Try a Little Nuclear Sanity

by LAWRENCE S. WITTNER

On February 8, 2012, Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act (H.R. 3974). This SANE Act would cut $100 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next ten years by reducing the current fleet of U.S. nuclear submarines, delaying the purchase of new nuclear submarines, reducing the number of ICBMs, delaying a new bomber program, and ending the nuclear mission of air bombers.

“America’s nuclear weapons budget is locked in a Cold War time machine,” noted Markey, the senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “It doesn’t reflect our twenty-first-century security needs. It makes no sense. It’s insane.” He went on to explain: “It’s insane to spend $10 billion building new plants to make uranium and plutonium for new nuclear bombs when we’re cutting our nuclear arsenal and the plants we have now work just fine.” Furthermore: “It’s insane that we’re going to spend $84 billion for up to fourteen new nuclear submarines when just one sub, with 96 nuclear bombs on board, can blow up every major city in Iran, China and North Korea.” Finally, “it is insane to spend hundreds of billions on new nuclear bombs and delivery systems . . . while . . . seeking to cut Medicare, Medicaid and social programs that millions of Americans depend on.”

Since its introduction, the SANE Act has picked up significant support. Not surprisingly, it is backed by major peace and disarmament organizations, such as Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the Ploughshares Foundation. But it has also attracted the support of the National Council of Churches, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Indeed, the SANE Act now has 45 Congressional co-sponsors.

In light of the vast and very costly nuclear weapons enterprise operated by the U.S. government, cutting the nuclear weapons budget makes a lot of sense. The U.S. government currently possesses over five thousand nuclear weapons and, as the New York Times noted in a caustic editorial late last October (“The Bloated Nuclear Weapons Budget”): “The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade.”

Of course, if America’s vast nuclear arsenal were absolutely necessary to protect U.S. national security, the case for maintaining it would be strengthened. But, with the exception of Russia, no nuclear-armed nation has more than a few hundred nuclear weapons. It is not even clear what military or deterrent purpose is served by maintaining an arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons. As Congressman Markey observed: The “U.S. nuclear arsenal could destroy the world five times over.” The New York Times concluded that the United States “does not need to maintain this large an arsenal,” and “it should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs.”

The real nuclear threat to the United States does not lie in the fact that it does not (or will not) possess enough nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack. Rather, it is that there is no guarantee that nuclear deterrence works. That is why the U.S. government is so worried about North Korea possessing a few nuclear weapons or Iran possibly obtaining a few. That is also why the U.S. government squanders billions of dollars every year on a “missile defense” shield that is probably ineffective. The grim reality is that, if governments are reckless or desperate, they will use nuclear weapons or perhaps give them to terrorists to attack their foes. While nuclear weapons exist, there is always a danger that they will be used.

Thus, what has made the United States safer in this dangerous world has not been piling up endless numbers of nuclear weapons but, rather, nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example — by trading promises of the nuclear powers to disarm for promises of the non-nuclear powers to forgo nuclear weapons development — has persuaded the vast majority of nations not to develop nuclear weapons. In this fashion, the willingness of the U.S. government to decrease its nuclear arsenal (something it has done, although reluctantly) has made Americans safer from nuclear attack by other nations.

As a result of patient U.S. diplomacy, even the leaders of North Korea, one of the worst-governed countries in the world, seem to have shown glimmers of sanity in recent weeks. In late February, they announced that, thanks to an agreement with the U.S. government, they would suspend nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, as well as allow international inspection of their nuclear facilities.

If even the government of North Korea can manage to display a measure of common sense, then is it too much to ask our own government to do the same? Our leaders in Washington could join Representative Markey and his Congressional allies in cutting back the U.S. government’s vast and expensive nuclear doomsday machine and using the savings to provide for the needs of the American people. Surely it’s time to try a little nuclear sanity.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).

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