is a dialogue of the blind with the deaf. Deterrence invokes death
on a scale rivalling the power of the creator.
have two roles to serve in this article. I intend
to address two matters that go to the heart of the debate over
the role of nuclear weapons: why these artifacts of the cold war
continue to hold us in thrall; and the severe penalties and risks
entailed by policies of deterrence as practised in the nuclear
respect to legitimizing the prospect of abolition, there is much
to applaud on the positive side of the ledger. Nuclear issues now
compete more strongly for the attention of policy makers and the
media that often shapes their interest. Converts are being won on
many fronts to the propositions, that nuclear arsenals can and should
be sharply reduced, that high alert postures are a dangerous anachronism,
that first-use policies are an affront to democratic values, and
that proliferation of nuclear weapons is a clear and present danger.
In every corner of the planet, the tide of public sentiment is now
running strongly in favour of diminishing the role of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, I am convinced that most publics are well out in front of
their governments in shaking off the grip of the cold war and reaching
for opportunities that emerge in its wake.
it is distressingly evident that for many people nuclear weapons
retain an aura of utility, of primacy and of legitimacy that justifies
their existence well into the future, in some number, however small.
The persistence of this view, which is perfectly reflected in the
recently announced modification of us nuclear weapons policy, lies
at the core of the concern that moves me so deeply. This abiding
faith in nuclear weapons was inspired and is sustained by a catechism
instilled over many decades by a priesthood which speaks with great
assurance and authority. I was for many years among the most avid
of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons. Like my contemporaries,
I was moved by fears and fired by beliefs that date back to the
earliest days of the atomic era. We lived through a terror-ridden
epoch punctuated by crises whose resolution held hostage the saga
of humankind. For us, nuclear weapons were the saviour that brought
an implacable foe to his knees in 1945 and held another at bay for
nearly half a century. We believed that superior technology brought
strategic advantage, that greater numbers meant stronger security,
and that the ends of containment justified whatever means were necessary
to achieve them.
are powerful beliefs. They cannot be lightly dismissed. Strong arguments
can be made on their behalf. Throughout my professional military
career, I shared them, I professed them and I put them into operational
practice. And now it is my burden to declare with all of the conviction
I can muster that in my judgement they served us extremely ill.
They account for the most severe risks and most extravagant costs
of the US-Soviet confrontation. They intensified and prolonged an
already acute ideological animosity. They spawned successive generations
of new and more destructive nuclear devices and delivery systems.
They gave rise to mammoth bureaucracies with gargantuan appetites
and global agendas. They incited primal emotions, spurred zealotry
and demagoguery, and set in motion forces of ungovernable scope
and power. Most importantly, these enduring beliefs, and the fears
that underlie them, perpetuate cold-war policies and practices that
make no strategic sense. They continue to entail enormous costs
and expose all humankind to unconscionable dangers. I find that
intolerable. Thus I cannot stay silent. I know too much of these
matters: the frailties, the flaws, the failures of policy and practice.
the same time, I cannot overstate the difficulty this poses for
me. No one who ever entered the nuclear arena left it with a fuller
understanding of its complexity or greater respect for those with
whom I served its purposes. I struggle constantly with the task
of articulating the evolution of my convictions without denigrating
or diminishing the motives and sacrifice of countless colleagues
with whom I lived the drama of the cold war. I ask them and you
to appreciate that my purpose is not to accuse, but to assess, to
understand and to propound the forces that birthed the grotesque
excesses and hazards of the nuclear age. For me, that assessment
meant first coming to grips with my experience and then coming to
terms with my conclusions.
I entered the nuclear arena I knew I had been thrust into a world
beset with tidal forces, towering egos, maddening contradictions,
alien constructs and insane risks. Its arcane vocabulary and apocalyptic
calculus defied comprehension. Its stage was global and its antagonists
locked in a deadly spiral of deepening rivalry. It was in every
respect a modern-day holy war, a cosmic struggle between the forces
of light and darkness. The stakes were national survival, and the
weapons of choice were eminently suited to this scale of malevolence.
opposing forces each created vast enterprises, each giving rise
to a culture of messianic believers infused with a sense of historic
mission and schooled in unshakeable articles of faith. As my own
career progressed, I was immersed in the work of all these cultures,
either directly in those of the Western world, or through penetrating
study of communist organizations, teachings and practices. My responsibilities
ranged from the highly subjective, such as assessing the values
and motivation of Soviet leadership, to the critically objective,
such as preparing weapons for operational launch. I became steeped
in the art of intelligence estimates, the psychology of negotiations,
the interplay of bureaucracies and the impulses of industry. I was
engaged in the labyrinthian conjecture of the strategist, the exacting
routines of the target planner and the demanding skills of the aircrew
and the missilier. I have been a party to their history, shared
their triumphs and tragedies, witnessed heroic sacrifice and catastrophic
failure of both men and machines. And in the end I came away from
it all with profound misgivings.
as I examined the course of this journey, as the lessons of decades
of intimate involvement took greater hold on my intellect, I came
to a set of deeply unsettling judgements. That from the earliest
days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war
have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it. That
the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists,
but the fate of humankind. That the likely consequences of nuclear
war have no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification.
And, therefore, that the threat to use nuclear weapons is indefensible.
judgements gave rise to an array of inescapable questions. If this
be so, what explained the willingness, no, the zeal, of legions
of cold warriors, civilian and military, not just to tolerate but
to multiply and to perpetuate such risks? By what authority do succeeding
generations of leaders in the nuclear weapons states usurp the power
to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet? Most urgently,
why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we
should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our
commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestation?
are not questions to be left to historians. The answers matter to
us now. They go to the heart of present-day policies and motivations.
They convey lessons with immediate implications for both contemporary
and aspiring nuclear states. As I distil them from the experience
of three decades in the nuclear arena, these lessons resolve into
two fundamental conclusions.
I have no other way to understand the willingness to condone nuclear
weapons except to believe they are the natural accomplice of visceral
enmity. They thrive in the emotional climate born of utter alienation
and isolation. The unbounded wantonness of their effects is a perfect
companion to the urge to destroy completely. They play on our deepest
fears and pander to our darkest instincts. They corrode our sense
of humanity, numb our capacity for moral outrage, and make thinkable
the unimaginable. What is anguishingly clear is that these fears
and enmities are no respecter of political systems or values. They
prey on democracies and totalitarian societies alike, shrinking
the norms of civilized behaviour and dimming the prospects for escaping
the savagery so powerfully imprinted in our genetic code. That should
give us great pause as we imagine the task of abolition in a world
that gives daily witness to acts of unspeakable barbarism. So should
it compound our resolve.
EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT
this conclusion is palpable, but, as I said at the outset of these
remarks, for much of my life I saw it differently. That was a product
of both my citizenry and my profession. From the early years of
my childhood and through much of my military service I saw the Soviet
Union and its allies as a demonic threat, an evil empire bent on
global domination. I was commissioned as an officer in the United
States Air Force as the cold war was heating to a fever pitch. This
was a desperate time that evoked on both sides extreme responses
in policy, in technology and in force postures: bloody purges and
political inquisitions; covert intelligence schemes that squandered
lives and subverted governments; atmospheric testing with little
understanding or regard for the long-term effects; threats of massive
nuclear retaliation to an ill-defined scope of potential provocations;
the forced march of inventive genius that ushered in the missile
age arm-in-arm with the capacity for spontaneous, global destruction;
reconnaissance aircraft that probed or violated sovereign airspace,
producing disastrous encounters; the menacing and perilous practice
of airborne alert bombers loaded with nuclear weapons.
the early 1960s, a superpower nuclear arms race was underway that
would lead to a ceaseless amassing of destructive capacity, spilling
over into the arsenals of other nations. Central Europe became a
powder keg trembling under the shadow of Armageddon, hostage to
a bizarre strategy that required the prospect of nuclear devastation
as the price of alliance. The entire world became a stage for the
US-Soviet rivalry. International organizations were paralysed by
its grip. East-West confrontation dominated the nation-state system.
Every quarrel and conflict was fraught with potential for global
was the world that largely defined our lives as American citizens.
For those of us who served in the national security arena, the threat
was omnipresent, it seemed total, it dictated our professional preparation
and career progression, and cost the lives of tens of thousands
of men and women, in and out of uniform. Like millions of others,
I was caught up in the holy war, inured to its costs and consequences,
trusting in the wisdom of succeeding generations of military and
civilian leaders. The first requirement of unconditional belief
in the efficacy of nuclear weapons was early and perfectly met for
us: our homeland was the target of a consuming evil, poised to strike
without warning and without mercy.
remained for me, as my career took its particular course, was to
master the intellectual underpinning of America's response, the
strategic foundation that today still stands as the central precept
of the nuclear catechism. Reassessing its pervasive impact on attitudes
toward nuclear weapons goes directly to my second conclusion regarding
the willingness to tolerate the risks of the nuclear age.
all of my years as a nuclear strategist, operational commander and
public spokesman, I explained, justified and sustained America's
massive nuclear arsenal as a function, a necessity and a consequence
of deterrence. Bound up in this singular term, this familiar touchstone
of security dating back to antiquity, was the intellectually comforting
and deceptively simple justification for taking the most extreme
risks and the expenditure of trillions of dollars. It was our shield
and by extension our sword. The nuclear priesthood extolled its
virtues and bowed to its demands. Allies yielded grudgingly to its
dictates even while decrying its risks and costs. We brandished
it at our enemies and presumed they embraced its suicidal corollary
of mutually assured destruction. We ignored, discounted or dismissed
its flaws and cling still to the belief that deterrence is valid
in a world whose security architecture has been wholly transformed.
NOW I SEE IT
differently. Not in some blinding revelation, but at the end of
a journey, in an age of deliverance from the consuming tensions
of the cold war. Now, with the evidence more clear, the risks more
sharply defined and the costs more fully understood, I see deterrence
in a very different light. Appropriated from the lexicon of conventional
warfare, this simple prescription for adequate military preparedness
became in the nuclear age a formula for unmitigated catastrophe.
It was premised on a litany of unwarranted assumptions, unprovable
assertions and logical contradictions. It suspended rational thinking
about the ultimate aim of national security: to ensure the survival
of the nation.
is it that we subscribed to a strategy that required near perfect
understanding of an enemy from whom we were deeply alienated and
largely isolated? How could we pretend to understand the motivations
and intentions of the Soviet leadership without any substantive
personal association? Why did we imagine that a nation which had
survived successive invasions and mind-numbing losses would accede
to a strategy premised on fear of nuclear war? Deterrence in the
cold-war setting was fatally flawed at the most fundamental level
of human psychology in its projection of Western reason through
the crazed lens of a paranoid foe. Little wonder that intentions
and motives were consistently misread. Little wonder that deterrence
was the first victim of a deepening crisis, leaving the antagonists
to grope fearfully in a fog of mutual misperception. While we clung
to the notion that nuclear war could be reliably deterred, Soviet
leaders derived from their historical experience the conviction
that such a war might be thrust upon them and if so, must not be
lost. Driven by that fear, they took Herculean measures to fight
and survive no matter the odds or the costs. Deterrence was a dialogue
of the blind with the deaf. In the final analysis it was largely
a bargain we in the West made with ourselves.
was flawed equally in that the consequences of its failure were
intolerable. While the price of undeterred aggression in the age
of uniquely conventional weaponry could be severe, history teaches
that nations can survive and even prosper in the aftermath of unconditional
defeat. Not so in the nuclear era. Nuclear weapons give no quarter.
Their effects transcend time and place, poisoning the Earth and
deforming its inhabitants for generation upon generation. They leave
us wholly without defence, expunge all hope for meaningful survival.
They hold in their sway not just the fate of nations, but the very
meaning of civilization.
failed completely as a guide in setting rational limits on the size
and composition of military forces. To the contrary, its appetite
was voracious, its capacity to justify new weapons and larger stocks
unrestrained. Deterrence carried the seed, born of an irresolvable
internal contradiction, that spurred an insatiable arms race. Nuclear
deterrence hinges on the credibility to mount a devastating retaliation
under the most extreme conditions of war initiation. Perversely,
the redundant and survivable force required to meet this exacting
test is readily perceived by a darkly suspicious adversary as capable,
even designed, to execute a disarming first strike. Such advantage
can never be conceded between nuclear rivals. It must be answered,
reduced, nullified. Fears are fanned, the rivalry intensified. New
technology is inspired, new systems roll from production lines.
The correlation of force begins to shift, and the bar of deterrence
ratchets higher, igniting yet another cycle of trepidation, worst-case
assumptions and ever-mounting levels of destructive capability.
it was that the treacherous axioms of deterrence made seemingly
reasonable nuclear weapon stockpiles numbering in the tens of thousands.
Despite having witnessed the devastation wrought by two primitive
atomic devices, over the ensuing decades the superpowers gorged
themselves at the thermonuclear trough. A succession of leaders
on both sides of the East-West divide directed a reckless proliferation
of nuclear devices, tailored for delivery by a vast array of vehicles
to a stupefying array of targets. They nurtured, richly rewarded,
even revelled in the industrial base required to support production
at such levels.
WAS PART OF ALL THAT.
I was present at the creation of many of these systems, directly
responsible for prescribing and justifying the requirements and
technology that made them possible. I saw the arms race from the
inside, watched as intercontinental ballistic missiles ushered in
mutually assured destruction and multiple warhead missiles introduced
genuine fear of a nuclear first strike. I participated in the elaboration
of basing schemes that bordered on the comical and force levels
that in retrospect defied reason. I was responsible for war plans
with over 12,000 targets, many struck with repeated nuclear blows,
some to the point of complete absurdity. I was a veteran participant
in an arena where the most destructive power ever unleashed became
the prize in a no-holds-barred competition among organizations whose
principal interest was to enhance rather than constrain its application.
And through every corridor, in every impassioned plea, in every
fevered debate rang the rallying cry, deterrence, deterrence, deterrence.
nuclear weapons and actors multiplied, deterrence took on too many
names, too many roles, overreaching an already extreme strategic
task. Surely nuclear weapons summoned great caution in superpower
relationships. But as their numbers swelled, so mounted the stakes
of miscalculation, of a crisis spun out of control. The exorbitant
price of nuclear war quickly exceeded the rapidly depreciating value
of a tenuous mutual wariness. Invoking deterrence became a cheap
rhetorical parlour trick, a verbal sleight of hand. Proponents persist
in dressing it up to court changing times and temperaments, hemming
and re-hemming to fit shrinking or distorted threats.
is a slippery conceptual slope. It is not stable, nor is it static;
its wiles cannot be contained. It is both master and slave. It seduces
the scientist yet bends to his creation. It serves the ends of evil
as well as those of noble intent. It holds guilty the innocent as
well as the culpable. It gives easy semantic cover to nuclear weapons,
masking the horrors of employment with siren veils of infallibility.
At best it is a gamble no mortal should pretend to make. At worst
it invokes death on a scale rivalling the power of the creator.
it any wonder that at the end of my journey I am moved so strongly
to retrace its path, to examine more closely the evidence I would
not or could not see? I hear now the voices long ignored, the warnings
muffled by the still-lingering animosities of the cold war. I see
with painful clarity that from the very beginnings of the nuclear
era, the objective scrutiny and searching debate essential to adequate
comprehension and responsible oversight of its vast enterprises
were foreshortened or foregone. The cold light of dispassionate
scrutiny was shuttered in the name of security, doubts dismissed
in the name of an acute and unrelenting threat, objections overruled
by the incantations of the nuclear priesthood.
penalties proved to be severe. Vitally important decisions were
routinely taken without adequate understanding, assertions too often
prevailed over analysis, requirements took on organizational biases,
technological opportunity and corporate profit drove force levels
and capability, and political opportunism intruded on calculations
of military necessity. Authority and accountability were severed,
policy dissociated from planning, and theory invalidated by practice.
The narrow concerns of a multitude of powerful interests intruded
on the rightful role of key policy-makers, constraining their latitude
for decision. Many were simply denied access to critical information
essential to the proper exercise of their office.
time, planning was increasingly distanced and ultimately disconnected
from any sense of scientific or military reality. In the end, the
nuclear powers, great and small, created astronomically expensive
infrastructures, monolithic bureaucracies and complex processes
that defied control or comprehension. Only now are the dimensions,
costs and risks of these nuclear nether worlds coming to light.
What must now be better understood are the root causes, the mindsets
and the belief systems that brought them into existence. They must
be challenged, they must be refuted, but most importantly, they
must be let go. The era that gave them credence, accepted their
dominion and yielded to their excesses is fast receding.
IT IS NOT YET OVER.
Sad to say, the cold war lives on in the minds of those who cannot
let go the fears, the beliefs, and the enmities born of the nuclear
age. They cling to deterrence, clutch its tattered promise to their
breast, shake it wistfully at bygone adversaries and balefully at
new or imagined ones. They are gripped still by its awful willingness
not simply to tempt the apocalypse but to prepare its way.
better illustration of misplaced faith in nuclear deterrence than
the persistent belief that retaliation with nuclear weapons is a
legitimate and appropriate response to post-cold-war threats posed
by weapons of mass destruction. What could possibly justify our
resort to the very means we properly abhor and condemn? Who can
imagine our joining in shattering the precedent of non-use that
has held for over fifty years? How could America's irreplaceable
role as leader of the campaign against nuclear proliferation ever
be re-justified? What target would warrant such retaliation? Would
we hold an entire society accountable for the decision of a single
demented leader? How would the physical effects of the nuclear explosion
be contained, not to mention the political and moral consequences?
In a singular act we would martyr our enemy, alienate our friends,
give comfort to the non-declared nuclear states and impetus to states
who seek such weapons covertly. In short, such a response on the
part of the United States is inconceivable. It would irretrievably
diminish our priceless stature as a nation noble in aspiration and
responsible in conduct, even in the face of extreme provocation.
as a nation we have no greater responsibility than to bring the
nuclear era to a close. Our present policies, plans and postures
governing nuclear weapons make us prisoner still to an age of intolerable
danger. We cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and
hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it. We cannot hold hostage
to sovereign gridlock the keys to final deliverance from the nuclear
nightmare. We cannot withhold the resources essential to break its
grip, to reduce its dangers. We cannot sit in silent acquiescence
to the faded homilies of the nuclear priesthood. It is time to reassert
the primacy of individual conscience, the voice of reason and the
rightful interests of humanity.
Lee Butler's article is reprinted from Resurgence Magazine.For
a free sample copy, please contact:
Lynn Batten, Resurgence, Ford House, Hartland, Devon, EX39 6EE,
+ 44 (0) 1237 441293