The Common Good
November 2009

Hawks Against the Bomb

by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson | November 2009

Why George Shultz wants to ban nuclear weapons

What on earth happened to George Shultz? So wondered Republicans and Democrats alike when, in 2007, President Reagan’s former secretary of state emerged as one of the leading champions of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Their confusion was forgivable. Whether or not you liked Shultz, you knew where he stood: a consummate Cold Warrior and the architect of a foreign policy regarded as the modern apotheosis of “peace through strength.” Detractors regarded this legacy with alarm, recalling what they saw as unremitting nuclear brinkmanship and ideological anti-communism. In the eyes of supporters, these same traits established him as a chief spokesperson for the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan.

That’s why this new move to ban the bomb seemed, to many, like an about-face for Shultz—reminiscent of Robert McNamara’s famous retrospective disavowal of Vietnam-era policies he’d designed. But it turns out that this represents a fundamental misunderstanding, both of Shultz the man and his nearly seven-decade career.

I sat down with Shultz in his Stanford office to talk about his status at the forefront of the latest—and most vigorous—campaign to end the nuclear threat once and for all. What I discovered was that Shultz’s current position actually stands in remarkable continuity with his history. Far from turning into a dove, Shultz wants to eliminate nuclear weapons because he’s still a hawk.

In fact, George Shultz hasn’t changed at all. It’s the world that’s changed around him. And understanding this fact is the key to understanding the surprising new coalition that’s trying to eliminate the bomb.

Strange Bedfellows. Full disclosure: I’ve benefited directly from Shultz’s leadership. Earlier this year he was a key endorser when I launched the Two Futures Project (2FP), a confessionally Christian and predominantly evangelical movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The goal of 2FP is to articulate a biblically orthodox position about nuclear weapons for the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era.

In the last several months, I’ve spoken to thousands of Christians nationwide in order to build a constituency that’s as morally committed to a world free of nuclear weapons as they are politically committed to the interim steps that will be required to get there. Our core in this work is the rising generation of evangelicals whose views can’t be charted by old partisan landmarks. (If you’re as passionately supportive of systemic solutions to creation care and poverty as you are opposed to abortion, are you liberal or conservative?)

But we’ve also received the blessing of some of the movement’s elder statesmen, from across the political spectrum. This represents a major change. During the Cold War, many 2FP supporters favored a robust nuclear deterrent, a conviction founded primarily in a fervent anti-communism.

The Two Futures Project wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the political ground that started to clear two years ago, when Shultz and an unlikely coterie of fellow Cold Warriors—Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn, as well as 16 top Reagan administration officials—shocked the world with a January 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for nuclear abolition. Almost overnight, an idea previously dismissed by some as utopian became a viable policy alternative.

“There was a huge positive reaction,” Shultz says, “not just from the United States, but all over the world. And it started people thinking again in a constructive way.”

I’ll say. More than two-thirds of the living former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers have endorsed their vision. On Palm Sunday 2009, President Obama gave a speech that codified Shultz, Nunn, et al.’s recommendations as American policy—a position affirmed two months later by Sen. John McCain in a Senate floor speech.

Times have changed. Part of the strength of the “four horsemen of the non-apocalypse”—as the four WSJ op-ed authors have been labeled—is that each was intimately involved in the Cold War.

“We all knew that there were a lot of close calls,” Shultz says. “If there were a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States, it would basically wipe both countries out and off the map. They were so devastating. And if you think about a modern thermonuclear weapon set off over New York City, say: What would it do? It would incinerate Manhattan Island.”

When we were squared off against the Soviets, of course, Shultz and his Cold War colleagues counted on deterrence to prevent that nightmare scenario. “People felt that nuclear weapons, by being so horrible on each side, kept the peace.”

But in Shultz’s mind, deterrence has run its course: “As more countries have nuclear weapons, as people worry more about the fissile material that may be lying around that can lead to a nuclear weapon, the less confidence anybody can have that deterrence can be relied on as a way of keeping them from being used.” This is because it’s impossible to deter a non-state nuclear actor. Terrorist groups lack the return address upon which deterrence strategy depends.

For Shultz, this doesn’t mean that deterrence was misguided during the Cold War. Rather, it’s simply that times have changed—from the balance of a U.S.-Soviet bipolarity to the unstable asymmetry of our day. In our current context and any foreseeable future, the indefinite existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably result in their use.

The only solution, Shultz believes, is the total elimination of nuclear weapons. He has no illusions that doing so will be easy—he just knows it’s necessary.

“But Margaret, I agreed with him.” Shultz’s resume reads like some novelist’s archetype of American success: Princeton Tiger turned Marine captain in WWII; professor of economics at MIT, Chicago, and Stanford; and three presidential cabinet positions. But all throughout his personal history—which would become so intertwined with that of the Atomic Age—he seems to have been haunted by the imperative of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Shultz vividly recalls his first memory of atomic weaponry: “I was on a troop ship coming home [from the Pacific theater]. We knew we were being formed into the Marine battalions that would wind up having the assault on the Japanese homeland, and we knew how that would be. We were hardly out of port when we received word that something called an atomic bomb had been dropped. There wasn’t anybody on the ship who had the foggiest idea what that was. We knew it must be something important or it wouldn’t have been reported.

“Our ship lumbered on,” Shultz continues. “A few days later, word came that a second atomic bomb had been dropped. When we hit port in San Diego, the war was over. So we said, ‘Well, whatever that is, we didn’t wind up having to assault those beaches in Japan. Pretty good.’ Then I saw the pictures of Hiroshima. And you have to say to yourself, ‘Oh, my. Such devastation.’”

His basic reaction never changed. Shultz recalls, as a doctoral student, hearing MIT physicists speaking blithely about radioactive fallout and thinking, “These are the smartest guys in the room, but they don’t know everything about this subject.”

For three decades, his career followed economics and finance, with no intersection in nuclear affairs. Then he was named secretary of state for Ronald Reagan—another man irrevocably formed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I was very sympathetic with [Reagan],” Shultz says, “or I wouldn’t have served there. But I felt it was my job as secretary of state to help him form his foreign policy and carry out his foreign policy, not mine.” The two men, Shultz says, had very similar positions on the nuclear issue.

Shultz writes in his memoir, “I had never learned to love the bomb.” He smiles as he recounts the pocketbook swatting he received from Margaret Thatcher after the Reykjavik summit nearly resulted in a U.S.-Soviet agreement to abolish nuclear weapons altogether. “She said, ‘George, how could you sit there and allow the president to agree to eliminate nuclear weapons?’ I said, ‘But Margaret, he’s the president.’ She said, ‘Yes, but you’re supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground!’ I said, ‘But Margaret, I agreed with him!’”

So he had. In the now-declassified record of the conversation in the waning hours of Reykjavik, after Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discuss their mutual desire to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, Shultz’s exhortation fairly leaps off the sterile page: “Let’s do it!”

That was 23 years ago, and the idea broached in secret at Reykjavik has now exploded into a global movement. It is, as Shultz says, “an idea whose time has come.”

Making the World Safer. Shultz has no illusions that we can uninvent the bomb. “You have to remember,” he says, “that a post-nuclear weapons world is not the same as a pre-nuclear weapons world.” But because nuclear weapons have a fundamentally fragile supply chain—it’s virtually impossible to fabricate bomb-grade uranium or plutonium in a clandestine fashion—it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which they become extraordinarily difficult to make.

Getting to that stage requires a dedicated effort. In their landmark WSJ op-ed, Shultz and his collaborators wrote that “without the bold vision” of a nuclear weapons-free world, “the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”

That’s why Shultz and his colleagues place such importance on interim steps. “It wasn’t a sort of a ‘pie in the sky,’ let’s just get rid of nuclear weapons. This has to be done with great, great care because you’re talking about the security of countries. Everybody wanted to do it carefully. And here are the steps that we need to be ready to take. These are each doable things. And each step makes the world a little safer as we go.”

I ask Shultz what steps he thinks are important in the immediate term, and he rattles off a list:

  • A follow-on agreement to the START I treaty.
  • Increase the warning time for U.S. and Russian ballistic missile launch procedures.
  • Engage in a multinational enterprise to secure fissile material.
  • Engage the Senate to secure U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The Power of the Ought. Shultz is, by his own admission, “not an introspective person,” and he seems uninterested in distilling lessons or platitudes from his experiences. But in conversation with the man and in his writings, it becomes clear that Shultz—a lifelong Episcopalian, named for his great-uncle, a priest—is a man governed by absolute commitment to ultimate ends.

He seems to have a visceral apprehension that a better world calls to us, unceasingly demanding to take shape—and why should we delay? For example, though he won’t speculate on how quickly a nuclear-free world could be achieved, Shultz thinks action toward the “desired result” is imperative. “People say it’s going to be forever to get there. I think we have to say, no, it’s not going to be forever. We can do this. We’ve got to get going and do it.”

Shultz is fond of mentioning “the power of the ought,” a concept championed by his friend and colleague from the Reagan administration, Max Kampelman. The Declaration of Independence is a favorite example of theirs: the incongruity of declaring “all men are created equal” in an era with slavery and suffrage for male property-holders only. But the “ought” of the Declaration, they say, has consistently disciplined, refined, and perfected the “is” in which we live.

And it is the power of the ought over George Shultz that perhaps explains why the man, in his 89th year, is tirelessly laboring for a world he will almost certainly not live to see.

“Here is a weapon that has the potential to wipe out such a big swath of humanity. How does anybody have a right to use such a weapon? There’s no morality to it at all. I think that we are governed, and should be governed, by a great sense of what ought to be. To a certain extent, that’s what religion says: ‘Here’s the way you ought to live. Here are God’s teachings; hold them up.’ We all know that we don’t live up to them. We’re all sinners, as we say.

“But nevertheless, the fact that the vision is there, the ought is there, makes a huge difference.”

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (Seabury: 2007), is founder and director of the Two Futures Project.

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Who Would Jesus Bomb?: The Two Futures Project and the biblical call to abolish nuclear weapons

In 2009, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson took to a darkened stage at the Q Conference—a gathering of prominent, forward-thinking evangelical Christians—to demonstrate what would happen if a relatively small atomic bomb were to hit Austin, Texas, where the conference was being held. He walked attendees through each stage of humanitarian, environmental, and economic devastation after an atomic bomb drops. The crowd fell silent as a sense of urgency for the abolition of all nuclear weapons grew, and it was on that stage the Two Futures Project was launched.

A nonprofit organization with a vision to educate Christians on a biblically based call to abolish nuclear weapons, the Two Futures Project has since hit the ground running, gathering a broad multigenerational coalition of supporters from across the ecumenical Christian spectrum, including Miroslav Volf, Lynne Hybels, Shane Claiborne, and George Shultz. Wigg-Stevenson, the group’s founder and director, believes nuclear non-proliferation must be a priority for American Christians. “I want to build a community of believers that can be mobilized to help achieve concrete victories that, in the immediate term, make the world safer and advance us toward the historical goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” he says.

This fall, Wigg-Stevenson will embark on a speaking tour to encourage Christians to lobby their congressional leaders for nuclear abolition, which is also an important issue for the president, who has called for a nuclear security summit in March 2010. Wigg-Stevenson also anticipates the United Nations review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2010. Both are opportunities for the faith community to remind the American government of the purpose that should guide their work, says Wigg-Stevenson.

“Our moral purpose is to ensure that nuclear weapons aren’t used and innocent lives aren’t lost,” he says. “I look at each of these opportunities and I think, everybody has something they can do. Everybody has a congressperson. But the faith community has a unique role in keeping the government morally calibrated.”

Jeannie Choi is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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