Nation Topics - Nuclear Arms and Proliferation
News and Features
In early December, a disconcerting piece of news seeped out of the White House.
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."
The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.
Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.
In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.
What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:
§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.
§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.
§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.
§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.
How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.
Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.
The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.
These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.
Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.
If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.
Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.
This is not a picture from your kid's sci-fi comic. It's an illustration from a report by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Space Commission. The report advocates circumventing the intent of international laws (notably, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) that seek to keep space free from war and urges that the President "have the option to deploy weapons in space." National Missile Defense, begun as Star Wars under Reagan, is just one layer of this much larger scheme to "control" space and "dominate" the earth, in the words of the report. "The United States is seeking to turn space into a war zone," maintains the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). To read the entire Space Commission report go to www.defenselink.mil/pubs/spacechapter2.pdf.
The prevailing view of the Bush Administration's expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy scandal has been that it was a throwback to cold war days when the great game of tit for tat was the normal way of doing things. But the apparent recrudescence of the cold war mindset should be cause for concern. The only alternative interpretation--that Washington hasn't any better ideas for dealing with Moscow--is equally troubling.
For one thing, the size of the expulsions was excessive. One would have to go back to 1986 to find comparable numbers. Also, they come on the heels of a stream of in-your-face pronouncements by Administration figures--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, calling Russia an "active proliferator" and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying it is "willing to sell anything to anyone for money"--and the loud insistence that the ill-conceived National Missile Defense scheme must go through regardless of Moscow's (or China's or Europe's) objections.
In fact, America does need a new Russia policy after the Clinton Administration's failures. Russia should be our number-one security worry--not because of its strength or aggressiveness but because of its weakness. Its economy has collapsed, its military is demoralized. But it remains a nuclear power equal to the United States. Indeed, the difference between now and cold war times is that the Soviet state was in control of its nuclear devices. Now, it sits atop a crumbling nuclear infrastructure, with poorly maintained reactors, vulnerable stockpiles and a dangerously degraded control system over missiles that remain, like our own, on hair trigger alert. The possibility of an accidental launch triggering a nuclear exchange has never been greater.
The reversion to mindless cold war games obscures these new threats and makes even more difficult the US-Russian cooperation needed to deal with them. That each side will spy on the other is a fact of international life and should not be used as a pretext for further distancing. Washington's priority should be working more closely with Moscow to make the latter's nuclear armaments more secure. The cold war is over. It is frightening that the Bush people show no signs of comprehending this.
Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.
DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.
Keeping the lid on the truth about Kosovo.
George W. Bush's mid-February directive
ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear
arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and
disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it
more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is
pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense
system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully
implemented, Bush's aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided
nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the
cold war era look tame by comparison.
To understand the
danger of Bush's emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine
print. Some elements of his approach--first outlined at a May 23,
2000, speech at the National Press Club--sound sensible. Bush implied
that if elected President, he would reduce the nation's arsenal of
nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads
to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond
anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised
to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert
status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental
So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer
on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, "at the
earliest possible date," a missile defense system capable of
defending "all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed
forces overseas." Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National
Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based
in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush's enthusiasm for a new Star Wars
system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile
interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in
pursuit of continued US military dominance.
announced Rumsfeld's appointment in late December, he acknowledged
that the Pentagon veteran would have a big "selling job" to do on
national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries
alike. But even Washington's closest NATO allies continue to have
grave reservations about Rumsfeld's suggestion that the United States
might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to
pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty
would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into
The cost of Bush's Star Wars vision could be as
much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that's the least
of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a
classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press
last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely
to provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple
effects...that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and
medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the
further spread of military technology in the Middle
Bush's provocative missile defense scheme may not
even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy.
According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush's
renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001
study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed
by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s
essay on nuclear war titled "Victory Is Possible." Bush National
Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were
involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William
Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald
In its most egregious passage, the study
advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear
weapons to be used for both deterrent and "wartime roles," ranging
from "deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional
powers" to "preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,"
from "providing unique targeting capabilities (deep
underground/biological weapons targets)" to "enhancing US
influence in crises." In short, at a time when a number of prominent
military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the
Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear
weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military
purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed
initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for
ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.
The unifying vision
behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that
the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size,
composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference
to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a
disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be
used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful
It's not as if we haven't been down this
road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington
with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star
Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped
roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a
policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will
take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush's
Like much of the Western involvement in the former Yugoslavia, the intense and often heated debate in NATO over the possible ill effects of depleted-uranium ammunition largely ignores the people on whom NATO used these weapons. The debate is focused on higher incidence of cancer and leukemia reported by Western troops who served six-month tours of duty in the Balkans. Six Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, a Portuguese and a Czech have died, while four French soldiers are reported to have developed leukemia.
The former UN administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor and former French health minister, has dismissed the fuss as "a wave of irrationality." But Dr. Zoran Stankovic, a leading Belgrade pathologist who has investigated areas where DU contamination is thought to be most severe (Bosnia, Kosovo and southern Serbia), reports that unexpectedly high cancer rates are appearing in the local population. His main study focused on about 4,000 people who had lived in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadzici, which was heavily exposed to DU shells during the NATO bombing of 1995. "That group developed a large number of malignant diseases," he says. "Four hundred of them have died so far. Our initial suspicion was that there was a link to the effect of depleted uranium."
Stankovic does not claim to have established a link between the malignant illnesses and the use of DU ammunition. But his research adds weight to demands for an international investigation into health risks associated with DU. In Sarajevo, the Bosnian government has formed a working group to investigate what the Europeans call the "Balkan War Syndrome." It has also asked NATO to provide detailed information about the use of DU ammunition.
More than 10,000 rounds were fired in Bosnia and 31,000 in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. Uranium is one of the heaviest metals, which makes it effective in destroying tanks and similar targets.
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