November 14, 2016
A potential positive result from the election of Donald Trump as our next president could be that it will provoke a long overdue public debate over US nuclear weapons policy. Such a debate could educate Congress and force much needed steps toward reducing the dangers from the Doomsday Machine that the United States and Russia built and then walked away from after some downsizing at the end of the Cold War.
There is widespread concern that President-elect Trump may not be a thoughtful, cautious custodian of the US nuclear “button.” This concern highlights the absurdity of giving one person the authority to order the launch US nuclear weapons, an action that could well result in the end of our civilization. The rationale is that, given that the warning time for an incoming nuclear attack could be only a matter of minutes, there would be no time for democratic consultation. If a country has a survivable second strike force, as the United States does, however, that argument should not be the last word.
We have been extraordinarily lucky to get this far without a nuclear Armageddon. We cannot depend on such luck continuing. The only complete solution is to get rid of nuclear weapons. President Obama embraced that goal in his Prague speech of 2009, but there was little follow-up because of a lack of public engagement. As far as the general public is concerned, the threat of nuclear annihilation receded with the end of the Cold War. There is much more concern about the possibility of nuclear terrorism and President Obama initiated a series of Nuclear Security Summits focused on that issue.
Lacking public pressure for nuclear reductions and adamant Republican support for strategic ballistic missile defense, which poisoned Russian interest in further nuclear reductions, President Obama ended up achieving only minor reductions in New START and had to pay a very high price to get it ratified. In exchange for the votes of some Republican senators, President Obama agreed to a plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decades to replace every nuclear weapon delivery system in the US strategic nuclear arsenal and modernize the nuclear warheads carried by these delivery systems. Earlier this year, Obama failed even to carry his own officials when he proposed adopting a no nuclear first use policy. His Secretaries of Defense, State and Energy reportedly all objected, and he dropped the idea.
It would have been much easier to make progress toward nuclear disarmament during Obama’s presidency had there been a mass movement pressing for it. In 1980-83, the “Nuclear Weapons Freeze” movement sprang up to oppose the Reagan administration’s program to deploy thousands of warheads accurate enough to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in their silos. The pressure became so intense that President Reagan switched to advocating nuclear abolition and ballistic missile defense and agreed to include in his joint summit statements with General Secretary Gorbachev the sentence, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The Nuclear Weapons Freeze movement arose because of frightening statements from Reagan administration officials about the possibility of fighting a nuclear war. President-elect Trump has insisted on not ruling out using nuclear weapons first against ISIS because “I frankly don’t want the enemy to know how I’m thinking.” This indicates that he does not understand the taboo that has built up around nuclear weapons use in the seven decades since Nagasaki.
Could the general citizen uprising that has already begun because of fears of Trump administration actions against minorities and environmental regulations result in a new flow of youthful energy into the nuclear disarmament movement? That is what happened in the late 1960s when anti-Vietnam War activism bled over into other areas, such as environmentalism and opposition to the deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic-missile interceptors around U.S. cities.
Along with supporting a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons that the United Nations will begin negotiating in 2017, interim goals for a new movement could include a no-first-use policy, taking intercontinental ballistic missiles off launch-on-warning alert, eliminating the long-range, nuclear-armed cruise missiles that provoke fears of first strikes in China and scrapping the ineffectual national ballistic missile defense that has made it impossible to negotiate further reductions with Russia.
If a new generation of nuclear disarmament activists emerge, I am sure that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will provide them a forum to promote and refine their ideas, as it has done for generations of us going back 70 years to the original atomic scientists.
Frank von Hippel
Program on Science and Global Security