The Common Good
March-April 1998

Nuclear Misdirection

by David Cortright | March-April 1998

The Cold War's over -- the threat isn't.

Eight years after the ending of the Cold War, the Pentagon has finally abandoned Reagan-era plans for "prevailing" in a "protracted" nuclear war. That's the good news in a Presidential Decision Directive issued in November from the Clinton White House.

The bad news is that the United States continues to prepare for massive nuclear strikes against Russia, notwithstanding increasing bonds of friendship with Moscow, and has extended the role of nuclear weapons to permit their use against countries with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons capability. The new policy perpetuates and expands the role of nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of American military policy. It means that the threat of nuclear war, which so many of us fervently hoped would be banished with the end of the Cold War, will continue to haunt us.

The implications of the new directive are frightening. In addition to targeting Russia's emerging democracy, the new directive reportedly envisions a wider array of potential targets in China. The directive also enlarges the scope of potential nuclear wrath to so-called "rogue states" in the developing world. For the first time Pentagon war planners are being instructed to prepare for possible nuclear strikes against nations with "prospective access" to atomic weapons. Under this scenario threshold nuclear countries such as North Korea or Iran, or even India and Pakistan, could be nuclear targets. (Would this also extend to the unmentionable nuclear power, Israel?)

Even more worrisome is the directive's instruction to target non-nuclear states that have chemical and biological weapons capability. This opens up dozens of countries as potential nuclear targets. It also vastly lowers the threshold of nuclear weapons use. In the past nuclear weapons were to be used only in retaliation for military and nuclear attack against U.S. or allied forces, although in practice nuclear weapons use was threatened during the Vietnam War and in other conflicts. Under the new policy, nuclear weapons can be targeted against any nation vaguely defined as "rogue" that has the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. This is a first-strike nuclear posture writ large.

The new policy conveniently justifies the maintenance of a large U.S. nuclear stockpile, currently numbering some 10,000 weapons including reserves. This is down from the more than 30,000 weapons of earlier decades, but it is still an absurdly high and dangerous level of overkill. Some have argued that the new directive, by eliminating many of the targets necessary for "protracted" war, will make further nuclear reductions possible, but there is little indication that Washington intends to move in this direction. On the contrary, the United States is spending more on nuclear weapons now than at the end of the Cold War: $28 billion in fiscal year 1998.

THE NEW POLICY is a stark rebuke to the growing opportunities and appeals for deep cuts and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. In the past year Boris Yeltsin twice signaled a desire for accelerated denuclearization, declaring in front of NATO officials in May that Russia would separate its warheads from missiles and in December offering to cut Russian nuclear warheads by one-third. Washington failed to respond to either gesture. Calls by the Canberra Commission, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons have failed to stir a White House response. Also ignored has been Adm. Stansfield Turner's innovative proposal for slashing nuclear arsenals and creating a small escrow of nuclear warheads separated from delivery systems.

Most remarkable has been the lack of response to the conversion from nuclear commander to nuclear abolitionist of Gen. George Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command. Last year Butler released a statement in favor of nuclear abolition signed by more than 60 retired generals and admirals. He also delivered an eloquent and impassioned plea for immediate deep reductions and the de-alerting of nuclear weapons. Butler, Turner, and all the others were ignored in the preparation of the new policy.

Nuclear weapons have taken on a life of their own. They have become like the proverbial monster made at human hands, seemingly beyond control and threatening to destroy their creator. Although the Soviet Union and the threat of communism have disappeared, as have all previous justifications for nuclear weapons, these fearsome instruments persist and are taking on dangerous new roles.

This new policy deserves to be challenged. It calls us to action. For those who cherish life, who cannot accept a policy of so-called defense based on the threat to annihilate millions of innocent people, we must join the growing ranks of nuclear abolitionists. Let us call for a new directive, one that resolutely commits the United States to the abolition of nuclear weapons and that charts a course of immediate concrete action toward denuclearization.

DAVID CORTRIGHT, former executive director of SANE, is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)