A couple of years after we were married, Maureen and I were well on the way to raising a family in Brooklyn, NY. With a house, two daughters (eventually 3), the future was before us. It was also the height of the Cold War. That was the time when the U.S. was at the zenith of their – our – ideological war for the future. With nuclear war, it meant the future of mankind. At that time, I recall reading a Scientific American published book about the number of warheads the two countries had. It was an eye opener. Ban the Bomb protests sprang up, but we were busy raising a family and the nuclear standoff seemed a minor concern. Life, fortunately, went on.
When I was growing up, we practiced hiding under school desks in case of a nuclear attack. We were told that the Russian Bear was at the door promising to bury us. The only saving grace was those awesome nuclear missiles were ready to wipe them out before they could wipe us out. Our kids were not taught that. Desks would not protect them as both countries would be wiped out. We needed to make their world better than that.
Around the early 1970’s the U.S. had over 30,000 nuclear warheads primed and ready to be launched to or dropped on the U.S.S.R. (or Russia as we knew it then) or any other country. Thirty Thousand! One of the main problems for the defense department at the time was selecting targets for all these warheads. Each warhead could destroy a small city. Where do you target? The enemy’s missiles! After that, their airfields, military bases, their naval ships, their oil supplies, their power stations, their communication stations, their military headquarters, their government headquarters, their major transportation hubs, their roads, railways and airports, their major cities, their farms, their towns, their villages, their outhouses. Great! What about the remaining 20,000 warheads? Where do you target them?
A few years later, both sides came to realize that: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, Ronald Reagan, 1984. The tremendous cost of this armament was staggering. It actually lead, along with other factors, to the fall of the “bear” when the USSR fell apart despite the dramatic reductions that negotiated treaties brought about.
How this all developed and the rational for it is the subject of Bill Perry’s (former Defense Department Secretary) new book The Button. Today the U.S has about 1,600 warheads on the three means of delivery – missiles, bombers, submarines. But the same problems exist. One U.S. submarine can place 2 nuclear warheads on each of 50 largest cities. Nuclear war is still neither winnable nor should every be waged. The results of using them are too catastrophic to contemplate as witnessed by their non-use in all the undeclared “wars” we waged since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, the question Perry asks is why do we still have so many of them, if at all? Besides the accidental use (please read the book Command and Control for the heart stopping near catastrophes of human and mechanical error involving nuclear bombs), and the fact the President can launch on a whim, there is no rational reason, other than a very much smaller “retaliation and deterrent” force.
Besides the Military Industrial Complex which obviously profits from the present system, the main reason is the public’s inattention to the tremendous burden and risks these imposes on the country. Do away with all ICBM’s (and still have plenty of bombers and subs) and you can go a long way to solving our infrastructure (or other) problems.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. April 2019:
“I think a deterrent policy, having enough nuclear weapons to ensure that nobody launches a nuclear weapon at you because you have sufficient deterrent, I think we can do that with fewer warheads,” Smith said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s annual nuclear arms forum. “I’m not sure whether that means getting rid of one leg of the triad or simply reducing the amount in each leg.”
If Congress curtails GBSD [Ground Based Strategic Defense], that could mean billions of dollars in lost profits for [the two private contractors]…
The Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office previously estimated the total cost of the program as anywhere from $85 billion to $100 billion.
It is now 2020; seventy-five years after the first and only time nuclear bombs were used in combat. Fifty years after the height of a cold war when we realized that these weapons would only be used to destroy our civilization. Twenty-five years after our prime military enemy agreed that nuclear wars can not be won or fought. And yet here we are, continuing to act, support, and spend billions believing it is rational and needed. This belief (with religious fervor), in itself, convinces other states to work toward joining the nuclear club (which the U.S. opposes!).
Did I envision back in the 1970’s that our children and our grandchildren would continue to live in a world in instant annihilation? Would they be traveling down the same road? Would there be a need for a book that explained the same insanity 50 years hence? What enlightenment has there been?
Sometimes progress leads to dead ends and where one must turn around and find a way out. Is this the time to turn around or will we continue to have faith in a belief that catastrophes will not happen because they haven’t happened yet? As Clint Eastwood once said, “Do you feel lucky today?”