George Bush's Addiction to Nuclear Weapons

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition (Stanford University Press).

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George W. Bush might have kicked his alcohol and drug habits, but he still appears to have at least one serious addiction--to nuclear weapons.

Last year, Congress refused to fund the administration's ambitious proposal for new nuclear weapons, largely because both Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed that the world would be a safer place with fewer—rather than more--nuclear explosives in existence.

But, undeterred by last year's rebuff, the Bush administration recently returned to Congress with a proposal for funding a new generation of "usable" nuclear weapons. These weapons are the so-called "bunker busters." Despite the rather benign name, the "bunker buster" is an exceptionally devastating weapon, with an explosive power of from several hundred kilotons to one megaton (i.e. a thousand kilotons). To put this in perspective, it should be recalled that the nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki had explosive yields of from 14 to 21 kilotons. "These weapons will bust more than a bunker," remarked U.S. Senator Jack Reed. "The area of destruction will encompass an area the size of a city. They are really city breakers."

In addition, the Bush administration has requested funding for the "Reliable Replacement Warhead." If continued beyond the planning stage, this program would lead to the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading U.S. nuclear warheads and might result in the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, which has not occurred since 1992.

Of course, it is not unusual for the leaders of nation states to crave nuclear weapons. After all, the history of the international system is one of rivalry and war and, consequently, many national leaders itch to possess the most devastating weapons available. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that, today, there are eight nations that possess nuclear weapons, a ninth (North Korea) that might, and additional nations that might be working to develop them.

Even so, there is a widespread recognition that the nuclear arms race--indeed, the very possession of nuclear weapons--confronts the world with unprecedented dangers. And, for this reason, nations, among them the United States, have signed nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties. The most important of them is probably the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, in which non-nuclear nations agreed to forgo the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear nations agreed to move toward nuclear disarmament. As late as the NPT review conference of 2000, the declared nuclear weapons states proclaimed their commitment to an "unequivocal undertaking . . . to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."

Thanks to these agreements and to independent action, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of nuclear weapons around the world.

Furthermore, even if nations were to disregard these treaty obligations and cling doggedly to their nuclear weapons, how many do they need? The United States possesses more than 10,000 nuclear weapons--a number that, together with Russia's arsenal, constitutes more than 90 percent of the world total. Does it really need more? And how are they to be used?

President Bush, of course, wraps all his military policies in the "war on terror," and his nuclear policies are no exception. But how, exactly, are nuclear weapons useful against terrorists? Terrorists do not control fixed territories that can be attacked with nuclear weapons. Instead, they are intermingled with the general population in this country and abroad. Unless one is willing to attack them by conducting a vast and terrible nuclear bombardment of civilians, dwarfing in scale any massacre that terrorists have ever implemented, nuclear weapons have no conceivable function in combating terrorism.

Indeed, adding to the stockpile of nuclear weapons only adds to the dangers of terrorism. Terrorists do not have the knowledge or materials that would enable them to build their own nuclear weapons. But, the more nuclear weapons that exist, the more likely terrorists are to obtain them from a government stockpile--through theft, or purchase, or conspiracy. Therefore, as Congress has recognized, the United States would be safer if it encouraged worldwide nuclear disarmament rather than the building of additional nuclear weapons.

In this context, Bush's voracious appetite for new nuclear weapons is, to say the least, remarkable. In addition to his repeated attempts to get Congress to fund a U.S. nuclear buildup, he has pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (thereby effectively scrapping the START II Treaty, negotiated and signed by his father), opposed U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (negotiated and signed by President Clinton), pressed Congress to smooth the path toward the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, and dropped further negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

These repeated attempts to escape from the constraints of nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements and acquire new nuclear weapons suggest that Bush has what might be called a nuclear addiction.

There are other signs of this addiction, as well. Indifferent to everything but acquiring their desired substance, addicts typically lose their appetite for the fundamentals of life, even eating. In a similar fashion, the president has proposed a budget that severely slashes funding for U.S. health, education, and welfare programs and redirects it to the military, including his pet nuclear projects. But how long can a society be starved of health, education, and welfare before it collapses? Impervious to reason or to the consistent public support for funding in these areas, Bush does not seem to consider this question. Instead, he presses forward with his demand for . . . more nukes!

When the 2005 NPT review conference opens this May at the United Nations, Bush's lust for nuclear weapons seems likely to be criticized by many nations. It is already being assailed by numerous peace and disarmament organizations, which are planning a massive nuclear abolition march and rally in New York City on May 1, the day before the NPT review conference convenes. And popular sentiment is not far behind. A recent AP-Ipsos poll reports that two-thirds of Americans believe that no nation should possess nuclear weapons, including the United States.

Is George Bush able to accept the idea of a nuclear-free world? It's certainly possible. But, first, it might take a decision by him to buckle down and kick his nuclear addiction.
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More Comments:

Maps Baps - 4/17/2005

It takes wisdom and courage to get rid of one's own weapons of mass destruction first. Instead, fear is created and exploited to serve the interests of a few at the cost of many. It was not meant to be like that and it will prove to be a grave mistake, but then, well, then we can try again.

Cheryl Rofer - 4/16/2005

Writers also need to become informed on these topics.

"...their entire purpose is to dive into the earth and explode as far underground as possible. That doesn't make them entirely "safe", but it is a far cry from the picture painted by the author."

In fact, it makes them a great deal more dangerous than air-burst nuclear weapons, because elements in the soil are made radioactive and spread as fallout in much greater quantities.

"Current warheads are being disassmbled and recycled (there's a concept the author might get on the bandwagon for!) into more capable weapons."

Some few are being disassembled. None are being recycled. The Treaty of Moscow does not require disassembly or decommissioning, and it is clear from Congressional testimony that perhaps 6000 of the 10,000 or so the US currently possesses will be kept in use, those above the treaty's 2200 limit being "ready reserve." The treaty also has no verification provisions to allow the world to see what is being done with the weapons that are taken out of service.

Historically, presidents have seen the nuclear arsenal as regrettable. Bush's role model, Ronald Reagan, wanted to eliminate it altogether and almost agreed to that with Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush is staking out new ground in his willingness to regard nuclear weapons as just one more battlefield necessity.

Matthew S. Rigby - 4/14/2005

All of you have brought up very intelligent points. However, I would like to add on to Mr. Robins' comments and assert that the atomic bomb is the Pandora's box of the modern age, but a box that will bring the wielder great power.

It would be virtually impossible to dismantle all of the world's nuclear weapons because there will always be a power-hunger despot who will try to create one. Starting with the first conception of the atomic bomb, any intelligent nuclear physicist could potentially be employed by someone with the means to make one and desires contrary to American national security. The only thing stopping India and Pakistan from lobbing warheads at each other is the MAD concept. India and Pakistan could be replaced with the US and USSR during the Cold War.

I agree with Mr. Wittner's opinion that we should discourage domestic and foreign atomic weapon development, but I believe that he was slightly biased. With his proposals President Bush could possibly be trying to show the world that we are still a capable nation able to develop and maintain our position in the global scene. He could also be aware of facts that the American public is currently unaware of. For example, foreign powers we are unaware of could be developing nuclear weapons in underground complexes. Or, Mr. Wittner could be correct in his assertions of a power-hungry, shallow president.

Arnold Shcherban - 4/12/2005

It was never a goal of any American administration or the
tandem-party to achieve nuclear disarmament.
The idea was never even clearly and unambigously formulated theoretically, much less attempted for practically. On the contrary, the former USSR and the UN
attempts to take serious measures in that direction were
blocked exclusively by this very country (and Israel; by the latter - on much more excusable reasons).
The US imperialistic elite has always needed (and still does) "nuclear threat" from outside to justify its own overwhelmingly excessive nuclear developments to maintain
the hegemonic military-strategical status.
In the course of the most of 20th century it was international communism, then Iraq, today - Iran and
North Korea, which as fairly mentioned by Mr. Chamberlain,
realize that the existing or bluffed with national nuclear arsenal is the only antidote against future US agression.
In fact, one can bet all his money that provided this country would sign the agreement with those two countries solemnly promising not to engage in military actions against them, they would abandon not only all (if any) their nuclear military programs the very next day.
Not mentioning the enormous positive effect that would have on the internal struggle for real democracy and freedoms in those two countries.
But the US stubbornly, and without any more or less serious justification, refuses to enter in two-way negotiations with any of those countries with easily read
out intention to later claim that all diplomatic efforts
of the WORLD to reason with them has failed and therefore
only one "possibility" is left - the War.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/12/2005

You make some good points, but this remains true. The United States cannot effectively push for some countries to abstain from or to abandon nuclear weapons while we expand the circumstances in which we would use weapons. That is what makes new weapons design and implementation dangerous, despite the drop in actual numbers.

In doing this Bush has manged to give a touch of legitimacy to Iran's covert and to North Korea's overt claims that they are defending themselves in their actions. Given that Bush has put his prestige on the line, particularly in resolving the North Korean situation, this is remarkably self-defeating

In short, the new weapons have not and will not make us one whit safer. The opposite, if anything. They aren't even helping Bush politically.

Jon Robins - 4/11/2005

Writers need to overcome their nuclearphobia before trying to write on these topics.

Two quick points:
Although the author stresses that "bunker busters" are far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb (a purely emotional comparison tool, that has little relevance to a contemporary nuclear strike on a modern city), are designed to explode underground. While they are not firecrackers, and they certainly could level a fair chunk of a city if exploded in the air, their entire purpose is to dive into the earth and explode as far underground as possible. That doesn't make them entirely "safe", but it is a far cry from the picture painted by the author.

Second, no "new" warheads are being added to the arsenal. The current US arsenal is already too expensive because of its size. Current warheads are being disassmbled and recycled (there's a concept the author might get on the bandwagon for!) into more capable weapons. The current stock of gravity bombs and ICBM warheads have been sitting on shelves for as much as 30 or 40 years. Since the Test Ban Treaty prevents "quality control" experiments, it is financially and militarily a reasonable step to disassemble these weapons and reuse their uranium and plutonium in newer, smaller, more stable devices.

The author's thesis that Bush suffers from a "nuclear addiction" is pure conjecture. Even during the Clinton years, research was underway to develop "bunker busters" for attacks on dastardly states like Libya and Iraq, who were suspecting of pursuing nuclear arms deep underground. (for a quickie citation, try )

If anything, the move toward "precision" nuclear weapons reflects a dramatic philosophical shift in the Bush administration away from the global apocolypse nuclear strategy mindset. Nobody wants to go around flattening cities, and that's exactly why new nuclear weapons are being developed to, if the time ever comes, attack hostile nuclear weapons and other facilities without annihilating vast swaths of civilian-occupied territory.

The author sets up Bush as the global fall guy for nuclear arms, conveniently forgetting that if the US disarms, the world will still have nuclear-armed Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and several other would-be contenders to worry about.

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