The Ghost of Edward Teller Lives


According to John Kerry, the biggest danger that the US faces is nuclear proliferation. His fellow Democrat and media star, Barack Obama, agrees. In fact, Mr. Obama went on record saying he would support surgical missile strikes on Iran if it refused to concede to Washington’s demands that it end its nuclear project. As has been made plain in newspaper pages around the world (except for here in the United States), Iran has been cleared time and time again by the IAEA of any plans to use that program to build nuclear weapons. Obama went even further in his interview with the Chicago Tribune, stating that the US should take out Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if and when the current president was removed.

Now, I am near the front of the line when it comes to opposing the proliferation of weapons, nuclear and otherwise, but there’s some pretty obvious hypocrisy going on here. The US government is not opposed to nuclear weapons. It is opposed to regimes other than its friends having nuclear weapons. Indeed, Congress recently approved a program that would develop new nuclear weapons for use by the US military. These weapons are known as tactical nuclear weapons, although they have been given new, cuter names today-mini-nukes being the most popular. Fitting these weapons into the US arsenal and, more importantly, making their use acceptable to the US public, has been part of the Pentagon’s agenda since the 1950s.

Thanks to widespread opposition, however, they have never been built, except perhaps in the prototype phase. George Bush and company hope to change that. Although research has been ongoing for a few decades on this weaponry, it wasn’t until the summer of 2003 that serious discussions at a policymaking level began taking place. According to the BBC and other news sources, these mini-nukes (or “small build” weapons) were a primary topic of discussion at the so-called Stockpile Stewardship Conference that took place in mid-August of 2003. The conference, which took place at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, featured more than 100 scientists along with top military and other government officials. The intention of the meeting was how to upgrade the already deadly nuclear arsenal of the United States. Primary among the topics discussed were the Star Wars missile shield and these mini-nukes.

Don’t let the names fool you. Both of these weapons systems are not only deadly and, to most humans, immoral; they are also ridiculously expensive and unnecessary. The missile-defense shield’s fallibilities have been proven again and again. Indeed, various scientists testified to its uselessness and pointlessness this past weekend (October 2-3, 2004) at various conferences across Canada that coincided with nationwide protests against the system and Canada’s potential cooperation with its construction. Protestors and scientists alike pointed out the consistent test failures of the missile-defense shield and the fact that this system would, at best, provide minimal security. Most opponents also point to the high cost of the project and to the corporations who stand to profit from it. Of course, it is these same corporations who are taking advantage of US citizens’ fears to push this boondoggle through.

What about the mini-nukes? Also known as low-yield weapons, EPW’s, enhanced radiation weapons, and agent defeat weapons, their primary use would be on the battlefield and, even more ominously, in fortified areas of cities where military bunkers and other high-profile targets might be. Despite their name of “mini-nukes,” these weapons would not be mini by any stretch cc52ee.jpgof the word. They would pack five kilotons of power. According to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and many other anti-nuclear groups, the blast created by the largest of these weapons would be equivalent to the 15 kiloton bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Because the earth-penetrating version of the mini-nuke would not explode until it was underground, its blast radius would be 1-2 miles wide. Other weapons, depending on their construction, would be even more destructive.

Both Kerry and Bush spoke about preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons during their debate on September 30, 2004. John Kerry even called it the most serious threat facing the United States. Imagine what the rest of the world thinks when it hears that the United States is seriously considering the manufacture of a new generation of nuclear weapons. After all, not only does the US have the world’s largest existing nuclear arsenal, it has never stopped building them since it began this deadly dance with the atom. Furthermore, if one looks at the current Department of Energy budget, they will see that the dance is better funded than it has been in years. One item alone-the uranium enrichment fund-has increased from around $320,000,000 to over $500,000,000 just since 2003. Now, if one recalls Washington’s objections to Iran’s nuclear program, it centers on their uranium enrichment process, since it is this process that is required for nuclear weapons development.

So, why should Washington’s current enemies (and possible future enemies) stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons (if, indeed, they have such programs)? After all, if those US policymakers involved in this area are expanding their enrichment program and making statements like the following (found in the foreword to a policy statement entitled “Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century” that is authored by the Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Stephen M. Younger), doesn’t it make sense for them to develop their defenses as well?

The time is right for a fundamental rethinking of the role of nuclear weapons in national defense and of the composition of our nuclear forces. The Cold War is over, but it has been replaced by new threats to our national security. The nuclear age is far from over.

Like most documents of this type, the paper goes on to list potential threats to the US, Russia and China being foremost among them, and then attempts to explain how new nuclear technology could be used to thwart those threats. Deterrence is the primary strategy, with actual deployment of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction explained as a secondary potential. Of course, with or without their actual use, this type of thinking demands that the weapons be built, since their mere existence can be used as a deterrent to attack. So, either way, Lockheed Martin, General Electric and the rest of the merchants of death make their obscene profits from taxpayers’ money.

In one of his all-too-few moments of clear thought, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware made the following statement opposing the passage of a bill that allotted $9 billion for developing mini-nuke “bunker busters,” or Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator as the spiritual progeny of H-Bomb creator Edward Teller like to call these bombs.

These nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war. They begin to make nuclear war more “thinkable” as Herman Kahn might have said. But Herman Kahn’s book was “Thinking About the Unthinkable.” He understood that nuclear war was unthinkable, even as he demanded that we think about how to fight one if we had to. Looking at the foreign and defense policies of the current administration, I fear that they have failed to understand that vital point. They want to make nuclear war “thinkable.”

Building bunker busters and low-yield nuclear weapons is not a path to non-proliferation. Neither is a program to do R&D on such weapons, while Defense Department officials press our scientists to come up with reasons to build them.

Unfortunately, Mr. Biden’s sentiments seem to be in short supply in Washington, DC. The men and women running the country speak of collateral damage and war as casually as the Third Reich’s inner circle; nuclear weapons development has cost the nation’s people more than $6 trillion since 1946 (and that doesn’t include the cost to our health and other intangibles); and the current leadership on both sides of the aisle pursue a course of confrontation and conflict as if that will prevent nations that it opposes to give up their nuclear plans when virtually everyone in the world (who isn’t a US resident) understands that it is the possibility that those nations have nuclear capability that prevents the US from attacking them now.

In the early 1980s there was a worldwide movement opposed to nuclear proliferation, specifically, the deployment of US nuclear-equipped cruise missiles in Europe. This movement mobilized millions of people around the planet in opposition to nuclear weapons development and the cruise missile deployment. Unfortunately, the movement did not achieve all of its goals and we find ourselves once again at a crossroads. There is an incredibly hawkish mentality in DC now as there was then, and the government is controlled by men and women who profit from war and its tools, yet there is a movement opposed to these designs, too. The antinuclear movement in the 1980s was diverted by well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) activists connected to the Democratic Party-a turn of events that limited its success. The current movement against war and militarism faces a similar fate, as evidenced by the Anybody But Bush phenomenon that personalizes a policy of war and empire that has little to do with personalities and much to do with the needs and desires of the US economic and political system. It is up to that element of the current movement who understands this to get its message out there. The future turns on that ability.

(Thanks to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) website for links to documents and info.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: