Our nuclear-weapons strategy enables one man, the president, to kill and maim an unthinkable number of people in a single afternoon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: These remarks were first delivered at the conference “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?” held at Harvard University on November 4, 2017.
Originally published in The Nation
Among the things we know about nuclear weapons, two features are our focus today.
The first is the spectacular level of injury that nuclear weapons can inflict on the earth and all its inhabitants, human, animal, and plants. On our ground and on our sky.
Recent work on nuclear winter shows that if even a tiny fraction of the worldwide current arsenal is used—not 1 percent but 3/100th of 1 percent of the total blast power—20 million people will die on the first afternoon and 1 billion in the first months. That research, by scientist Alan Robock, has appeared in leading science journals.
It is for this reason that the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that, if even a single city is hit, its worldwide resources will not be sufficient to help.
Every study reaches the same conclusion. Even if the weapon should be still smaller—reduced so that it is 3/10,000 of 1 percent of the total nuclear blast power available today, the injuries will be beyond our reach. A study in the Netherlands showed that a single small nuclear weapon arriving in Rotterdam will kill 70,000 people. Ten thousand survivors will be severely burned. Yet in all of Netherlands there are only 100 burn beds. If the discrepancy between the number burned and the number of treatment beds seems uncivilized, recognize that Mass General, a leading hospital in Boston, has seven burn beds.
As the size of the weapon increases, so too do the injuries. According to a report by Steven Starr, Lynn Eden and Ted Postol in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, if an 800-kiloton weapon should be detonated above Manhattan, the center of the blast will be four times the temperature of the sun and within “tens of minutes,” a firestorm will cover 90 to 150 square miles.
So the first feature is the unconscionable level of injury, injuries that cannot be repaired. Only injuries that have not yet happened can be undone. Once they have happened it is too late to be indignant.
Even more central to our discussion: The second feature of the nuclear arsenal is that this capacity for unthinkable levels of injury resides in the hands of a solitary person, or a small handful of persons, in the United States as well as in the other nuclear states. Nuclear weapons strategy in the United States is designed around “presidential first use,” an arrangement that enables one man, the president, to kill and maim many millions of people in a single afternoon.
The key features of nuclear architecture are, then, this unthinkably magnified level of injury at one end of the weapon and at the other end of the weapon, an unthinkably small number of men who determine our collective fate and the fate of the planet.
What remains to be seen is whether the people of our own country—and more generally the people of the earth—will permit these weapons and these arrangements for presidential first use to remain in place.
And then there is a second key question: If the people of this country do not wish these arrangements to remain in place, are there legal and constitutional tools that can help dismantle those arrangements?
It will be helpful to keep in mind that the nuclear architecture is a physical architecture, but the physical architecture is accompanied by a mental architecture and it is this mental architecture that keeps the physical architecture in place.
Let me say a few words about each.
As for the physical architecture, we can see from this chart that 93 percent of the world’s total arsenal is possessed by the United States and Russia. The small wedge at one o’clock is the portion of the arsenal owned by the other seven nuclear states. North Korea has, by the most accurate estimates, fissile material for fewer than 20 warheads. (Here and there estimates have come in as high as 60 warheads, but Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists—over time the single most reliable voice on weapons count—judges 20 or fewer to be still the best estimate.)
The legend on the chart tells us that each icon represents five warheads. To get an accurate picture of the world arsenal, we need to multiply the field of icons fivefold.
In attempting to comprehend the vast scale of the United States arsenal, we are assisted by The New York Times, which recently provided a compelling set of graphics. It calculated what portion of the US stockpile would be needed to “decimate” Libya, what portion to “decimate” North Korea, what portion to “decimate” Syria, Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, and then showed how many weapons would be left over after we had killed one-fourth of the population in those seven countries. Their answer: Seventy percent of the US arsenal would remain.
It takes thousands of painstaking small steps to put a physical arsenal into place, and 99 percent of those steps have already been completed. We’re not waiting for something to start; we’re very late, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s 2 ½-minutes-to-midnight tells us. Only the last of the thousand steps—the launch itself—remains.
For example, specific cities all over the world have specific targets assigned to them. Weapons are assigned not just to our opponents but to our potential opponents, and even to our non-opponents. During the most-recent Bush administration, Vice President Cheney became curious about how many are assigned to each city: “Tell me, I said to the planners, how many warheads are going to hit Kiev under the current plan. It was a difficult question to get an answer to because I don’t think anybody had ever asked it before, but I finally got a report back that under the current targeting plan, we had literally dozens of warheads targeted on this single city.”
Until the Clinton administration, the longitude and latitude of those cities were programed into the missiles before they were loaded into the Ohio-class submarines. Out of fear that a hacker would initiate a launch, this practice was changed so that instead of the geographical coordinates of cities, the longitude and latitude of uninhabited regions of ocean were programed into the missiles. It is noteworthy that this ethical change was brought about not by the application of moral reasoning—not by the demands of the citizenry or councils of government—but by the very real possibility of a hacker. Throughout this enlightened shift to open-ocean targeting, what never changed was the assignment of specified weapons to specified cities.
What about the mental architecture that has kept this physical architecture in place?
The mental architecture requires first and foremost that little information be given to the citizenry. In turn, attempts of the citizenry to protest can be silenced by pointing out that they are speaking without knowledge or information. This blackout of information imperils citizenship in the same way that in earlier centuries depriving people of the art of reading and writing imperiled citizenship. It has acted as a firm piece of social control.
Many Americans believe that our nuclear weapons will be used only in response to a nuclear attack by another country. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have had first-use arrangements and a first-use policy throughout the 70 years of the nuclear age.
Most Americans believe that the only time following Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the United States came close to launching a nuclear weapon was during the Cuban missile crisis.
We now know that Eisenhower twice considered using an atomic weapon in the Taiwan Straits in 1954 and again in Berlin in 1959; that the Kennedy administration, according to Robert McNamara, three times came within “a hair’s breadth” of war with Russia; that Lyndon Johnson considered using a nuclear weapon against China to prevent that country from getting a bomb; and that Nixon, by his own account, four times contemplated using a nuclear weapon. The record stops there because only after a 30-year-time-lag when presidential papers are released do we learn what our leaders planned.
Our current president, President Trump, is for many of us in the country and for many people throughout the world a particularly reckless figure. Yet the presidential first-use structure is catastrophic even in the hands of the best of men. Yes, it is wildly dangerous if someone is openly reckless and irrational; but it continues to be fatal even in the hands of those who are nominally rational because it is itself a deeply irrational and reckless architecture.
One great silencer against questions or complaints has been deterrence, an incoherent doctrine whereby nuclear war is best prevented not by ceasing to have, but by having nuclear weapons.
Gen. Lee Butler, commander in chief of the US Strategic Command from 1992 to 1994, punctures the concept of deterrence most succinctly, deploring the way over decades “the nuclear priesthood extolled its virtues and bowed to its demands”:
Appropriated from the lexicon of conventional warfare, this simple prescription for adequate military preparation thus became in the nuclear age a formula for unmitigated catastrophe … it was premised on a litany of unwarranted assumptions, unprovable assertions, and logical contradictions.
A third feature of this disabling mental architecture is the erroneous belief that nuclear weapons cannot be unmade. Assurance that they can be unmade comes from many quarters. The entire Southern Hemisphere is blanketed with nuclear-weapons-free treaties: the Treaty of Pelindaba, Treaty of Tlatelolco, Treaty of Bangkok, Treaty of Rarotonga. The nuclear architecture takes place across a north-south divide; nuclear states reside only in the Northern Hemisphere. A study made in Scotland of the timetable for eliminating the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal by John Ainslie—a timetable judged reasonable by leading military experts in our own country such as former missile-launch officer Bruce Blair—shows the simple and straightforward steps that can be followed (some completed in hours, others requiring several years). Compared to the problem of global warming, the steps for dismantling nuclear weapons are straightforward and eminently doable.
Is the question that we are asking today—about the legality, constitutionality, or justness of presidential first use—a narrow question (as some people have said to me)?
Or is it instead, as I believe, a question whose answer is profound and deep and has the potential to strike a fatal blow to the nuclear architecture?
Elaine Scarry is a professor at Harvard University and the author of numerous books, including The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World and Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.