Following quickly on the heels of the failed old-guard coup in the Soviet Union in August, President Bush decided it was the right moment to announce a dramatic set of unilateral U.S. nuclear arms control initiatives. Eight days later, President Gorbachev responded with a set of Soviet initiatives and proposals that matched those of the United States and went several steps further. What do we make of these moves, especially those of us who have long advocated total nuclear disarmament?
Clearly, the news from Washington and Moscow is promising. Both sides taking their nuclear facilities off their decades-long "alert" status, and their plans to withdraw and destroy all U.S. and Soviet land-based tactical nuclear weapons certainly reduces the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe by accident or miscalculation (not to mention deliberate use). Yet the sigh of relief I felt upon hearing about these initiatives was partly overshadowed by a reawakened feeling of horror.
I realized I'd forgotten, or stopped thinking about, the fact that hundreds of American and Soviet infantry officers stationed all over Europe and Asia have been capable of launching short-range nuclear explosives at a moment's notice. And I'd forgotten that for the last 42 years squads of young soldiers, day and night, had been obediently loading doomsday devices on and off long-range bombers, and that these bombers continuously cruised the skies, ready to devastate the world on command -- that is, commit what Newsweek appropriately called "the final act in the history of human idiocy."
I was also reawakened to the appalling threats that have not -- or not yet -- been eliminated: the thousands of short-range "nukes" still on ships and fighter aircraft, the thousands of far more powerful long-range nuclear missiles in land silos, on off-alert bombers, and aboard dozens of nuclear submarines.