by Jonathan King
Originally published in Truthout
The United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) arming of the Ukrainian defense against Russia’s invasion has turned the legacy of the Cold War into a hot proxy war, intensifying the danger of an even more catastrophic nuclear war. The prior threats to launch nuclear weapons by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and former U.S. President Donald Trump had already raised this specter. More recent threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have sharply increased fears that the world is headed down a disastrous path. Recently, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a NATO preemptive strike on Russia, and President Joe Biden further ramped up the tension with talk of “nuclear Armageddon.” Responding to the Ukraine war and these threats, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands on its Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds from midnight.
The most effective lever nations have to prevent a nuclear holocaust has been the series of treaties that limited deployment of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, after decades of very difficult but successful negotiations in multiple treaties limiting the use of nuclear weapons, our leaders are abandoning these safeguards. This puts Americans and the world at increased risk of nuclear catastrophe.
In this period of heightened international tensions, it is worthwhile to review the successful negotiation of these vital accords and to examine who stands to benefit from dismantling them. With the emergence of the Cold War after the end of World War II, leaders in both the Soviet Union and the U.S. recognized that the accelerating nuclear arms race endangered their own nation’s security and that claims of an effective defense against nuclear weapons attacks were groundless. If the incineration of some 150,000 Japanese men, women and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by two small atomic bombs failed to make clear the great damage wrought by nuclear weapons, certainly the terrible power of the first hydrogen bomb detonation erased all doubt. The very first H-bomb tested, on November 1, 1952, in the Pacific Marshall Islands, was 500 times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb.
Nonetheless, the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union proceeded to amass unbelievable numbers of nuclear weapons. The U.S. arsenal contained more than 25,000 warheads by the time of the Cuban missile crisis — affixed to bombers, submarines and stationary silos. Luckily for all of us, President John. F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saw the light and pulled back from the brink of nuclear war.
The Cuban missile crisis had reverberations for years to come. In June 1963, President Kennedy delivered a historic speech at American University, calling for active steps toward nuclear disarmament and ushering in a period of détente in relations between the super powers. The U.S., United Kingdom and Soviet Union signed the limited test ban treaty in Moscow in August 1963. Meanwhile, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which limited the deployment of missile defense systems in each nuclear country to its national capital and one intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. The ground-breaking SALT I treaty was signed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, certainly no pacifist, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The treaty restricted the number of nuclear missile silos and submarine-launched missile tubes for a five-year period.
President Ronald Reagan — with his denunciation of the Soviet Union as the evil empire, proposals for Star Wars missile defense programs, and increased Pentagon spending — seemed intent on pulling out of these agreements. Influenced in part by the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, Reagan reversed course. Despite continuing Cold War conflicts, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Its implementation eliminated, by 1991, major portions of the two countries’ arsenals, including 2,692 ground-launched, mid-range nuclear missiles (ranging from about 300 to 3,400 miles). It also included comprehensive verification measures.
Meanwhile, the development of nuclear weapons by additional states led to calls for an international framework to halt proliferation. Under the aegis of the United Nations, three countries — the Soviet Union, the U.K. and the U.S. — signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968, which limited the spread of nuclear weapons and committed the nuclear powers to pursue general disarmament. China and France joined later, in 1992. Today, 191 countries are party to the NPT, making it the most widely adhered-to arms control agreement. Only India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and South Sudan remain outside the treaty — the first four of which possess nuclear weapons.
President Barack Obama called for a return of the U.S. to leadership in nuclear disarmament, and Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new strategic arms reduction agreement to replace the first U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START treaty, which expired in 2009. The so-called New START treaty called for a 30 percent reduction of deployed warheads and reduced caps on intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. Senate and the Russian parliament ratified New START, and President Obama signed it in February 2011.
The U.S. Reverses Course
Sadly, after a period in which the treaties did indeed reduce the world nuclear armaments, the U.S. reversed course. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, effectively ending the agreement. More recently, former President Donald Trump withdrew from the INF Treaty and the Open Skies program, a policy that allowed each nation to fly over the other’s territory to monitor large facilities.
A concerned citizen might assume that some major changes had occurred in the balance of nuclear weapons offensive and defensive capabilities to justify these withdrawals. In fact, few such changes can be identified. The U.S. has installed anti-missile systems in Poland and Romania, which represent new threats to Russia. There is precious little evidence that these systems could really protect European allies from a concerted nuclear attack. They certainly can’t protect cities in the Eastern U.S. from being obliterated by missiles launched from Russian submarines. The maintenance of the INF and Open Skies initiatives were probably much more valuable sources of security.
In fact, given that the missiles in Poland and Romania can be fitted with nuclear warheads and are close to the Russian border, Russian military observers view this development as an intensification of the nuclear threat, including that of a possible first strike.
Russia, China and the U.S. have begun active efforts to develop hypersonic missiles, which will be even harder to track or shoot down. But such dangerous developments are even more reason to pursue nuclear disarmament treaties actively, not to abandon them.
Currently, nations throughout the world are pressing to reduce the danger of nuclear war by promoting the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). More than 91 nations have signed the TPNW, which outlaws the development, maintenance, stockpiling, testing and use of nuclear weapons, for the ratifying nations. Sixty-eight nations have formally ratified to date, though sadly, none of those actually maintaining nuclear weapons arsenals. Nonetheless, the template for progress is in place, and international pressure is mounting.
Though little publicized within the U.S., there are five nuclear weapon-free zones throughout the world, regions in which member countries commit themselves not to manufacture, acquire, test or possess nuclear weapons. Four of them span the Southern Hemisphere. The five regions currently covered under the zone agreements include: Latin America (the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific (the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok), Africa (the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba) and Central Asia (the 2006 Treaty of Semipalatinsk).
Who Benefits From the U.S. Withdrawal?
Much of the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear weapons is carried out by a small number of private corporations. This is a unique and uniquely profitable business: It is a true monopoly since the contracts cannot be outsourced to Chinese, Mexican, Indonesian or other foreign corporations; the market is guaranteed with no competition, since all the products will be purchased by the U.S. government. The corporate leaders of the largest contractors earn more than $20,000,000 annually, thanks to U.S. taxpayers and congressional appropriators.
In response to President Obama’s call for pursuing nuclear disarmament, the defense industry and Pentagon put forward a program for upgrading and modernizing all three legs of the so-called “Nuclear triad”: fixed land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), missiles launched from submarines, and nuclear-armed missiles and bombs carried on long-range aircraft. The three weapons delivery systems the Government is pursuing will generate contracts costing tens of billions of dollars. The initial contracts, including $13 billion to Northrop-Grumman, already approach $50 billion. The overall budget for the 25 years of the project is difficult to assess, but is estimated to be in the range of two trillion dollars.
This business depends on continuation of the nuclear arms race. Treaties which reduce the arsenals reduce the sales and maintenance of these weapons. That is, they cut the excessive profits of the nuclear weapons industry.
The industry is awash in cash, since payments from the U.S. government don’t bounce and include a variety of overhead funds for “communications” and “public relations.” As a result, the industry is able to spend tens of millions to influence Congress, as documented by William Hartung and colleagues at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Members of the Armed Services Committee are among leaders who routinely receive defense contractor funds; the chairs take in contributions totaling many hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Similarly, think tanks and university programs devoted to the “study” of détente, foreign relations and military strategy are supported by the industry. In Massachusetts, industry members such as Raytheon generously support the Girl Scouts, Walk for Hunger, and other programs calculated to win public support and insulate them from public criticism.
A sharp example of a tiny fraction of our population setting polices that put the entire nation at risk is the “ICBM lobby” which includes U.S. representatives from the states hosting ICBM sites — Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. The ICBM force of 400 giant Minuteman III missiles is the most dangerous of the three legs of the nuclear triad. The missiles are in known, fixed positions. If an attack is detected, they can’t be moved. U.S. policy is to fire rather than lose them. Once launched, they can’t be reversed. They serve no national security purpose but rather actively decrease national security.
Of course, the profits from their manufacture were made years back. Thus, the industry and its extensive lobbying apparatus actively support replacing them with a new generation of ICBMs, just as vulnerable, just as destabilizing. The Air Force has been awarding contracts which will total close to $100 billion for a new generation of land-based missiles. Many of these taxpayer-funded contracts will go to a few corporations, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other nuclear weapons contractors.
The upgraded nuclear weapons — whether fixed in silos, on submarines or carried by bombers — are all described as more reliable, more accurate and more lethal than their predecessors. From the point of view of Russia or China, they resemble weapons designed for a first strike — to eliminate the opponent’s deterrent force. One consequence is that U.S. “adversaries” then decide that their nuclear forces need upgrading too. A new nuclear arms race can only increase the chance of an inadvertent or intended nuclear exchange.
The Dangers of Upgrading Nuclear Weapons Systems
However, even if the weapons are never used, their $2 trillion price tag will undermine the civilian economy. The lives lost from inadequate heath care and pandemic responses, from inadequate housing, from polluted water, will not be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) costs. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first pointed out, the bombs dropped abroad eventually take their toll at home. Thus, a few months ago, Congress tacked on $40 billion to the 2023 NDAA, bringing it up to well over $800 billion more than 50 percent of the entire congressional discretionary budget. But they couldn’t find $5 billion for insuring universal vaccination and protection from COVID-19. In fact, the weapons budgets are a major factor in the growth of economic inequality in the U.S., since taxes from hundreds of millions of low- and middle-income Americans are transferred to contracts whose benefits are reaped by a tiny fraction of the population.
Given the implicit and explicit threats traded by world leaders about the possible use of nuclear weapons, readers might doubt the availability of a path to continued negotiation. In fact, the Biden administration has insisted it is open to talks to extending the New START treaty and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said that such negotiations are long overdue.
Withdrawing from nuclear weapons treaties puts our entire nation — and the world — at increased risk of nuclear war. Counter to recent Federal Emergency Management Agency educationals, going inside or underground will not protect those in the many miles-wide blast zone. They will be quickly incinerated by the intense heat and firestorms that accompany nuclear explosions. The ensuing nuclear winter caused by ash and debris thrown into the atmosphere by the blasts will block out the sunlight for years to come and lead to the death of billions more.
It will be a great human tragedy if our society allows a tiny number of greedy individuals to put our entire population at grave risk of catastrophic damage and suffering. The first step is to start voting out those elected officials who support these suicidal policies.
Jonathan Alan King is professor emeritus of molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he chairs the annual “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” conferences. He also serves as co-chair of the board of Massachusetts Peace Action and assistant chair of its Nuclear Disarmament Working Group.