May/June 2005
Foreign Policy

Apocalypse Soon

. . . the United States must no longer rely on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool. To do so is immoral, illegal and dreadfully dangerous.

by Robert S. McNamara

It is time - well past time, in my view - for the United States to cease its Cold War-style reliance on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool. At the risk of appearing simplistic and provocative, I would characterize current US nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high. Far from reducing these risks, the Bush administration has signaled that it is committed to keeping the US nuclear arsenal as a mainstay of its military power - a commitment that is simultaneously eroding the international norms that have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials for 50 years. Much of the current US nuclear policy has been in place since before I was secretary of defense, and it has only grown more dangerous and diplomatically destructive in the intervening years. . . .

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is well known, but given the United States' continued reliance on them, it's worth remembering the danger they present. A 2000 report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War describes the likely effects of a single 1 megaton weapon - dozens of which are contained in the Russian and US inventories. At ground zero, the explosion creates a crater 300 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter. Within one second, the atmosphere itself ignites into a fireball more than a half-mile in diameter. The surface of the fireball radiates nearly three times the light and heat of a comparable area of the surface of the sun, extinguishing in seconds all life below and radiating outward at the speed of light, causing instantaneous severe burns to people within one to three miles. A blast wave of compressed air reaches a distance of three miles in about 12 seconds, flattening factories and commercial buildings. Debris carried by winds of 250 mph inflicts lethal injuries throughout the area. At least 50 percent of people in the area die immediately, prior to any injuries from radiation or the developing firestorm. . . .

I have worked on issues relating to US and NATO nuclear strategy and war plans for more than 40 years. During that time, I have never seen a piece of paper that outlined a plan for the United States or NATO to initiate the use of nuclear weapons with any benefit for the United States or NATO. I have made this statement in front of audiences, including NATO defense ministers and senior military leaders, many times. No one has ever refuted it. To launch weapons against a nuclear-equipped opponent would be suicidal. To do so against a nonnuclear enemy would be militarily unnecessary, morally repugnant, and politically indefensible. . . .

In addition to projecting the deployment of large numbers of strategic nuclear weapons far into the future, the Bush administration is planning an extensive and expensive series of programs to sustain and modernize the existing nuclear force and to begin studies for new launch vehicles, as well as new warheads for all of the launch platforms. Some members of the administration have called for new nuclear weapons that could be used as bunker busters against underground shelters (such as the shelters Saddam Hussein used in Baghdad). . . .

Good faith participation in international negotiation on nuclear disarmament - including participation in the CTBT - is a legal and political obligation of all parties to the NPT that entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995. The Bush administration's nuclear program, alongside its refusal to ratify the CTBT, will be viewed, with reason, by many nations as equivalent to a US break from the treaty. It says to the nonnuclear weapons nations, "We, with the strongest conventional military force in the world, require nuclear weapons in perpetuity, but you, facing potentially well-armed opponents, are never to be allowed even one nuclear weapon." . . .

We are at a critical moment in human history - perhaps not as dramatic as that of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a moment no less crucial. Neither the Bush administration, the congress, the American people, nor the people of other nations have debated the merits of alternative, long-range nuclear weapons policies for their countries or the world. They have not examined the military utility of the weapons; the risk of inadvertent or accidental use; the moral and legal considerations relating to the use or threat of use of the weapons; or the impact of current policies on proliferation. Such debates are long overdue. If they are held, I believe they will conclude, as have I and an increasing number of senior military leaders, politicians, and civilian security experts: We must move promptly toward the elimination - or near elimination - of all nuclear weapons. For many, there is a strong temptation to cling to the strategies of the past 40 years. But to do so would be a serious mistake leading to unacceptable risks for all nations.


[Robert S. McNamara served as U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961 until 1968]

Enver Masud, "U.S. Violating Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," The Wisdom Fund, March 11, 2003

Guy Dinmore, "Neocons Turn Their Attention to Iran," Financial Times, January 18, 2005

Jimmy Carter, "Saving Nonproliferation," Washington Post, March 28, 2005

Patrick J. Buchanan, "Bye-Bye, Bush Doctrine: It's back to deterrence,", May 4, 2005

Simon Tisdall, "Nuclear double standards," Guardian, May 4, 2005

Gordon Prather, "Iran Defends the NPT,", May 7, 2005

Jude Wanniski, "The Bush-Bolton Plan to Bomb Bushehr,", May 14, 2005

Dilip Hiro and Tom Engelhardt, "The Iran Crisis in Global Context," Tom Dispatch, May 14, 2005

Haider Rizvi, "Israeli Arsenal Vexes Nuclear Negotiators,", May 21, 2005

Reuven Pedatzur, "The U.S. removes the nuclear brakes," Haaretz, May 26, 2005

"2005 NPT Review Conference," UN, May 2-27, 2005

Charles J. Hanley, "No Nonproliferation Plan Offered: 188-Nation Talks on Nuclear Arms Fail to Produce Consensus," Associated Press, May 28, 2005

"Former top military brass say nuclear deterrent useless," AFP, January 16, 2009

[This was the biggest lie in the history of threat inflation and remains so to this day. At the moment when Kennedy, McNamara at his elbow, was flaying the Eisenhower administration for the infamous "gap", the U.S. government from its spy planes that the Soviet Union had precisely one missile silo with an untested missile in it. The Russians knew that the US knew this, because they were fully primed about about the U-2 spy-plane overflights, most dramatically when U-2 pilot Gary Powers crashed near Sverdlovsk and told all to his captors

So when President Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, took power in 1961, became privy to all intelligence from the spy flights, and announced  that the U.S. was going to build 1000 ICBMs the Russians concluded that the US planned to wipe out the Soviet Union and immediately began a missile-building program of their own. So McNamara played a crucial, enabling role in the arms race in nuclear missiles. Before the "missile gap" it has been a "bomber race".--Alexander Cockburn, "McNamara: From the Tokyo Firestorm to the World Bank,", July 7, 2009]

Gareth Porter, "Robert McNamara deceived LBJ on Gulf of Tonkin, documents show,", July 8, 2009

[Nuclear weapons are often compared to a white elephant. A better comparison might be to a giant T. rex; one could possible imagine a use for such a creature in extreme situations, but by and large it only serves as an unduly sensitive and enormously destructive creature whose powers are waiting to be unleashed on to the world. Having the beast around is just not worth its supposed benefits anymore, especially when most of these benefits are only perceived and have been extrapolated from a sample size of one.--Asutosh Jogalekar, "Nuclear weapons didn’t end World War II!,", January 14, 2013]

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