Nuclear Ban

A former commander of the US nuclear forces is calling for a drastic reassessment of the moral, ethical, and practical implications of nuclear weapons

General Lee Butler's last mission will be his toughest: the former commander of the Strategic Air Command wants to eliminate all US nuclear weapons. 

The irony of Butler's desire isn't lost on him. In the early 1990s, he had final say over all 12,000 of the nation's nuclear targets. Surrounded by what he calls "the hideously complex systems" that control the US arsenal, Butler underwent a stunning conversion from war lord to nuclear opponent. And it all happened literally a couple of floors below ground at SAC command in Omaha, Nebraska.

"My position is not some epiphany," he says, his voice clear and unwavering. "I came gradually to the conclusion that none of this made any sense."

The madness of mutual-assured-destruction has long been the linchpin in the case against nuclear weapons, and Butler almost sheepishly admits that his journey to the abolitionist's camp took decades.

"I admire people who had the courage to object to nuclear weapons years ago," he says. "At the time, of course, I was in the phalanx of the Cold War. I was raised in the crucible of the fear of impending nuclear war."

A year after he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1961, the US came to the brink of all-out nuclear war over the stationing of Russian missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles south of Florida. While ending with a whimper, the Cuban missile crisis marked the start of a quarter-century of expansion in US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The arms buildup defined Butler's life and mind. Moving up the Air Force ladder, he became SAC commander in 1991, just as the Cold War came to an abrupt end.

The breakup of the Soviet Union shattered the old rules of nuclear diplomacy. Butler was among a few US nuclear warriors to squarely face the new age. If he lacked solutions, he at least began wrestling with fresh issues.

At his first meeting as chief of SAC, the traditional guardian of US nuclear weapons, he bluntly told his fellow officers:

"Look, the Cold War is over. We've ended a period of unprecedented risk. The dangers were extreme. We spent $4 trillion to end the Cold War. Having achieved that, why do we continue to perpetuate not just the expense but the risk of nuclear weapons when the threat that has provoked all this has completely disappeared?"

In the six years since Butler asked this question, no one in either the Bush or Clinton administrations has come up with a compelling answer. Yet despite steep reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, the terms of the nuclear dilemma have not changed. The US keeps its nuclear weapons on alert-status, which means that a nuclear war essentially could be triggered at a moment's notice.

Even more perplexing, first Bush and then Clinton refused to make a no-first-use pledge, which would commit the US to only responding to a nuclear attack but never launching a pre-emptive strike of its own. Given that Russia has made such a pledge, the US failure to do so raises serious doubts about the government's willingness to surrender the option of threatening other nations with nuclear annihilation.

Butler thinks it imperative for the US to forswear first use of nuclear weapons and is frankly disappointed over the failure of both the Bush and Clinton administrations to do so.

"Some six years after the end of the Cold War we really find ourselves a prisoner of the psychology of the Cold War. We are still in the thrall of the nuclear era. Key people in Washington [including Clinton] are still struggling with breaking out of the Cold War arms control mentality. [They still believe] the opportunity we have is only about reductions in weapons."

The end of the cold war provides the opportunity for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But what makes the opportunity even more compelling is the threat that without a complete ban, increasing numbers of countries will follow the US example and develop nuclear weapons - perhaps with the help of former Soviet scientists - and that resulting proliferation will create a new, more diffused arms race. There is also the possibility that the Russians will back off on their commitment to disarm if the US is seen as maintaining a substantial capacity. With its economy in a shambles, Russia - desperate for a source of national pride - might find it in nuclear weapons.

American leadership

To understand why most political leaders in the US, including President Bill Clinton, are not thinking boldly about nuclear weapons, it is worth recalling that only the US has used nuclear weapons in war. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945, marked the opening act of an arms race that for decades defined US relations with the rest of the world. Among US politicians, much of the enthusiasm for dropping A-bombs on Japan came from its perceived value in intimidating the Soviet Union. The price of impressing the Russians proved steep, however. Stalin ordered what was then a desultory Soviet nuclear project to move into high gear.

That the US monopoly on nuclear weapons would have a short life was clear to the country's top experts even before Hiroshima. Vannevar Bush, organizer of the Manhattan Project and President Roosevelt's science and technology adviser, predicted in late 1944 that Russia and other industrialized nations would be able to build their own atomic weapons, perhaps even within five years. Bush and his aide, Harvard University president James Conant, recommended the creation of an international agency to regulate and, ultimately eliminate, nuclear weapons.

In the wake of Hiroshima, the call for abolition of this terrible new weapon was lost in the escalating race among nations to go nuclear. In 1949, Russia detonated its own atomic bomb. Three years later, the US countered with a far-more destructive hydrogen bomb, which Russia proceeded to match. Britain, which had initially aided the US effort, built its own bombs. Later France and China did too. By 1990, India, Israel, South Africa and perhaps Pakistan also had nuclear weapons. A bevy of other nations, meanwhile, were also trying, by hook or by crook, to join the nuclear club.

The proliferation of nuclear nations itself became a justification for the US to maintain nuclear supremacy. It did not help ease the fears of US conservatives that newly independent Russian states inherited nuclear weapons or that the collapse of Russia's enormous nuclear-weapons complex made available to the highest bidder both nuclear materials and world-class experts. To some Americans, these developments seemed to justify (albeit improbably) an even greater emphasis than before on nuclear deterrence.

The paradoxical effect of the Cold War's end also extended to US politics and the global peace movement. Planned reductions in US and Russian nuclear arsenals, the extension of the non-proliferation treaty and the indefinite ban on testing of nuclear weapons prompted a surge in optimism about the possibility of ending the arms race. With nuclear weapons in retreat, nuclear abolitionists and their sympathizers began getting complacent. So vocal and visible during the 1980s, they went into retreat themselves or spent their energies on seemingly more pressing issues, such as global warming or the socioeconomic effects of globalization and an ascendant capitalism.

This new complacency about nuclear weapons is perhaps the greatest obstacle to progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. As Butler observes, "Many people just assume, they simply assume, that because they read about arms control they think the nuclear threat has disappeared. Most people don't understand that the nation's war plans are still governed by [the idea of] massive, instant response."

Discrediting nuclear weapons

The voices in favor of nuclear abolition are by no means stilled. When Nelson Mandela's government came to power in South Africa, it destroyed its nuclear weapons and all traces of how to build them. Argentina and Brazil, which were widely believed to be seeking nuclear weapons, have scrapped their programs. Three former Soviet republics, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, have eliminated their nuclear stockpiles. Arms experts say that even India and Pakistan are showing some restraint in their own nuclear ambitions. Gar Alperovitz, a leading scholar on the arms race, recently observed, "Many of the real or imagined obstacles that stood in the way of disarmament efforts have also disappeared."

All this gives Lee Butler hope. While he criticizes those who think only in terms of cutting nuclear weapons, he realizes that "the art of the possible may be to just keep the momentum going for a new round of cuts. That will keep the door open for broader initiatives."

The broadest, of course, would be a joint effort by the US and the other nuclear nations to surrender their weapons and accept a permanent ban on them. "There would be a global compact by people at every level that it is wrong to have nuclear weapons," he says.

We live in a world without secrets. Because of satellite and other surveillance technology, it's simply impossible to build a nuclear weapons complex without other countries knowing - and knowing precisely where it is.

Butler insists that a ban on nuclear weapons would be backed up by the threat of swift punishment - by conventional military weapons - against those governments who display "the first evidence of intent to cheat. We will do to them what was done to Iraq: destroy their infrastructure."

But even if such pre-emptive strikes failed - or if a government revived nuclear production in utter secrecy - Butler thinks it is time for the world to openly embrace a ban on such weapons and heap discredit on nations who dissemble. To those who complain that some nations will say one thing and do another, he smartly asks whether this would be an inferior situation to what the world suffers now.

Making nuclear weapons illegal "doesn't necessarily make it any less likely that a nation will secretly hold onto or build them," he allows. "But would you rather face such a nation in a world that has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons or deal with it in a world where all these weapons of mass destruction have been banned?"

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.