Nuclear Weapons Obsolescence

For the purposes of foreign policy, the nuclear weapons of the United States of America are obsolete. This may seem like a truism to peace activists, which has been voiced for decades by unknown millions and by well-known personalities alike:

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1946): “I have no doubt, that unless big nations shed their desire of exploitation and the spirit of violence of which war is the natural expression and the atom bomb the inevitable consequence, there is no hope for peace in the world”,

Bertrand Russell (1955): “In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them”, (from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto),

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967): “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations.”

The policy-makers of the major atomic powers (the permanent members of the UN Security Council) viewed any “ban the bomb” unilateral nuclear disarmament sentimentality as foolishly naïve. However, after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, they recognized the value of regulating their nuclear-armed Cold War and improving emergency communications between heads-of-state, to help prevent an accidental nuclear war. These “rules of the game” have been elaborated in three significant treaties.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 banned above-ground nuclear explosions — atmospheric weapons tests — by the signatories. Most countries have signed and ratified this treaty; notable exceptions are the People’s Republic of China, France and North Korea.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 binds its nuclear-armed parties to refrain from transferring nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear states; its non-nuclear parties agree not to acquire nuclear weapons; the right to develop civilian nuclear power is affirmed; and a vague commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament is also promised. All nations except four are parties to this treaty (189 parties), the exceptions being India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 bans all nuclear explosions, whether undersea, underground, above-ground, atmospheric or in space. There are 180 signatories to the CTBT (nuclear and non-nuclear states). This treaty will go into effect after nine more of 44 specifically named nuclear-capable states sign and ratify; the nine hold-outs include the United States, the People’s Republic of China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Within the last two years a new chorus has added their voices to the call for “a world free of nuclear weapons”:

Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity. U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage — to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world… We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal…1

Progress must be facilitated by a clear statement of our ultimate goal. Indeed, this is the only way to build the kind of international trust and broad cooperation that will be required to effectively address today’s threats. Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral… The U.S. and Russia, which possess close to 95% of the world’s nuclear warheads, have a special responsibility, obligation and experience to demonstrate leadership, but other nations must join.2

These new converts to “nuclear weapons-zero” may surprise you: George P. Shultz (Reagan Administration secretary of state from 1982 to 1989), William J. Perry (Clinton Administration secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997), Henry A. Kissinger (Nixon Administration national security advisor and secretary of state from 1969 to 1973, then Ford Administration secretary of state from 1973 to 1977) and Sam Nunn (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1987 to 1995). Their two op-eds have many endorsements from former officials of the military-industrial-congressional complex, and even foreign ex-government officials.

Why are these elite former Cold Warriors now ready to ban the bomb? We can discount the possibility they’ve all experienced a “satori” for peace, or a sudden anti-imperial moral transformation like Saint Paul (more on this later). The new enthusiasm for nuclear weapons-zero must spring from two sources: the nature of reality and the nature of ego. First, consider reality.

The major nuclear powers could never use nuclear weapons in disputes among themselves. However you imagine such a scenario playing out, the “winner” would emerge with devastating damage, and very likely a permanent loss of political power and economic capability. The nuclear war would be an abrupt transition from a former level of “greatness” to a subsequent lesser state; an advantage to non-combatant rivals. Similarly, a war between major economic powers, one armed with nuclear weapons and the other conventionally, would still diminish the economic viability of the nuclear-armed victor because today’s advanced economies are highly interdependent. Any nuclear war between advanced capitalist nations would damage capitalism generally — that is, reduce wealth — regardless of how it altered the relative balance of advantage between the combatants. In all these cases, non-combatant nations might shun nuclear armed combatants after the war, adding to the political and economic costs of causing a nuclear war.

No advanced nuclear power has any need to use its nuclear arms against a weak non-nuclear state that opposes its authority. The conventional military forces of the advanced nations are more than sufficient to overpower small, weak and poor states — and such wars of the strong against the weak occur often enough without significant opprobrium. Using nuclear weapons in such wars would cause unnecessary fright to the “world community”, and this global disapproval would unquestionably lead to a collective punitive response by economic and political measures.

In short, nuclear weapons are entirely obsolete as instruments of foreign policy by the advanced nations. The integration of world economies makes the use of nuclear weapons anywhere a net loss of power and wealth for world capitalism generally. Also, the combination of electronics, computer and space technologies has so improved the target detection and shooting accuracy of conventional military systems that large-area blasts are no longer needed; and modern conventional forces are more than adequate to exert authority over weak opponents, without the inconvenience of radioactive fallout. This is the significant news in the enthusiasm for nuclear weapons-zero by the Hoover Institute elders noted earlier.

People who are marginalized and exploited by world capitalism, and who despair over improving the lot of their communities, can see acquiring nuclear weapons as a useful means to revolution, for the exact same reasons the Hoover Institute elders see them as such a threat to the American Empire: sub-state insurgents — “terrorists” — with nuclear weapons could poke painful, bloody holes through the fabric of world capitalism, and exponentially enhance their own political power. Because this threat is so serious, and nuclear weapons are now obsolete for imperial control, the Hoover Institute elders urge a rapid convergence to nuclear weapons-zero.

To underscore the credibility of the threat (or, opportunity, depending on viewpoint), let me cite one observation. A recent study I read on the probability of smuggling nuclear material and components for a crude radioactive explosive device (or anything) across the coastline into the United States concluded that there was only a 4 percent chance the Coast Guard would intercept any single shipment when carried by small craft (a boat). To minimize the loss from any single “pinch”, the smugglers might plan to convey the consignment over several shipments. The odds of success for radioactive rum running are high. What has prevented the introduction of a terrorist nuclear device into the U.S. is the control over the radioactive source material here and abroad, not the security of the coastlines and land borders.

Taking nuclear weapons systems out of active deployment; removing nuclear warheads from missile bodies and munitions depots; disassembling warheads to store the nuclear material (e.g., uranium, plutonium) at remote high-security sites, destroying the warhead shell; and breaking fissile bomb parts into granular material for mixing into lower grade nuclear fuel, which would be “burned” in civilian nuclear power reactors to recover some of the costs sunk into the original weapons, is how nuclear weapons would physically be taken toward zero. Yes, there will still be the usual problem of reactor waste, but this has to be seen as a reasonable alternative to having finished warheads and even machined bomb parts of highly refined plutonium in circulation around the world. Reactor waste may be radioactive, thermally hot and toxic, but it cannot be compressed to criticality to produce nuclear yield — no bomb.

So much for the realities, now for the psychology of nuclear weapons-zero’s elite evangelists. Scanning the names of people endorsing the Hoover Institute elders’ nuclear weapons-zero stance, I was struck by the many former government (or, military-industrial-congressional complex) officials I recall being on active duty before and during my career in one of the US nuclear weapons labs. Two of these individuals are former high-ranking nuclear weapons lab managers (Ray Juzaitis, whose career climb to a lab directorship was rumored to have collapsed before whispers of “is he safe?” by rival upper level back-stabbers, because Juzaitis had been the manager over Wen Ho Lee in 1999,3; and Siegfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos lab from 1986 to 1997, who was replaced after a series of safety and security lapses,45

While these former movers and shakers now enjoy lucrative sinecures, they can hardly find these activities sufficient, because they all have big egos and aggressive career drives. How else would they have risen as far as they did? Can they really be satisfied teaching BS courses on “policy” to spoiled, young patricians being trained for the imperial bureaucracy? Can they really retain their enthusiasm attending another droning symposium on knotty and speculative analyses of imperial fortunes? Can they really look forward to displaying themselves at another reception for the rich dull “donors”, who want same face-time and flesh-press value for their impressive tax-deductable foundation donation, along with a trophy snapshot alongside the honored has-been? What these elite retirees really want is to be players again, authoring (usually plagiarizing) the compelling policy ideas of the day, directing the key actions that set the karmic wheels of nations a-spinning, focusing the attention of their peers and the wider public onto their renewed glory. It chafes to “sit on the bench”, to be “passed over”; and it stings to watch the next generation — the Obama generation — briskly undo or recycle, as suits them, the elders’ political legacies without acknowledgment. It is hard to accept that one is “finished”. So, one finds a cause, something big, something that has the potential of erasing the often distasteful memory of an elder’s past exploits, by bathing them in a new and holy aura they hope will elevate their pedestals in the necropolis of the nation’s history. Other well-known examples of this psychology are: Jimmy Carter and Palestine, and Al Gore and climate change.

Like many former “spear carriers for empire” (to use Chalmers Johnson’s phrase) I, too, might be a minor example of the psychology of post-career redemption. This prompts me keep an open mind and allow for the possibility that some of the former military-industrial-congressional complex leaders now committed to nuclear weapons-zero might really have matured to a new more humane identification with the rest of humanity. This is always something to welcome. Our lives, after all, can only be fashioned in the present; our past is set and our future is out of reach. We can express a new character or a new understanding of the world from any present moment. Reforming, becoming a “better person”, “changing our ways” can be initiated at any instant, once we acquire the conception to do so. There may be some admixture of genuine feelings for peace and compassion in the participation of former government leaders who champion the elimination of nuclear weapons. Having extended this olive branch, let me confess that I do not believe this factor is significant among the retired military-industrial-congressional elite. So much for the psychology of the new nuclear weapons-zero evangelists.

The humanist “ban the bomb” sentiment is intrinsically anti-imperial and was summed up in the Russell-Einstein manifesto as: “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” Nuclear weapons would be eliminated by meeting human needs globally — sharing (organized as an equitable U.N.) — so strong and wealthy nations would refrain from using their power to exploit the weak; and poor, disadvantaged and under-developed populations would not seek nuclear weapons, nor resort to “terror” tactics, because they would have effective and non-violent avenues to advance their societies. The new Hoover Institute-incubated nuclear weapons-zero evangelism is a pragmatic formulation aimed at preserving the American Empire by reducing one potential threat against it, which could be formed by combining the unrelieved resentments of the “service” and “waste” populations of world capitalism, and the terror potential of nuclear weapons and nuclear material.

Previously, the American situation was seen as a choice between: the absence of empire and nuclear weapons versus empire with nuclear weapons. Obviously, the first choice was forbidden. The new view states the alternatives as: empire with nuclear weapons versus empire without nuclear weapons. Note that absence of empire is not accepted as an option. The positive aspect here is that empire and capitalism without nuclear weapons, though far from our ideal, is still better than what we have today. If the Hoover Institute nuclear weapons-zero evangelism goes beyond the post-career narcissism of its clergy and actually accelerates nuclear disarmament, then it will have some value.

  1. full text of January 4, 2007 op-ed. []
  2. WSJ op-ed, full text of January 15, 2008. []
  3. NYT on WHL in 2001. []
  4. Hecker’s 1997 testimony to congress:
    “Although the [Los Alamos] Laboratory’s long-term record for safety is impressive, in the last two years we have experienced a series of serious accidents, seemingly unrelated but suggesting weakness in the systems and structures that provide a safe working environment. On December 20, 1994, an employee of our contractor security force was killed during a training exercise when live ammunition was accidentally loaded into a weapon. On November 22, 1995, an employee lost control of a forklift and was severely injured when it rolled over. He subsequently recovered. On January 17, 1996, a contractor laborer received a severe shock when he jackhammered into a 13.5-kilovolt power line during an excavation project. He remains in a coma. On July 11, 1996, a graduate student working on energized, high-voltage equipment received a severe shock. He has recovered. As a result of these accidents, we have been subjected to intense scrutiny by DOE and the University of California.” []
  5. NYT on Hecker/WHL:
    ‘Mr. Hecker was cited for failing to follow through on ”an express request by senior management to develop a plan for limiting the suspect’s access, for failing to inform department’s management that the plan had failed, and for failing to take alternative actions,” according to a statement by Mr. Richardson. Though he did not name Mr. Hecker, other officials said his reference was to Mr. Hecker.’


    SF Chronicle on Hecker/WHL. []

Manuel Garcia, Jr. is an occasional writer who is always independent. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Manuel, or visit Manuel's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 11th, 2008 at 10:02am #

    use of Abombs had benefited US. and it can and probably will repeat the experiment on a designated enemy.
    there is no such entities as “weak opponents” of US. lands r simply picked for molestation.
    clearly, no one bothers US. thus, how can iran, syria, afgh’n, and iraq be opponets to US?
    what is it that they r stopping US to be as it is?
    it appears that syrians, ‘stanis, iranians r in the way just like “injuns” have been.
    euros did not want to share the redland w. natives; they had to have it all.
    so, why stop at redland, when the planet is there for the taking. a ‘weak’ Nbomb can be manufactured or is already available and w. its use bring dwn a govt and force its people to cry uncle.
    if they don’t cry uncle after first pop, more might come their way.
    right to bear arms is an universal; thus all nations shld be armed w. Nbombs and means to respond to any Nattack.
    if i was a head of a state marked for extiction

  2. DavidG. said on December 11th, 2008 at 6:20pm #

    But hasn’t Obama just proposed a ‘nuclear umbrella’ for nuclear-armed Israel?

    It’s fantastic, isn’t it, the change that is coming on Jan 21!

  3. bozh said on December 12th, 2008 at 6:29am #

    yes, that’s the change we can expect. US historical record heralds more wars waged by it and at least one more Nbombs dropping.
    most likely target is iran.
    but any socialist state cld also be targeted. thnx

  4. Brian Koontz said on December 12th, 2008 at 7:54am #

    This article downplays the value of nuclear weapons – for example there has been much US elite talk of using “bunker buster” nukes against Iran – and control over nukes (having terrorist groups with nukes serve as covert proxy forces for the state) remains very valuable.

    The value of nukes goes up considerably if most of the world believes there are no more nukes.

    There should be more consideration given by the left of the potential for terrorist groups to be co-opted by imperial parties.