The General's Bombshell
What Happened When I Called for Phasing Out the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal
By George Lee Butler
Sunday, January 12 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post
At the National Press Club in early December, I gave an intensely personal expression of my views on the case for the elimination of nuclear weapons. I hoped to convey the growing sense of alarm that I had felt over the course of my long experience in the nuclear arena -- including my tenure as commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls all Navy and Air Force nuclear weapons -- and how this has now evolved to a singular goal: to bend every effort, within my power and authority, to promote the conditions and attitudes that might someday free mankind from the scourge of nuclear weapons.
As I survey the response of what appears to be a rather astonished world, I am by turns encouraged, disappointed and dismayed.
Encouraged, by the flood of supportive calls and letters I have received from every corner of the planet because the issue has now been widely joined, with great interest and intensity, and because I can discern the makings of an emerging global consensus that the risks posed by nuclear weapons far outweigh their presumed benefits.
Disappointed, thus far, by the quality of the debate, by those pundits who simply sniffed imperiously at the goal of elimination, aired their stock Cold War rhetoric, hurled a personal epithet or two and settled smugly back into their world of exaggerated threats and bygone enemies. And by critics who attacked my views by misrepresenting them, such as suggesting that I am proposing unilateral disarmament or a pace of reduction that would jeopardize the security of the nuclear-weapon states.
And finally, dismayed that, even among more serious commentators, the lessons of 50 years at the nuclear brink can still be so grievously misread; that the assertions and assumptions underpinning an era of desperate threats and risks prevail unchallenged; that a handful of nations cling to the impossible notion that the power of nuclear weapons is so immense their use can be threatened with impunity, yet their proliferation contained.
Albert Einstein recognized this hazardous but very human tendency many years ago, when he warned that "the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." How else to explain the assertion that nuclear weapons will infallibly deter major war, in a world that survived the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 no thanks to deterrence, but only by the grace of God? How else to accept the proposition that any civilized nation would respond to the act of a madman by adopting his methods? How otherwise to fathom a historical view that can witness the collapse of communism but fail to imagine a world rid of nuclear weapons? Or finally, to account for the assumption that because we are condemned to live with the knowledge of how to fabricate nuclear weapons, we are powerless to mount a global framework of verification and sanctions that will greatly reduce the likelihood or adequately deal with the consequences of cheating in a world free of nuclear weapons?
Many well-meaning friends have counseled me that by championing elimination I risk setting the bar too high, providing an easy target for the cynical and diverting attention from the more immediately achievable. My response is that elimination is the only defensible goal, and that goal matters enormously. All of the declared nuclear-weapon states are formally committed to nuclear abolition in the letter and the spirit of the nonproliferation treaty, which went into effect in 1970 and was renewed last year. Every president of the United States since Dwight Eisenhower has publicly endorsed elimination. A clear and unequivocal commitment to elimination, sustained by concrete policy and measurable milestones, is essential to give credibility and substance to this long-standing rhetorical position.
Such a commitment goes far beyond simply seizing the moral high ground. It shifts the locus of policy attention from numbers to the security climate essential to permit successive reductions. It conditions government at all levels to create and respond to every opportunity for shrinking arsenals, cutting infrastructure and curtailing modernization. It sets the stage for rigorous enforcement of nonproliferation regimes and unrelenting pressures to reduce nuclear arsenals on a global basis.
No one is more conscious than I am that realistic prospects for elimination will evolve over many years. I was in the public arena for too long ever to make the perfect the enemy of the good. I hasten to add, however, my strong conviction that we
are far too timorous in imagining the good; we are still too rigidly conditioned by an arms control mentality deeply rooted in the Cold War. We fall too readily into the intellectual trap of judging the goal of elimination against current political conditions. We forget too quickly how seemingly intractable conflicts can suddenly yield under the weight of reason or with a change of leadership. We have lost sight too soon that, in the blink of a historical eye, the world we knew for a traumatic half-century has been utterly transformed.
Two days after taking charge of the Strategic Air Command in 1991, I called together my senior staff of 20 generals and one admiral and, over the course of what I am sure for all of them was a mystifying and deeply unsettling discussion, I presented my case that with the end of the Cold War, SAC's mission was essentially complete. I began to prepare them for a dramatic shift in strategic direction, to think in terms of less rather than more, to argue for smaller forces, fewer targets, reduced alert postures and accelerated arms control agreements.
This was a wrenching adjustment that prompted angry debate, bruised feelings and the early termination of a dozen promising careers. But in the end, my staff unanimously supported my decision to recommend that SAC itself be disestablished after 46 years at the nuclear ramparts.
But even this was only a beginning. My own prescription for what the United States should do now is detailed in the report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established by the government of Australia in 1995, on which I served. The commission called not just for reductions in arms, but more importantly, for immediate, multilateral negotiations toward ending the most regrettable and risk-laden operational practice of the Cold War era: land- and sea-based ballistic missiles standing nuclear alert. But thoughtful debate about alternative agendas, while both urgent and essential, is not the most important priority for the American people.
What matters more is the defining question upon which the debate must ultimately turn: How should the United States see its responsibility for dealing with the conflicted moral legacy of the Cold War? Russia, with its history of authoritarian rule and a staggering burden of social transformation, is ill equipped to lead on this issue. It falls unavoidably to us to work painfully back through the tangled moral web of this frightful 50-year gantlet, born of the hellish confluence of two unprecedented historical currents: the bipolar collision of ideology and the unleashing of the power of the atom.
As a democracy, the consequences of these cataclysmic forces confronted us with a tortuous and seemingly inextricable dilemma: how to put at the service of our national survival a weapon whose sheer destructiveness was antithetical to the very values upon which our society was based? Over time, as arsenals multiplied on both sides and the rhetoric of mutual annihilation grew more heated, we were forced to think about the unthinkable, justify the unjustifiable, rationalize the irrational. Ultimately, we contrived a new and desperate theology to ease our moral anguish, and we called it deterrence.
I spent much of my military career serving the ends of deterrence, as did millions of others. I want very much to believe that it was the nuclear force that I and others commanded and operated that prevented World War III and created the conditions leading to the collapse of the Soviet empire. But, in truth, I do not and I cannot know that it was. It will be decades before the hideously complex era of the Cold War is adequately understood, with its bewildering interactions of human fears and inhuman technology.
It would not matter much that informed assessments are still well beyond our intellectual reach -- except for the crucial and alarming fact that we continue to espouse deterrence as if it were now an infallible panacea. And worse, other nations are listening, have converted to our theology, are building their arsenals, are poised to rekindle the nuclear arms race -- and to reawaken the specter of nuclear war.
What a stunning, perverse turn of events. In the words of my friend, Jonathan Schell, we face the dismal prospect that "The Cold War was not the apogee of the age of nuclear weapons, to be succeeded by an age of nuclear disarmament. Instead, it may well prove to have simply been a period of initiation, in which not only Americans and Russians, but Indians and Pakistanis, Israelis and Iraqis, were adapting to the horror of threatening the deaths of millions of people, were learning to think about the unthinkable. If this is so, will history judge that the Cold War proved only a sort of modern-day Trojan Horse, whereby nuclear weapons were smuggled into the life of the world, made an acceptable part of the way the world
works? Surely not, surely we still comprehend that to threaten the deaths of tens of hundreds of millions of people presages an atrocity beyond anything in the record of mankind? Or have we, in a silent and incomprehensible moral revolution, come to regard such threats as ordinary -- as normal and proper policy for any self-respecting nation."
This cannot be the moral legacy of the Cold War. And it is our responsibility to ensure that it will not be.
This article was adapted from a speech Butler gave at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington last week.
About Gen. Butler
A 1961 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, George Lee Butler served in numerous flying and staff positions before becoming the director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In January 1991 Butler attained the rank of general and became the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command and subsequently commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, located at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In these jobs he helped in the revision of U.S. nuclear war-fighting plans. He was a candidate to succeed Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1994 but was not selected. He retired in February 1994 at the age of 54.
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