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“Uncontroversial” Mass Destruction

“There are two sets of scenarios in which a US president might order a nuclear strike. The first is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial: launching a retaliatory attack after or during an enemy nuclear attack.”

Richard Betts and Matthew Waxman, who wrote this sentence in Foreign Affairs magazine, ignore military, scientific and humanitarian exposés, reports and confessions that have unified most of the world against any and all use of nuclear weapons. After decades of well-documented analysis of their effects, the bland assertion that war with nuclear weapons would be “uncontroversial” betrays ignorance of the literature or the deliberate use of disinformation, or both.

International stigmatization of the Bomb (outside nuclear weapons states) reached an extraordinary milestone last July 7 when the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading to their total elimination. With painstakingly research, the International Committee of the Red Cross was instrumental in informing the Ban Treaty negotiators that no state or international body could ever adequately address the inevitable, irreversible and catastrophic health effects of even a limited nuclear attack.

Betts and Waxman today sound much like presidential advisor and Cold War hawk Paul Nitze, whose 1956 article “Atoms, Strategy & Policy” in the same magazine considered “massive retaliation” versus “graduated deterrence.” Dr. Nitze wrote then: “The main point at issue between the two concepts is the reliance which should be placed upon the capacity to bomb centers of population and industry with nuclear weapons.”

Dr. Nitze, a life-long proponent of nuclear weapons, stunningly reversed himself in 1999 by completely rejecting US nuclear war policy. In a New York Times op/ed titled “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves” Nitze wrote, “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them … adds nothing to our security. I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us.”

Nitze’s show-stopping message—upending decades of deterrence theory—was that nukes are needless and self-destructive “even in retaliation for their prior use against us.” With it, Nitze (pre-) demolished the lie by Betts and Waxman that nuclear retaliation is generally accepted and lacks controversy. Nitze was right to reject every excuse to use the Bomb, as are the other US nuclear “trigger men” who have done the same.

Air Force General George Butler, a former chief of Strategic Air Command and its Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (which does US nuclear war planning), shocked the world Dec. 4, 1996, when he renounced his work at the National Press Club saying, that nuclear weapons are “morally indefensible” and should be abolished. In March 1999, a few months before Nitze’s reversal, Gen. Butler said, “Nuclear weapons are not weapons at all. They are insanely destructive agents of physical and genetic terror… They’re some species of biological time bombs whose effects transcend time and space, poisoning the earth and its inhabitants for generations.”

In 1998, 60 retired generals and admirals from around the world joined Gen. Butler in calling for the stand-down and elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Yet today’s coldblooded threats by “respectable” officials of detonating nuclear weapons against North Korea, ignores their shattering consequences, and denies the illegality of perpetrating massacres.

The new national security advisor John Bolton has even advocated the “legality” of a pre-emptive nuclear first strike against North Korea, as if (attorney Kary Love reminds us) Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor was legal. (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/03/28/if-john-bolton-is-right-pearl-harbor-was-perfectly-legal) Yet the National Academy of Sciences warned 30 years ago that “the primary mechanisms for human fatalities would likely not be from blast effects, not from thermal radiation burns, and not from ionizing radiation, but, rather, from mass starvation.”

The claim that retaliation with H-bombs is “uncontroversial” and Bolton’s call for unprovoked genocidal aggression fly in the face of binding US treaty law including the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions which forbid indiscriminate attacks and any use whatsoever of poisoned weapons. UN General Assembly Resolution 1653 declared 57 years ago: “Any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, asking contrary to the laws of humanity, and as committing a crime against [hu]mankind and civilization.”

Betts, Waxman and Bolton gloss over, deny or simply wish away these unanswerable lessons, teaching everyone that mass destruction isn’t controversial—a lesson our gun-crazy country needs to unlearn.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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