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Huge outlays for weapons a colossal blunder


The verdict of history is not like a jury -- we’re not judged by our peers. People looking back will not understand all the complexities of our lives, the baggage we carried. While their judgment may be simplistic, it is also likely to turn on obvious truths that we manage to gloss over in the course of daily life.

One such obvious truth is that the United States, as the dominant nation of the 20th century, missed an opportunity to advance the welfare of humanity by investing so much of our wealth in weapons instead of global development.

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report revealing that since 1940 the United States has spent $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons. This figure dwarfs any expenditure on any civilian or military program in the history of the world.

That point bears repeating. We have spent more money on nuclear weapons than any civilization in history has ever spent on anything.

Even today our spending on the nuclear arsenal costs $35 billion a year -- 15 percent of the total defense budget. No new nuclear weapons are being produced, but it costs the American taxpayers some $4.5 billion just to keep the stockpile reliable.

Those expenses beg the question: Why does the United States still need weapons with the explosive force of some 120,000 Hiroshima bombs?

What is often forgotten is that the long-term cleanup costs for the nuclear arms race may cost as much as the original expenditures over the past 55 years! Dismantling and safely disposing of nuclear weapons is a costly, time-intensive process. Even assuming that it is done perfectly, causing no environmental damage whatsoever -- a dubious assumption -- it will cost in the tens of billions.

The reliance of the United States on the threat of nuclear weapons is one of the several reasons why India and Pakistan developed nuclear devices -- leaving these two nations now also spending billions on a program they do not need and cannot afford.

The Federation of American Scientists, which cosponsored the Brookings project, wants to reverse the obsession the United States has had with threatening atomic destruction on its so-called enemies. Why should the United States retain an arsenal it can never use and which conveys a threat to the 96 percent of humanity that lives outside the United States?

Contemplating the fantastic price that America paid for nuclear armaments and the formidable expenses that will occur to dispose of them, with all their radioactive ingredients, one has to wonder whether the development of nuclear weapons was a colossal blunder by the United States. Could history conclude that the United States overreacted to communism? If a substantial part of the $5.8 trillion used for nuclear weapons had been directed to the development of the 100 or more nations that became independent after World War II, the entire history of the modern world would have radically changed for the better.

Parallel to the reliance the United States has placed on nuclear weapons is the carelessness the United States has displayed in the present epidemic of small weapons around the world. A threat of small arms, many made in the United States, was at the heart of the 101 low-intensity wars fought between 1989 and 1996. Small arms are responsible for more deaths than all other weapons combined.

Military style firearms in worldwide circulation are estimated to number 500,000. In and out of civil wars, they breed a culture of violence. They are used by right-wing militias, death squads and guerrilla supporters.

There is no world authority that can prevent the proliferation of small weapons. Access to them is out of control. Guns in large numbers move from one conflict to another. An article by Michael Renner in the July-August issue of World-Watch describes the epidemic in all its ghastly dimensions.

The expenditure of $5.8 trillion for nuclear weapons, the looming bill for cleanup and dismantling those weapons of at least that much and the U.S. negligence in allowing the worldwide epidemic of small arms all underscore the challenging conclusions of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank. For 26 years the center, made up of retired military officers, has been issuing materials in opposition to “excessive expenditures for weapons and policies that increase the danger of war.”

The center gives a very different version of what America should be doing in its role as the only superpower. The retired generals and admirals who run the center know the agonies of war and the need to use every means to avoid it. They are not pacifists, but they see the errors, the inconsistencies and the outright follies of many of our present policies -- while supporting intelligent applications of force, such as humanitarian efforts in Haiti, Rwanda, eastern Zaire and elsewhere.

The center, along with more and more observers of the U.S. military, see in the defense establishment a vast organization isolated from the rest of the nation. The Pentagon continues to operate on the assumptions of the Cold War era.

It is time for a profound reassessment of America’s military role in the world. The liquidation of the world’s nuclear arsenal and the elimination of the worldwide availability of small arms should be the first priorities of the reassessment.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998