Dec 7, 2013
Jason Epstein on the Nuclear Threat
Posted on Oct 18, 2007
On a sultry day last summer as I walked along a narrow street in my Long Island village of Sag Harbor, I stopped to watch two boys not yet in their teens jousting with their bicycles, not astride them like knights but on foot, like antlered stags, thrusting their bikes at each other, parrying the blows by twisting their front wheels this way and that, their shirts drenched with sweat, their knees bloody, when they might more rationally have spent the day at the beach. On the curb stood two girls, transfixed, for whose sake this triumph of primal instinct over common sense—this mini-Iliad—was performed, a microcosm of our Hobbesian history and a warning to those who hope for a rational solution to the apocalyptic problem of nuclear proliferation.
The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger
By Jonathan Schell
Metropolitan Books, 272 pages
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 400 pages
In “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race,” the third installment of his projected four-volume history of the nuclear age, Richard Rhodes reports that by the mid-1980s the world’s total nuclear stockpile had “increased to about 50,000 bombs and warheads with a combined explosive force of about 22,500 million tons of TNT, equivalent to fifteen million Hiroshimas,” the product mainly of a relative handful of maniacs in the Soviet Union and the United States working in secret with the explicit support of their respective governments and the tacit permission or indifference of their fellow citizens. Faced with this genocidal absurdity, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in Reykjavik in 1986 to entirely abolish their nuclear arsenals. (Reagan further proposed that a party be thrown for the world when the last weapon was scrapped.) Alas, no sooner had the two leaders celebrated their epochal agreement than it fell apart over Reagan’s foolish determination to continue testing what came to be called “Star Wars”—a B-movie fantasy to erect a defensive shield of space-based lasers against hostile nukes. Gorbachev, probably aware that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI as it was called, was nonsense, nevertheless refused to countenance space-based weapons even as fantasy, perhaps anticipating opposition from his own military-industrial complex if he returned to Moscow with an agreement to scrap Soviet nukes while letting Reagan try to weaponize space. Forty-four billion dollars later, SDI was finally abandoned in 1993, but at Reykjavik it provided the American war party a more valuable service than that for which it was intended: It killed the slight but real possibility that the two leaders could sell their grand démarche to their respective bureaucracies.
It was Richard Perle, the warmonger’s warmonger, who poisoned the chalice when he convinced Reagan at Reykjavik that Gorbachev’s demand that SDI experiments be confined to the laboratory rather than be performed in space would render the entire project impossible. Though Perle must have known, as many others did by this time, that SDI was a joke, he considered “his successful frustration of agreements at Reykjavik one of his most important achievements,” according to Thomas Graham, general counsel to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the time. Should worse come to worst, what’s left of humanity can thank Richard Perle for destroying their world.
For years the Committee on the Present Danger, which included, among others, Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Caspar Weinberger, had pampered the military-industrial complex by exaggerating the Soviet threat, despite abundant evidence that the Soviet Union was a dysfunctional bureaucracy precariously sustained by a crumbling economy founded on absurd economic assumptions and burdened by its own voracious military-industrial complex, which, as it was later revealed, had no intention of upending its privileged existence by starting a nuclear war. It was this threat exaggeration by Perle and others that led to the reciprocal escalations that resulted in the creation of 50,000 nuclear weapons equivalent to 15 million Hiroshimas, which led in turn to the meeting of the leaders at Reykjavic and Perle’s last-minute intervention to keep the bombs on target. Rhodes cites considerable evidence, including the testimony of two high-ranking Soviet generals, both of them participants in nuclear war planning during the Cold War, that “the Soviet government and general staff never followed a first strike doctrine, convinced that nuclear war would cause unacceptable damage to both countries,” to say nothing of what it would do to themselves. Nevertheless, the master doomsayer Richard Cheney, serving as Bush 41’s secretary of defense, told CNN that Gorbachev was a fraud who would “ultimately fail and a leader far more hostile to the West would follow.” Instead, Gorbachev presided over the liquidation of the Soviet Union and by abandoning his opposition to SDI joined the START talks, which would lead, Rhodes writes, “to the unilateral initiatives of autumn 1991, which may fairly be counted as the final, historic acts of demolition in the termination of the superpower nuclear arms race that had burdened and threatened the world since 1949.”
Rhodes ends his book on this optimistic note at the end of Bush 41’s term, adding that the issue of nuclear abolition “must be the subject of another”—and no doubt gloomier—book, for while the Cold War weapons were now being constrained, the Committee on the Present Danger remained on the prowl, rabid as ever in its quest for new threats to exaggerate.
While we await Rhodes’ account of these hobgoblins in his next book, we have Jonathan Schell’s appropriately grim “The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger,” which takes matters to the present day. Schell writes: “[George W.] Bush’s demotion of diplomatic treaties and his elevation of force ... tore at the web of arms control treaties that had grown up over four decades. ... He declined to revive the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ... and ... announced the United States withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty. He also ... weakened the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and left it to Under Secretary of State John Bolton to declare that ‘obligations of the nuclear powers to fulfill their disarmament commitments under Article Six (of the NPT) ‘did not exist,’ ” though any reading of the treaty would show that they did, if only in the breach.
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