The new abolitionists

By Hugh Gusterson | March 30, 2012

Philip Taubman’s new book, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, recounts the story of five front-rank Cold Warriors who have become nuclear abolitionists in their old age.

Philip Taubman's new book, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, recounts the story of five front-rank Cold Warriors who have become nuclear abolitionists in their old age. They are: Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state, 88; George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, 88; Bill Perry, President Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, 82; Sam Nunn, former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 72; and Sidney Drell, a scientific adviser to the US government and physics professor at Stanford University, 85. In their professional careers, each contributed in important ways to the nuclear arms race.

Kissinger dismissed arms controllers' attempts to prevent the "MIRVing" of nuclear missiles (putting nuclear weapons on intercontinental ballistic missiles). At key points in the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War, he signaled a US willingness to use nuclear weapons. And, as an academic, Kissinger sought to make nuclear threats more credible.

Shultz went on live national television to defend the Reagan administration's nuclear arms buildup immediately following ABC's broadcast of the movie The Day After, a nuclear war docudrama viewed by almost 100 million Americans. And, at the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Reagan and the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev, Shultz whispered to Reagan, "You are right," when Reagan rebuffed an offer to abolish nuclear weapons because it would also have restricted work on missile defense (Taubman, 257).

Perry spent much of his career working for defense contractors and, as a senior official in the Pentagon, advanced the B-2 nuclear bomber. He also publicly defended lavishly expensive plans — widely mocked by commentators — to build MX missiles and base them on trains that would circulate through Utah and Nevada.

Nunn pushed for the neutron bomb, explaining, "I had come to the conclusion that our nuclear weapons were not useable, and therefore were not a deterrent" (Taubman, 217). He also expressed reservations about the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty II in 1979. And Nunn was livid when he heard that Reagan and Gorbachev had discussed abolishing nuclear weapons in Reykjavik.

Of the five, Drell was the most consistent supporter of arms control throughout the Cold War. However, he was condemned by some for serving as a science adviser to Nixon during Vietnam. And Drell proposed building MX missiles and putting them on small submarines.

Then, on January 4, 2007 — in a move Taubman says "jolted the national security fraternity" (Taubman, 325) — the five men published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. (Drell helped draft the article but declined a byline on the grounds that he lacked the name recognition of the others.) This op-ed was followed by two more, also in the Journal, in 2010 and 2011. Their initiative was soon endorsed by notables such as Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi, former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Reading Taubman's book, I wished I could have discussed it with my old friend and mentor, John Mack. Mack, who died before his time at the hands of a drunk driver, was a psychiatry professor at Harvard who won a Pulitzer Prize for his psychobiography of British officer T. E. Lawrence. In 1989, when South Africa's white minority rulers released Nelson Mandela from captivity and announced a transition to democratic rule, I told Mack that South Africa's white rulers had made a rational calculation that their regime would not survive over the long term and had done the expedient thing. I assumed it was, effectively, a business decision. Mack looked at me with his odd gaze, at once dreamy and piercing, and told me not to assume that. Simply because people were powerful political figures did not mean they were incapable of engaging political issues on a moral basis or of evolving spiritually and psychologically. What, I now wonder, would he make of the new abolitionists?

When the first Journal op-ed appeared in 2007, I initially reacted in the same way I had to the end of apartheid, assuming it was a move grounded in realpolitik. After all, in the 1990s, a former H-bomb designer told me that he now supported nuclear abolition because, "in a world without nuclear weapons, the US would have uncontested military dominance." I thought that Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, Nunn, and Drell had become abolitionists because nuclear weapons, which had once cemented US global hegemony, were no longer seen to serve US national security interests in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world — one increasingly dominated by the threat of terrorism. And indeed there is ample evidence in The Partnership for such a reading. For example, in one memo to his op-ed collaborators, Shultz wrote: "Nuclear weapons, once thought of as part of the solution to security concerns because they were a means of deterrence, have now become a threat to security. Their usefulness as deterrents had eroded by the end of the Cold War, and the threat of proliferation, particularly in an age in which terror is used as a weapon, had turned them into a threat" (Taubman, 310-311). Elsewhere Shultz said, "If you think of the people who are doing suicide attacks, and people like that get a nuclear weapon, they are almost by definition not deterrable" (Taubman, 304).

But I know that, were John Mack here, he would be interested in another side of this story. He would point out that — like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy before them — Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, Nunn, and Drell turned against nuclear weapons in retirement, in their winter years, away from the breakneck pressure of government service, and in the midst of final reflections on lifetime achievements and mistakes. In this regard, they had some harrowing near misses to reflect on from their earlier careers. Nunn, for example, had discovered on a tour of NATO bases in the 1970s that nuclear weapons were often poorly secured and sometimes guarded by drug-addicted soldiers; and Perry was once woken up at 3 a.m. by a call from NORAD to let him know that 200 Soviet nuclear missiles appeared to be hurtling toward the United States. (It turned out to be a false alarm.) Mack would ask about the slow-burning effect of such memories, carried silently for years by men who had once held the power — surely both intoxicating and terrifying — to help bring about the deaths of millions.

So, in addition to considerations of realpolitik, Taubman also writes about what Max Kampelman, Reagan's arms control negotiator, calls "the power of the ought." In a presentation on the 20th anniversary of Reykjavik — which Taubman deems a turning point for his five subjects — Kampelman described the principles in the US Declaration of Independence as embodying an "ought" that, through use, became an "is." Kampelman argued that, in the same way, "the elimination of nuclear arms is an 'ought' that must be proclaimed and energetically pursued. It is time for us to get behind that essential 'ought' and shape it into a realistic 'is' " (Taubman, 317-318). Grappling with this exhortation, Nunn in particular comes across not so much as a strategic thinker but as akin to St. Paul, struggling between rejecting and embracing a new faith that he finally cannot avoid. (Nunn's evolution was also deeply influenced by recurrent conversations with media mogul Ted Turner — who funds the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which the two men co-founded.)

If there is one problem with Taubman's engaging account, it is that — in the classic manner of a reporter who has spent too much time inside the Beltway — he simply depicts the story of five great men acting upon the world. After reading The Partnership, one might almost think that Taubman's five subjects plus Reagan and Gorbachev were the first to think of abolishing nuclear weapons. In a 400-page book that surveys the entire history of the nuclear age, less than one page is devoted to the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s. The preeminent intellectual associated with that movement, Jonathan Schell, published a book called The Abolition in 1984. Randall Forsberg, architect of the Nuclear Freeze, is nowhere mentioned in Taubman's book; nor is Helen Caldicott, the movement's most prophetic figure. As James Carroll argued in his own magisterial history of the nuclear age, House of War, the movement led by Forsberg, Caldicott, and other activists helped shift the national discourse on nuclear weapons, making the near-breakthrough of Reykjavik possible. Since the end of the Cold War, however, there has been a revisionist effort to erase the contributions of the Nuclear Freeze — as if Reagan campaigned on a platform of nuclear abolition rather than on a promise to intensify the Cold War.

It is clear from anecdotes in Taubman's book that, in the world of his five abolitionist statesmen, it is a mortal insult to be compared to an antinuclear activist. Still, telling the abolitionist story without discussing the antinuclear movement of the 1980s is like writing a history of civil rights without mentioning Martin Luther King and the freedom riders. In 2009, Shultz was asked at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies how he could be sure, in a world where the United States had disarmed itself of nuclear weapons, that another country would not have a hidden bomb or two with which to intimidate Americans. Sounding more like Helen Caldicott than the George Shultz who spoke in defense of deterrence following The Day After, he replied: "Have you seen what a nuclear bomb can do to a city? We shouldn't even call them weapons."

My takeaway from The Partnership is that nuclear weapons are in the process of being reframed. After decades of foundations, think tanks, and universities lavishing resources on game theorists to devise hyper-rational scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used in war and diplomacy for national advantage, these devices are now in the process of being recoded as unacceptable instruments of terror that are of no use in war. If nuclear weapons are indeed redefined in this way, it will be not only because of the fierce second thoughts of five Cold Warriors, but also because of the mass movement those Cold Warriors reviled at the time. John Mack and I would agree on that.

Editor's note: Gusterson's column will resume in September 2012. He is currently on leave to work on his upcoming book tentatively titled Tinkering with Armageddon.

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