Today's New York Times Book Review features a somewhat contemptuous review of a new book by Paul Lettow about Ronald Reagan and nuclear weapons by Jacob Heilbrunn, a conservative scholar. Without actually disputing Lettow's main argument--that Reagan really wanted to abolish the weapons that had burst upon the scene when he was in his late thirties, and hung over the rest of his life--Heilbrunn suggests that the book is another piece of liberal revisionism seeking to claim the legacy of a conservative President. I do not think that is fair; Reagan spoke publicly about his wish to abolish nuclear weapons, offered nuclear disarmament to Mikhail Gorbachev and Rekjavik (to the despair of his advisers), and frequently mentioned this goal to arms control negotiators. More importantly, however, the book does highlight a critical choice facing the world that is on the verge of a great global crisis.
Even before Hiroshima, the few leading American policy makers who knew about the advent of atomic weapons understood the need to control them in a postwar environment. The United States could not long maintain its monopoly--the basic science behind the weapon was well known, and other nations would inevitably get to work on the engineering problems involved as soon as one went off--and a whole war fought with these weapons seemed unthinkable. Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, immediately began thinking about bringing them under international control, and within two years the United States had offered the Acheson-Lillienthal Plan at the new United Nations to do just that. Stalin, who preferred to build his own atomic weapons, rejected it, and set off an atomic expolosion in 1949 (although we know now that he did not have a workable weapon for several years thereafter.) The British and French quickly decided that true great-power status now required atomic weapons as well. Officially, however, nuclear disarmament remained American policy throughout the 1950s, even though it was never seriously pursued. After the Soviet explosion, George F. Kennan argued in a memorable but little-known memo that the use of atomic weapons in an actual war could not possibly serve the interests of the United States, and that we should work for their abolition. Instead, the argument of Kennan's intellectual rival and successor at the State Department, Paul Nitze--that arms control agreements with the Soviets would have to await fundamental changes in their regime--prevailed.
Interest in arms control grew in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the danger of fallout became apparent, leading in 1963 to the test ban treaty. More importantly, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the Nonproliferation Treaty (or NPT) between 1965 and 1968, and eventually most of the world's nations (although not the French or the Chinese) signed the treaty, in which nuclear powers pledged not to transfer nuclear weapons and non-nuclear states pledged not to try to acquire them. What everyone seems to have forgotten, however, is that the treaty also included a pledge on the part of nuclear powers to work for their own disarmament. Given the importance of this issue today, the passage deserves to be quoted in full. "Each of the Parties to the Treaty," Article VI reads, "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
Building upon the spirit of the Treaty, Moscow and Washington embarked upon the SALT talks in 1969 and reached the SALT I agreement in 1972, and the SALT II agreement a few years later. Neither one, of course, even provided for an actual reduction in warheads, much less disarmament, and other nuclear powers were not involved in them. But the years of SALT corresponded with the rise of neoconservatism, which held tightly to the original Nitze view that the Soviets would only sign arms control agreements that left them in a superior position. As the 1970s wore on, neoconservatives increasingly argued that arms control agreements were a snare and a delusion, that they lulled the US into a false sense of security, and that the United States needed strategic nuclear superiority to confront the Soviets. That view dominated the first Reagan Administration. More importantly, it remains the view of the neoconservatives who dominate American foreign policy today.
In the early 1990s China and France also signed the NPT, and the whole treaty was reaffirmed by all its signatories in 1995. (India, Israel and Pakistan have still never signed.) Sadly, however, the Clinton Administration let slip the great opportunity of the 1990s to move the whole world in a new direction. Even before 9/11, the advent of the current Adminstration, which moved very quickly to denounce the ABM Treaty, signalled a new neoconservative ascendancy and an end to any interest in arms control. The Administration also embarked upon a confrontational policy with two Treaty signatories, Iran and North Korea, suspected of developing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have responded by denouncing the treaty, and, this week, claiming to have already produced nuclear weapons.
The Nonproliferation policy of the Bush administration is clearly stated in its basic national security strategy. "Rogue states," it claims, cannot be deterred like the old Soviet Union. The United States must improve its intelligence and military capabilities so as to act preemptively to prevent hostile states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place.
The premise that small states, unlike large ones, cannot be deterred, is an entirely theoretical one. The panic reflected in the new strategy is not new. Both the Truman Administation in 1949-50, when the Soviets first exploded an atomic weapon, and the Johnson Administration in 1964-5, when the Chinese did, flirted with the idea of preventive war. It is fair to say that American policy-makers at those two moments in history had no more trust in the intentions or sanity of Stalin and Mao than the Bush Administration seems to have in the Iranian or North Korean leadership now. The Johnson Administration even tried to start a discussion with the Soviets about an attack on the Chinese nuclear capability, without result. But in both cases, we discovered, largely for lack of any options, that we could live with nuclear weapons in Communist hands. Largely because the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Americans were three of the big winners emerging from the Second World War, and were more intersted in conserving the fruits of victory than risking a new conflict, deterrence worked.
Now, however, the Cold War structure of international politics has collapsed, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a potent political force, and a decade or two of conflict will probably be required to create a new international order. Yet in my opinion, the idea that the United States will simply wage war on hostile states who try to acquire nuclear weapons is disastrous. To begin with, it is not at all clear that we could gather enough intelligence or strike with enough precision to take out North Korean or Iranian facilities. The Israeli experiment with pre-emptive counterproliferation against Iraq taught other would-be nuclear powers to hide and protect their installations. If indeed North Korea has a nuclear bomb already--something of which I am not convinced, but which is certainly possible--it is very unlikely that we could avoid the catastrophe of enemy retaliation against South Korea or even Japan. The Bush Administration is actually trying to develop new nuclear weapons of our own, partly for the purpose of taking out underground installations. But if we do break the taboo against using nuclear weapons, we will obviously increase the possibility that they will be used against us or our allies, and alienate most of world opinion.
Acheson, Lillienthal and Bernard Baruch realized in 1946 that any attempt to control nuclear weapons had to rest upon impartial principles, and so, apparently, did the negotiators of the Nonproliferation Treaty. In my opinion the same is true today. If the United States really wants to stop the spread of nuclear arms we should reaffirm the call for their abolition and pledge, in principle, to giving up our own when an effective control regime has been established. One can say without cynicism that we do not have to fear having to make good on that pledge very soon; one can also say that without such a pledge, in an ideologically fragmenting world of which the United States has already lost ideological and moral leadership, no non-proliferation regime of our own choosing is likely to command international support.
Such views, I think, will become commonplace after a few nuclear weapons have gone off in anger. The United States has no reason to wait until then to adopt them--all the more so since, with the possible exception of Israel, no nation has more to fear from their continued existence at this moment in history than the United States. Our conventional military supremacy is both greater in scale and more useful in practice than our nuclear weapons. We need to make the nuclear weapons that already exist, especially in Russia, more secure. We need to try to reduce their spread. The political will to accomplish these critical tasks will be much greater around the world if we can offer humankind the prospect, of which Ronald Reagan genuinely dreamed, of a world without nuclear weapons, rather than in world in which the United States, the first and only nation to drop them in anger, will always jealousy guard the right to do so again.