan were partners in a powerful, almost decade-long effort to lift nuclear danger, leaving one wondering what might be possible today if a popular movement and a President were to cooperate in an attempt to rid the world of nuclear arms.

Then a new historical current, destined to absorb all the others, came into play. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Gorbachev was no less fervent a nuclear abolitionist than Reagan. In January 1986 he proposed a three-stage plan to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Gorbachev had arrived at his position along a route of his own. His goal was a democratic Soviet Union at peace with the West. In pursuit of this, he sought, more insistently than Reagan, an end to the cold war, for its own sake but also for the economic relief it would afford his domestic reforms.

Of course, abolition didn't happen in 1986 any more than it had in 1945. The decisive moment was Reykjavik. At the opening session, on October 11, both men agreed, in keeping with their public and private statements for some two years, that their objective was the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev then startled Reagan with a handful of sweeping and highly detailed arms-control proposals, including a 50 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. They were conditioned, however, on US willingness to confine development of SDI to the laboratory.

Gorbachev did not mention abolition in these proposals, but Reagan did in his response. Gorbachev was calling on him to restrict SDI, but SDI in Reagan's opinion was the very thing that "would make the elimination of nuclear weapons possible." The fundamental terms of the negotiations were set. In the course of the summit, the two heads of state seemed to compete in bringing forward ever more radical proposals for offensive nuclear disarmament, only to see them dashed on the unbridgeable disagreement over SDI.

The climax came on the afternoon of the second and last day. Gorbachev proposed ridding the world of all strategic nuclear arms in two five-year periods, while Reagan introduced a proposal to get rid of half of strategic weapons in five years and all ballistic missiles in the following five years. Gorbachev's proposal was the more sweeping, as strategic arms include bombers and cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles: it was nuclear abolition.

Next, Gorbachev noted the differences between the two proposals and asked if Reagan would accept the Soviet one. Reagan promptly agreed. Hawkish aides had handed him his more limited proposal as a means to pre-empt his abolitionism. But taking his cue from Gorbachev, he cast aside that plan and reverted to his own goal. He even worried that not every last nuclear weapon would be eliminated. He asked whether Gorbachev was saying that "we would be reducing all nuclear weapons--cruise missiles, battlefield weapons, sub-launched and the like." For it would be "fine with [me] if we eliminated all nuclear weapons." Gorbachev responded, "We can do that. We can eliminate them." At this point, the record shows that the normally sober, impassive Shultz burst out, "Let's do it!"

Of course, it was not to be. SDI reared its head again. Gorbachev continued to insist that SDI research be confined to the laboratory. Reagan continued to insist on the right to conduct tests outside the laboratory. Was the abolition of nuclear weapons, Reagan asked, to founder on a single word--"laboratory"? It was, and it did.

Whether abolition would have been implemented had an agreement been struck is an interesting question. A strange "asymmetrical" struggle between the two leaders, on the one hand, and a phalanx of the nuclear establishments, on the other, would have ensued. The outcome, whatever it was, could only have been decided in a struggle of the widest dimensions.

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