Obama’s courageous plan to cut nuclear weapons stockpile

When I was in high school in the early 1960s, I shared a fear with most of my contemporaries about the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Most of the emphasis was on nuclear weapons, and we were scared of a catastrophic and cataclysmic war. Schools tried to allay students’ fears and convince them that if Soviet missiles were launched, everyone would be safe by using the “duck and cover” method of getting underneath their desks. That didn’t fool anyone.

It occurred to me that it might be more productive for the United States to focus less on increasing its nuclear stockpile and instead looking for a way to defend itself against incoming missiles. I wrote a letter to Missouri Senator Stuart Symington (a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee), urging him to diminish the growth of American nuclear warheads and instead to concentrate on defense against incoming missiles and bombers.

In an effort to make the case for defense, I used a baseball analogy. I said that if a batter hits a ball over the outfield fence, it is a home run. It didn’t matter whether the ball went 350 feet or 550 feet; the damage was the same; a four-bagger for the hitter. Similarly, it really wouldn’t matter whether the U.S. and the Soviet Union rained 10,000 or 50,000 nuclear warheads on one another; in either case everyone would be obliterated.

Following along with the baseball analogy, I suggested that the U.S. (as the home team) build its outfield fences as high as possible in order to keep the Soviets from penetrating our defenses and destroying us with a series of home runs. The Soviets could do the same, and if they did, we would all be safer.

What I was asking for later became known as an anti-ballistic missile system. In theory, it seemed like a good idea. Some twenty years later, during the administration of Ronald Reagan, the Pentagon actually proposed such a program and began research and development. Part of the motivation behind the program was to genuinely provide safety and security for the American people. But it didn’t take long to see that the anti-ballistic missiles were not going to work, as there was one failure after another in tests over the Pacific Ocean. But it was a program that the Soviets could not let the Americans begin without joining the fray. Many experts in both military strategy and economics saw that the burden of funding an effort to develop an anti-ballistic missile system was more for the Soviets than the Americans. In fact, it was more than the Soviets could handle. They were forced to take scarce resources from developing their domestic economy to try to develop a military program of dubious feasibility. By 1989, the Soviet economy was so top-heavy in military spending that internal unity dissolved. and the process of dividing the U.S.S.R. into seventeen separate republics irreversibly began.

Beginning in 1963, with the nuclear test ban treaty, the United States, U.S.S.R., and other nuclear powers began negotiating agreements to reduce the nuclear threat. Among the treaties were ones to reduce the nuclear arsenals of all countries.

In 2012, the Russian nuclear program is  a shadow of its former self. What worries Westerners as much as anything is a lack of security in guarding the nuclear facilities. There is persistent worry about terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons from Russia, either by blackmail or outright theft. Even if the weapons were secure, the threat of Russian destruction of any target or series of targets that it wanted would still exist. The same holds true for what the arsenal of the United States could do.

Recognizing that in all likelihood the U.S. has more weapons than it needs, the Associated Press reported on February 15, 2012 the thinking of President Barack Obama:

The Obama administration is weighing options for sharp cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons, The Associated Press has learned.

Even the most modest option now under consideration would be a historic and politically bold disarmament step in a presidential election year, although the plan is in line with President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons.

No decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, cutting to: 1,000 to 1,100; 700 to 800, and 300 to 400.

As might be expected, Republicans are sharply criticizing the president. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “These numbers represent another step by this administration blindly down the road to zero, all without a single reduction in arms from others around the world, or a thawing of the overall threat environment we live in today.”

The issue of nuclear disarmament always begins with the question of whether a country takes action unilaterally or works to negotiate a multi-lateral agreement. It appears that President Obama is willing to support unilateral action, although that would clearly be subject to change. What is important to recognize is that in an era in which primary concern about nuclear weapons is preventing rogue states or factions from acquiring them, President Obama sees the key to security as being reducing the number of weapons in the global stockpile. It’s a position that is not likely to win him many political points, but he gets considerable credit for addressing such an important issue in a courageous way.