Thursday, July 09, 2009

Going Nuclear Zero

For a number of months last year and spilling into the first quarter of this year, I co-authored a book that is on the verge of being published. Its principal author is an elderly gentleman who, in the 1970s, joined with like-minded anti-military organizations to lobby Congress against spending billions of dollars to create and deploy a massive nuclear weapons arsenal. Vietnam may have ended with a clear loss to U.S. conventional arms, but the Pentagon was not about to accept a parallel end for nuclear weapons.

The outcome of this insane nuclear weapon arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States finally “stabilized” when each side had amassed more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. Hundreds of these warheads were deployed on intercontinental missiles, on heavy bomber airplanes poised for immediate launch, and on nuclear-powered submarines. By 1980, many delivery systems were on “hair triggered” alert, giving Kremlin and White House leaders as little as 30 seconds to decide for or against war.

In 1983, an undergraduate at Columbia University wrote for a campus magazine an article titled “Breaking the War Mentality.” In his magazine article he decried the habit of rival leaders to warn their opponents of the advantages and disadvantages in nuclear conflict of “first” and “second” and other “retaliatory” options available to the military machines.

Like most articles or even assigned student papers
prepared for seminars, the magazine article was soon
forgotten and mislaid. Some 26 years later, another Columbia graduate going through yellowed school
magazines he still had discovered that his 1983 classmate had retained interested in the subject and now was in a position of power to change academic recommendation into pragmatic actions.

This week the person who wrote that article came to the Kremlin for his first visit as the President of the United States. One of his goals was to continue a process begun by one of his predecessors in the Oval Office: to gradually reduce the total number of deployed nuclear warheads from 10,000 to no more than 6,000 warheads (and as few as 2,200 weapons) and no more than 1,600 delivery systems for each side before the agreement expired in December 2009. That goal – the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – had already been reached by the time President Obama set foot in Moscow, leaving open to the two presidents to press forward with a new treaty limiting nuclear warheads for each side to between 1,000 and 1,500.

There are still unresolved issues on nuclear weapons to be worked on by the White House and the Kremlin: arsenals that continue to grow in Pakistan and India and probably Israel; Iran’s work on nuclear energy policy and possibility for its own weapon development; the sustainability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and efforts to design new weapons by North Korea. But each of these can be addressed by governments, non-governmental organizations, and by mass movements throughout the globe that are pushing for the abolition of all nuclear warheads in every arsenal of any size in every country.

In the earlier time, many who opposed the build-up of nuclear stockpiles considered their position to be the only sane one – and so called their organization SANE. After a quarter century, yesterday’s SANE members are once again in the field aiming, along with a new and committed generation, to move from 1,500 weapons to zero – and this time to hit a real nadir point.

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