Nuclear Abolition: Then and Now

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By Michael Krepon – There have been three waves of public interest in seeking nuclear disarmament; each wave has been successively less powerful.  The first wave was strongest because it was generated by the biggest tremor – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The A-bomb constituted the most powerful threat known to humankind; an attack could come suddenly, against which there was no defense.  Tellingly, the advent of hydrogen bombs of far greater destructive effect did not generate a powerful new wave of support for abolition, in part because the U.S.-Soviet divide seemed so intractable.

In contrast, the A-bomb appeared at an optimistic time, when Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were defeated and when there was hope for a peaceful world and the success of new international institutions.  During this brief spring, the Acheson-Lilienthal plan was conceived.  Winter came quickly, in the person of Josef Stalin and in the form of the iron curtain.  The Acheson-Lilienthal plan was quite explicit about the risks involved, one of which was “the probable acceleration of the rate at which our present monopoly will disappear.”  For those who assumed that the United States could compete effectively against the Soviet Union and that Stalin couldn’t be trusted, this risk seemed unacceptable.

The second wave of nuclear abolition washed up on the Reagan administration, whose tough talk about prevailing in a nuclear war, building up nuclear arms, and early disinterest in negotiations stoked public anxieties.  New scientific findings about the disastrous global effects resulting from extensive nuclear exchanges – the blockage of the sun from debris kicked up into the atmosphere and spread by prevailing winds, causing a nuclear winter effect – underpinned the second abolitionist movement.  The most influential wave-runner and voice of the second abolitionist movement was Jonathan Schell, who wrote two powerful books during this period.

The second abolitionist wave was less powerful than the first for several reasons.  To begin with, superpower nuclear arsenals were so large and animosities so great that abolition seemed far too daunting a task.  Besides, the Kremlin walked out of nuclear negotiations in 1983 – there was no negotiating vehicle for deep cuts, let alone abolition.  Public opposition to the Reagan administration’s initiatives in the United States and Western Europe focused on freezing new nuclear force deployments in general, and blocking new NATO missile deployments in particular.  The Reagan administration trumped the “freeze” movement by championing deep cuts in nuclear forces.  Plus President Reagan turned out to be a sincere abolitionist, himself.  There were too many roadblocks for abolition to gain traction during the 1980s.  And once Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the back of the nuclear arms race by agreeing to a treaty abolishing entire categories of nuclear-tipped missiles, the abolitionist wave receded.  When abolition was most needed, it was most difficult, and when it was most achievable, public interest waned.

The third wave of interest in abolition – the weakest of all three — occurred after the Soviet Union dissolved.  As in 1945, the world was reborn.  During this hopeful time, radical possibilities could be entertained.  With America’s conventional power paramount, it made good sense for the United States to champion abolition.  The Bomb was, after all, the only weapon that could do serious harm to the world’s most powerful nation.  The paramount nuclear security concerns now related to Russian weakness, not Soviet strength – all the more reason to press for abolition.  The Stimson Center enlisted General Andrew Goodpaster and a distinguished panel of national security experts, including Paul Nitze, to take a fresh look at the role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold war world.  These reports argued for a phased approach to abolition on national security grounds, identifying the security conditions required to move from one stage to the next.  The Goodpaster panel concluded that, “Without a more radical approach to non-proliferation, the challenges posed to the non-proliferation regime can only mount over time, and the United States, eventually, is sure to face new nuclear threats.”  The case for abolition was also made by international panels of experts convened by the Australian and Japanese governments who stressed global security and moral considerations.

A fourth wave in support of nuclear disarmament is beginning to form, this time led by George Shultz, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and Max Kampelman.  They have enlisted the support of Henry Kissinger and other sensible, hard-nosed realists.  Experienced practitioners of the art of the possible have joined religious leaders, including the Reverend Billy Graham, in endorsing abolition because they have concluded that complete nuclear disarmament would be in the national security interests of the United States – and that the serious pursuit of this objective is the glue that holds the Nonproliferation Treaty together.

Will the fourth wave gain momentum?   For the very first time since the Bomb appeared, a common threat exists to all bomb holders unrelated to their own nuclear war plans — the threat of nuclear terrorism.  This common threat could, with wise U.S. and international leadership, help provide impetus to lock down and systematically reduce the most dangerous weapons and materials.   Even so, the goal of nuclear abolition faces widespread public skepticism.

When viewed as an end state, nuclear disarmament invites depression or derision.  Abolition seems as implausible as, say, hoping in 1945 that the United States and the Soviet Union could somehow manage to avoid incinerating each other.  Paul Nitze’s advice back then is worth recalling: “Try to reduce the dangers of nuclear war within the relevant future time period as best you can; you just get depressed if you worry about the long-term future.”  Dangers emanating from the Soviet Union required methodical attention and a multiplicity of methods.  “Working the problem” of nuclear disarmament requires the same focus, day by day, month by month, and year by year.

Nuclear disarmament is a process, not an on or off switch.  It is a journey as well as a destination.  The destination may never be reached, but the journey is still essential because the steps along the way increase public safety even if the destination is never reached.  The journey is still worth undertaking because it serves the national security interests of the United States as well as the global network to prevent proliferation.  How much is achievable in the direction of nuclear disarmament depends on how many steps are taken.  The Goodpaster panel convened by the StimsonCenter wisely pointed out that, “By contemplating the unthinkable, the boundaries of the feasible might well be stretched.”

Photo Credit: White Sands Missile Range

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is completing a book on the Bomb.

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