The new nuclear abolitionists

By Hugh Gusterson | May 13, 2008

Twenty-five years ago, the Nuclear Freeze campaign mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans to demand an end to the testing, production, and deployment of new nuclear weapons. At that time, advocating the complete abolition of nuclear weapons was a fringe position confined to a few utopians on the left. Even most antinuclear activists struggled getting past the “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle” common sense of pundits and arms control experts.

Today, not only is support for abolition growing on the left, but a group of influential conservative abolitionists has also appeared. On January 4, 2007, and January 15, 2008, the Wall Street Journal published op-eds calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons coauthored by Henry Kissinger (President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state), George Shultz (secretary of state when the Reagan administration was talking about limited, winnable nuclear wars), Sam Nunn (a conservative Democrat and former U.S. senator from Georgia who had opposed the Nuclear Freeze), and William Perry (President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary). This group worked through its ideas in more detail at a conference hosted by the conservative Hoover Institute, which led to a book published by the Hoover Institute’s Press.

While I’m unaware of antinuclear activists who switched sides as they reached old age, it’s a mysterious and interesting fact that some nuclear scientists and policy makers have.”

More recently, the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted an event where Max Kampelman, President Ronald Reagan’s chief arms control negotiator, also called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He suggested the United States should sponsor a U.N. measure to declare the weapons morally objectionable and illegal.

What caused the emergence of these new conservative abolitionists? One obvious factor is that the calculus of nuclear risks and benefits has shifted following the end of the Cold War. The United States no longer has a rival superpower to race, while the likelihood that nuclear weapons will proliferate to new states and even non-state actors is increasing. The addition of new nuclear states will make the game of nuclear chess more complex and, presumably, less stable. And it might be impossible to deter terrorist groups, who don’t control any territory to threaten.

Thus, in their 2007 op-ed, the “four horsemen” (as some have nicknamed them) wrote, “It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American ‘mutually assured destruction’ with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies worldwide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.” In their 2008 op-ed, they sounded an even more alarmist note: “The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how, and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands . . . With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.”

Some in the developing world are suspicious that the conservative abolitionists want to shut down the nuclear club at the very moment when new nations on the block are on the brink of joining it. In a world where the United States accounts for one-half of all military spending worldwide and where even a small cache of nuclear weapons offers an insurance policy against U.S. military attack, some wonder whether the conservative abolitionists aren’t executing a change in tactics in continued pursuit of U.S. military dominance rather than, as they claim, a visionary campaign for a better world.

This isn’t an implausible notion. In the mid-1990s, I recall a hydrogen bomb designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory telling me that he had become a nuclear abolitionist. Amazed, I asked why. “Because a world without nuclear weapons is one in which the United States would have complete, uncontested military dominance,” he replied with a grin.

But in trying to understand the emergence of the new abolitionists we shouldn’t underestimate the transformative effect of aging and retirement on nuclear warriors. While I’m unaware of antinuclear activists who switched sides as they reached old age, it’s a mysterious and interesting fact that some nuclear scientists and policy makers have. J. Robert Oppenheimer was an early example, declaring later in life that “physicists have known sin.” In the 1980s, as the Nuclear Freeze movement swept the country, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara (two architects of the Vietnam War) and George Kennan (the originator of Cold War containment) came out against Reagan’s arms buildup. Paul Nitze, a conservative on nuclear weapons policy throughout the Cold War, came out for abolition before he died.

And now we have the “four horsemen.” There seem to be moments where the intersecting logics of individual life cycles and the darkening of the international nuclear situation produce these high-profile defections to the antinuclear cause.

In their 2008 op-ed, Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, and Perry wrote, “The goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can’t get there from here. But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore. We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible.”

Some of the intermediate steps they and others have suggested include de-alerting nuclear weapons, slashing stockpile numbers, and abolishing tactical nuclear weapons, which are more likely to be stolen.

As we stand on the cusp of a new presidency, the question we must ask is whether elites are capable of inspiring such dramatic policy shifts on their own. In the past, breakthroughs in arms control–i.e., the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the end of nuclear testing in the early 1990s–have followed mass grassroots movements protesting nuclear weapons policy. There has been no such mass movement in the United States since the 1980s. Whether or not we abolish nuclear weapons, can we at least climb higher up the mountain without crowds of protesters driving the policy making elites upwards?

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