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Wisdom needed to leave nuclear madness behind

It is sad that there has been no explosion in wisdom in our lifetime comparable to that which we have seen in knowledge. One of the most striking examples of this imbalance is the nuclear arms race.

Since the end of the Cold War, humanity has stepped back from the nuclear brink but has lacked the collective wisdom to leave the madness behind. Sane intentions to rid the planet of all nuclear weapons have been blocked by the plans and fears of warriors who control our destinies.

A positive step was taken earlier this month when the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament, finally approved the 1993 START II arms control agreement. START II was signed more than seven years ago by Presidents Bush and Yeltsin. It will, if implemented, reduce each nation’s deployed long-range nuclear warheads from the current level of about 6,000 each to 3,000-3,500 each.

Even after START II, both the United States and Russia will retain thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, poised for mass attack, with decision-makers having just minutes to decide whether to launch. Both countries will also retain a large number of short-range, “tactical” nuclear bombs not covered by START.

“Duma approval of START II provides a historic opportunity for President Clinton to conclude a START III deal to secure deeper verifiable and irreversible reductions of each nation’s nuclear bombs,” said John Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World. “The U.S. should lock in the lowest level of nuclear weapons that Russia will accept and verify,” suggested Isaacs. “Sadly, when Russia says it is prepared to mutually and verifiably reduce to 1,000-1,500 long-range weapons, the Clinton-Gore administration insists that we should not go below 2,500,” he noted.

Isaacs and other arms experts say it is dangerous to continue to believe that deterring Russia, which is poor and no longer a Cold War enemy, requires threatening to drop 2,500 nuclear bombs on Russian soil. Each of these 2,500 weapons can destroy an area much greater than Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The president and Congress would have the backing of the public if they worked together to secure further verifiable nuclear reductions under START III. A national public opinion survey conducted this month revealed that 67 percent of Americans believe that reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons should be the goal of U.S. nuclear policy. Four in 10 Americans believe that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons should be the U.S. policy goal.

Many Pentagon leaders agree that more progress is needed. In an interview on “60 Minutes” aired earlier this year, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Eugene Habiger said “... the fact that we have not been able to get down to lower and lower levels of nuclear weapons is troubling to me, and it should be troubling to you.”

Critics of the Clinton administration’s nuclear weapons policy, such as Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., believe the United States should unilaterally reduce the nuclear weapons stockpile instead of keeping it at the level of the Cold War. “We have way in excess of what we need,” Kerrey said recently. “We force the Russians to maintain more weapons than they are able to control.” Kerrey said the administration and the public “should be reminded that one U.S. Trident submarine’s 24 intercontinental-range missiles could deliver 192 warheads, each with 100 kilotons, on some country -- enough to shatter its society.”

The United States has 18 Trident submarines, four of which eventually are to be withdrawn under START II.

For the moment it appears that getting to START II levels will not be easy. Russia’s ratification of the agreement may spark the first real debate in more than a decade over the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which has changed very little since the end of the Cold War. The number of nuclear warheads deployed on missiles and bombers by Russia and the United States gradually is dropping from 10,000 to 6,000 on each side, thanks to the START I agreement, which was signed in 1991 and went into effect in 1994.

During the 1980s, the nuclear freeze movement, the Reagan administration’s military buildup and U.S.-Soviet arms control talks all ensured that a public debate would take place over America’s nuclear posture. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, fears of nuclear Armageddon have waned, and the United States has maintained and even begun upgrading its 6,000 deployed warheads with almost no debate in Congress.

Moscow’s deployed strategic arsenal, meanwhile, has continued to decline because of the lack of funds needed to keep its nuclear missile submarines and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles fully operational. Even though newly elected President Vladimir Putin has called for strengthening Russia’s nuclear forces, many experts believe that Russia is sliding toward a force of 1,500 operational strategic warheads, the number it has proposed in preliminary discussions about a START III accord.

Two protocols to the START II arms reduction treaty now throw the issue back to a U.S. Senate recalcitrant about arms control. The protocols -- agreed to by President Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 -- must be approved by the Senate before the START II treaty is formally adopted.

It appears likely that Clinton will delay bringing the two protocols to the Senate, where he faces a tough fight against Republican opposition.

The administration still hopes it can achieve a breakthrough in arms talks with Russia that would amend the ABM Treaty to allow U.S. deployment of a national missile defense system -- and then bring a broader package to Congress. This approach is another sign that wisdom remains in short supply.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000