Stop the Nuclear Arms Race!

A Critical Time for Action

Mushroom cloud of 'Gadget' over Trinity, seconds after detonation
Mushroom cloud of 'Gadget' over Trinity, seconds after detonation

by Jerry Ross

Today we face the gravest risks to peace since the run-up to either of the World Wars, and certainly as great a danger of nuclear holocaust as the darkest days of the Cold War. Yet too many people deny the reality of these dangers, believing such a thing could never actually happen. If the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated nothing else, it is that very low-probability, high-impact calamities do indeed happen, with world-shattering results.

The Trump administration is pursuing a Strangelovian recipe for catastrophe – dismantling nuclear treaties and safeguards, hiking international tensions, and bankrupting the nation with a vast expansion of omnicidal weapons. There are very specific steps being taken today that could lead us inexorably toward a cataclysm. As peace activists, as citizens, as rational adults who care about our children’s future, we must act now.

Consider Trump’s most recent steps to wreck the international nuclear arms control scaffolding. On May 21st, he announced his intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (OST). Signed following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the behest of Bush the Elder, this treaty actually had its origins decades earlier in the Eisenhower administration. It allows its 35 signatories – the US, Russia, and most of NATO – to overfly each other’s territories to assure compliance with agreements and prevent any “surprise” military developments. Top military leaders as well as arms control experts have long considered it invaluable in reducing the risks of international conflict. Last year Donald Trump followed a similar path in withdrawing from another cornerstone of international security, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, an agreement that had been a centerpiece of nuclear arms control since the Reagan years.

As bad as this latest move is, it bodes ill for any extension of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) which is scheduled to expire next February. This vital nuclear agreement between the US and Russia, signed in 2010, was the latest in a series of treaties reducing nuclear arsenals from a high of nearly 70,000 weapons in the mid 80s to about 14,000 today. It actually limited the US and Russia to a maximum of 1600 deployed warheads each and implemented vital new inspection protocols. Though these numbers far exceed what experts say is actually needed for deterrence (a dubious theory in and of itself), the sustained effort to limit the number of weapons has been a unifying element of nuclear policy for nearly a half century under both Republican and Democratic administrations. But with Donald Trump’s dismantling of the entire arms control regime, New START is one of the last major nuclear arms limitation agreements standing. Failure to extend it would almost certainly spell the demise of nuclear arms control and the beginning of a new and dangerous nuclear arms race.

Attempts to Save the Treaties

There is legislation in the current Congress to restrain Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from international treaties and specifically to promote the extension of the New START agreement. Senate bill 845: New START Policy Act of 2019, introduced by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, forces the Trump Administration to provide certain reports to Congress on the impact of the treaty and any failure to renew it. Our own Massachusetts Senator Markey’s S.1285: SAVE Act both requires the Administration to justify any failure to extend the treaty and prohibits increases in certain US weapons should they allow it to lapse. 

In the House, Rep. Jimmy Panetta (Calif.) has introduced H.R.6991 requiring the President to get approval from both Houses of Congress in order to withdraw from international treaties. (Similar language was proposed as an amendment to the House version of  the National Defense Authorization Act – see more below). Finally, in a bid to revive the powerful nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, Mass. Rep. Jim McGovern and Sen. Markey have introduced bicameral resolutions (H.R.7260 and S. 4045: HALT Act – the Hastening Arms Limitations Talks Act of 2020) calling for renewed negotiations to reduce US and global nuclear arsenals. These are legislative initiatives we need to support with calls to all of our US representatives!

Trump Threatens to Resume Nuclear Testing

Most troubling of all are recent reports the White House is considering the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing. Such a move would be a throw-back to the earliest years of atomic weapons development. In the dawning era of the nuclear arms race, the world realized with growing horror that not only was atomic testing leading to the development of new and unimaginably destructive weapons, but it was also producing extreme environmental and health hazards for the entire globe. The Kennedy administration succeeded in halting such testing with the 1963 signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, a partial ban that stopped atomic testing in the atmosphere, under water and in outer space. It was later replaced by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which, while never fully ratified, has nevertheless been fully complied with by all the nuclear-armed nations. 

The Administration’s reckless talk of resuming testing has been condemned by nuclear arms control groups around the globe. Some 70 scientists, including several Nobel Laureates, have signed an Open Letter to the scientific community, published in the July 17 issue of Science magazine, opposing any resumption of testing and supporting the S. 3886 PLANET Act (Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing) introduced by Senator Ed Markey. See full article here. Similar language prohibiting funds for testing was also included in the recently approved Dept. of Energy Appropriations bill and as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) now under consideration. 

Efforts to Limit the Military Budget 

As we go to press, Congress is in the final stages of approval for the 2021 NDAA. This “Pentagon spending” legislation – proposed to be $740.5 billion for this year, or nearly 60% of all discretionary funds – has been the vehicle by which Trump has fueled his massive military build-up and his plans to expand the US nuclear arsenal. As activists, we have only a limited opportunity at this point to restrain this beast. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced an amendment to cut the current proposal by 10% ($74 billion) and there are several amendments to the House version already passed that would limit spending on certain items such as nuclear testing or specific weapons development. But House Democrats need to heed the lesson from last year when they agreed to a substantial increase in funding in return for a number of progressive amendments. When the NDAA came back out of Conference, all of the Democrats’ restraining language had been stripped from the bill and all of the Republicans’ increase in funding retained. 

In point of fact, though, President Trump has already launched a new nuclear arms race through both this massive increase in military spending and a redefined “nuclear posture.” In the beginning days of his administration, the Trump Administration issued a new Nuclear Posture Review that, while still cloaked in the misleading language of “nuclear defense,” defined a whole new range of non-nuclear threats that would justify US use of nuclear weapons. And in the actual nature of weapons proposed, all pretext is dropped, revealing the true offensive purpose of these weapons. A prime example is the Long-Range Standoff missile, for which Massachusetts-based Raytheon has been awarded the sole-source contract. This incredibly destabilizing weapon envisions a nuclear-capable, long-range cruise missile that will be carried by B-52 bombers cruising outside an adversary’s borders. The fact that it can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, and reduces a target’s response time to minutes, makes it extraordinarily threatening. There is no doubt this is an offensive, potential “first strike” weapon.  See full article here. And earlier on, despite Congressional efforts to stop him, Trump succeeded in funding and ultimately deploying so-called “low yield” nuclear missiles on Trident submarines, giving the president “more options” in the possible use of atomic weapons.

Trump Increases Tensions Worldwide

But the most immediate risks we face come as a result of President Trump’s failed policies and seeming direct attempts to ramp up international tensions. His steps to demolish the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement have actually decreased the “time to breakout” Iran would need to develop an atomic bomb. Worse yet, his policy of maximum sanctions, his assassination of Iranian General Soleimani last January, and efforts to starve the Iranian regime in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, have made war with that country all the more likely. His vaulted negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, though a welcome retreat from his earlier “rain of fire and fury” bombast, have come to naught, possibly encouraging Kim’s further development of his nuclear arsenal. 

We cannot discount the damage Trump has done through his disrespect of our long-term allies, the undermining of global institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) and failure of leadership both at home and internationally in response to the pandemic. Even by example, he contributes to international tensions. Studies have shown that the United States’ behavior with respect to its own nuclear capabilities is a major factor in the choices other nuclear armed nations make. In light of this, we cannot but be concerned about the nuclear tinderbox between India and Pakistan, and wonder how Trump’s aggressive policies may have contributed to India’s backing away from its “no first use” policy. Finally, his lighting fuses with Russia and China is leading the world toward the brink of a new Cold War, or an actual outbreak of great power conflict.

It is past time for denial. We are in a moment of maximum peril that calls for citizen action. We must raise public awareness of the risks being taken. We must support congressional efforts to restrain this administration’s development and deployment of new and incredibly dangerous weapons. And we must reduce the massive military spending that could very well bankrupt our nation, and instead redirect resources to where the Covid pandemic has shown they are most needed, in accordance with the Constitution, “to promote the general welfare” of our people.

— Jerry Ross is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Nuclear Disarmament Working Group.