Post #33 – The Nuclear Danger and the Case for Nuclear Abolition (Part Two)

So far as I know, every post-World War II US president has come to realize the awesome responsibility that accompanies presiding over a massive nuclear-weapon arsenal.  And every one of them has at one time or another in his presidency determined that the danger posed by nuclear weapons was so great that a way had to be found to dramatically reduce if not eliminate US and others’ nuclear weapons.  We now know that even President Reagan, who authorized an unprecedented increase in the number of US nuclear weapons, was seriously interested in their complete abolition, and at the summit meeting with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 sought a way to reach an agreement to that end.  (Gorbachev’s insistence that testing of the US “Star Wars” missile defense system be limited to the laboratory scotched the deal.)  Nevertheless, the gap between the ideal and the real, as we all know, is great: no president or premier has been able to resist the pressure from the military-industrial complex to keep and expand his country’s nuclear arsenal in the name of national defense—and sometimes to share nuclear-weapon research and components with others.  And all leaders are capable of entrapment in the “fog of war.”

Even as the numbers of nuclear weapons have declined from a high of around 50,000 worldwide to around 17,000 today, their cumulative destructive power and overkill capacity remain absurdly great, and their capacity to deliver destructiveness with ever greater accuracy continues to be refined. (Ploughshares––estimates that the US has about 7,700 weapons and Russia has about 8,500.  Of the US nuclear weapons, about 4,600 are “available for delivery”; the Russian figure is probably comparable.)  US-Russia nuclear weapons agreements over the years have helped reduce the size of arsenals but have not been able to stop research and development of new or improved weapons.

You and I have been told many times that the Cold War is over and that we can stop worrying about The Bomb.  But we should worry, not only about the existing arsenals, nuclear proliferation, and (as noted in the previous post) the ever-present danger of accidents, but also about spending to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons.  In 2011, for example, the US spent about $34 billion on so-called “core” nuclear-weapon programs (testing, maintenance, research) and another $27 billion on related programs (such as missile defense and  environmental and health costs). These costs, which are more than twice those of the other countries with nuclear weapons combined, will continue to rise significantly in the coming decade (see the Global Zero report at Global Zero’s report says “the nuclear-armed states will spend, conservatively estimated, at least one trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and their direct support systems over the next decade.”  

A perfect example of both overkill and over-cost is the US Navy’s plan for upgrading its Trident nuclear submarine fleet, at an expected cost of around $100 billion for construction alone.  As Lawrence Wittner points out (, just one of these dozen new subs, each armed with 16 multiple-warhead long-range missiles, is capable of killing millions of people.  Think of it this way: The Navy alone has at its disposal the  equivalent of literally thousands of Hiroshimas in destructive power.  Is this necessary or desirable?

How many Americans, or Russians, or Brits, if asked to choose ways to spend those billions, would support building another nuclear submarine or another plutonium processing factory instead of new schools, more modern railroads, or wind generators?

On the positive side are the calls in recent years from many of the same civilian and military officials who were active players in their countries’ nuclear establishments for dramatic changes in policy governing nuclear weapons.  For example:


  • In 1982 Robert McNamara, George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, and Gerard Smith challenged the idea that use of a nuclear weapon could be kept limited, and urged a US policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons.
  • In 1983 McNamara argued that “nuclear weapons serve no military purpose whatsoever.  They are totally useless—except only to deter one’s opponent from using them.”
  • In 1996, US Air Force General Lee Butler (former head of the Strategic Air Command) and US Army General Andrew Goodpaster (former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) called for huge slashes in nuclear weapons inventories and the eventual abolition of nukes.
  • In 1998, US Air Force General Charles Horner, Robert McNamara, and others strongly discounted the view that if the US and other states eliminated their nuclear weapons, some other country would acquire them and be able to blackmail the world. The risk of that happening was very small, they said; in the event of a so-called nuclear breakout, that country would risk utter destruction with conventional weapons.
  • In 2006 the former UN chief nuclear weapons inspector, Hans Blix, chaired a study that called for nuclear abolition, a stronger commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by the nuclear-weapon states, and assurances to all other countries against attack with nuclear weapons.
  • In 2007, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era” and offered a series of steps toward “the goal of  world without nuclear weapons,” “a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.”

These statements have buried the once-fashionable notion that nuclear abolition was only the naïve dream of disarmament idealists.  The complete, verifiable abolition of nuclear weapons is the new realism, and has been for some time.

President Obama, in his memorable speech of 2009 in Prague, imagined “a world without nuclear weapons.” He warned: “If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable” ( Let us recall some of the measures he hoped to achieve during his tenure:

  • US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • A new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia;
  • A new treaty that ends production of fissile materials used in bomb-making;
  • Creation of an international nuclear fuel bank;
  • Strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;
  • “A new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years” to combat nuclear terrorism;

Five year later, I think you’ll agree that there’s not much to celebrate, and that much work remains to be done.  The Cold War should have ended 25 years ago.

For further guidance, see the Nuclear Abolition Forum (, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (,,, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ( Best of all, in honor of Jonathan Schell, who passed away recently, read his superb analysis, “The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons,” a special issue of The Nation (February 2-9, 1988).

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1 Comment

  1. Nice job Mel.

    It has been pointed out many times, but I think bears repeating, we ACTUALLY live in a situation, that has been extant for several generations, within which one person ACTUALLY has the power, in a very few moments time, to destroy the future for everyone on earth. There has not been such a circumstance ever in history before, and we have survived it for only 60, or so, years. We survived having G.W. Bush in the job with that power, and nearly experimented with John McCain, Ms. Palin, and Mitt Romney. (I don’t want anyone near the launch codes who thinks they are more safe than others because they are wearing magic underwear. It should be an easy standard to maintain, but noooo.) We are truly insane if we think such a situation is safe, or that we will survive it given enough time. The possible, anything that is possible, given enough time, becomes mandatory. If we don’t take ACTUAL action to prevent it in the form of dismantling all nuclear weapons, we will see a ‘nuclear exchange,’ and hundreds of millions will die as one result.

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