GUEST COMMENTARY: Abolition of nuclear weapons is an achievable goal

Friday, September 2, 2011 | 2:20 p.m. CDT

J. Karl Miller's columns in the Missourian are always lively and interesting, and some of his views are on target. He is  an intelligent, informed and thoughtful person. 

Unfortunately, others of his views reflect dubious assumptions which, since they are widely shared and seldom criticized in our society, prevent him from seeing dangers that face the human race and appreciating the viable measures available for dealing with them. 

My feelings about Mr. Miller's views were particularly strong when I read his Aug. 24 column, "U.S. nuclear arms are an unfortunate but necessary deterrent." 

I would like to urge him to try to think out of the box in which his career and personal experience have encased him when he is dealing with matters of such importance as our nation's policy of nuclear deterrence. 

Let me comment on three of his claims about deterrence in his column. 

1. "President Harry Truman’s courageous decision to proceed [to approve the use of the a-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was both correct and justifiable." 

Mr. Miller seems to think that the only alternative to killing the estimated 600,000 civilians with the two bombs was an invasion of Japan, which (Mr. Miller guesses) would have cost the lives of between 2.5 million and 5 million Americans and Japanese.

One would have hoped that a student of history would be aware that most of the scholars who have examined this issue in depth believe that there was a third alternative to the two, to bomb or to invade. It was to negotiate a surrender in which the Japanese would keep their emperor and accept occupation and disarmament. 

The third alternative was not pursued, probably because members of Mr. Truman's administration, if not Truman himself, were anxious to end the war with Japan before the Soviets could enter it and play a role in the peace settlement. 

Some also hoped to intimidate the Soviets by an overwhelming show of power in anticipation of the postwar rivalry that was about to begin.  These advisers included James Byrnes, Leslie Groves and Curtis LeMay, hardly people one would look to for wisdom in such matters. 

2. "... the notion that nuclear deterrence is not an effective defense has thus far been refuted. .. We have seen 66 years free from nuclear attack." 

There is no way to prove either that that the non-occurrence of nuclear war was due to deterrence or in spite of it. There were many other reasons why the two superpowers avoided direct confrontation, and the Cold War spawned many lesser conflicts which could have escalated into nuclear wars.

Moreover, there have been a number of near misses in which unforeseen events almost triggered a launch of the weapons. 

One thing is evident from our experience of the last 60 years: The world would have been a much safer place if the U.S. and USSR had negotiated a system for international control of nuclear energy after World War II rather than plunging into a disastrous arms race and eventually to MAD (a state of mutually assured destruction) with its specter of total extinction that still hovers over the human race as an ominous shadow. 

Developed nations are now in grave danger from rogue states and terrorist groups that may gain access to the vast, insecure stock of nuclear weapons scattered throughout the world. 

Proliferation, as Mr. Miller observes, heightens the threat to responsible countries, and proliferation is a natural response of countries who feel threatened by the U.S. deterrent and resent U.S. use of a double standard for nuclear haves and have-nots.

3. "Arguably, while the world would be better off without nuclear weapons, I must side with the contingent of senior military officers, geopolitical professionals and political realists. They reject nuclear disarmament as a well-intentioned but utterly unattainable goal." 

Mr. Miller relies on a dubious crew of self-proclaimed "experts" to tell him what to believe on this subject. I think it wiser to follow the lead of the more thoughtful politicians, diplomats and political scientists who advocate abolition of nuclear weapons.

Those include the people who helped to write the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with its commitment by nuclear powers to work for abolition. 

They include presidents and presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama and John McCain, who publicly pledged to work toward this end. And they include a large number of scholars and activists devoted to finding a way to a more secure world than the one in which we now live.

Obviously any moves toward disarmament would have to involve, in the words of David Krieger (whom Mr. Miller mentions), a "phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent" process of arms reduction. 

Knowledgeable and practical people have worked out the details of a step-by-step, verifiable process that would end in abolition without putting any nation at risk along the way. 

Mr. Miller appears to be unaware of this work. More broadly he appears unable to conceive of any modification of the rigid structure of instruments of destruction and dire threats with which we have lived most of our lives and which pose a continuing threat to human existence.

I would be happy to provide Mr. Miller (and anyone else who is interested) sources that document the criticisms that I have voiced. 

But in closing, I would like to thank Mr. Miller for bringing nuclear issues before the public in this small corner of the world.

John Kultgen is a professor of philosophy emeritus at MU. He has taught the course "Philosophies of War and Peace" for more than two decades, including this fall. He is also the author of a 1999 book on nuclear war and nuclear deterrence, "In the Valley of the Shadow: Reflections on the Morality of Nuclear Deterrence."

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Steven Starr September 2, 2011 | 5:20 p.m.

Despite the fact that the Cold War supposedly ended 20 years ago, the U.S. and Russia still keep almost 2000 strategic nuclear weapons ready to launch with only a few minutes warning. These weapons represent a self-destruct mechanism for the human race. Unless nuclear deterrence works perfectly, forever, they will eventually be detonated in conflict.

Nuclear weapons cannot, in any final sense, provide ‘national security’, if a single failure of nuclear deterrence can leave the Earth virtually uninhabitable.

Until we break through the logic of the Cold War, the global debate on nuclear weaponry will remain stuck in the 20th century. Leaders of the nuclear weapon states will continue to plan for nuclear war as though it can be won, while acting as though it can forever be avoided. Both assumptions are false, and if we allow our leaders to continue to act as though they were true, we are unlikely to survive as a species.

Steven Starr
Senior Scientist, Physicians for Social Responsibility

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mike mentor September 2, 2011 | 5:47 p.m.

Anyone ever heard something along the lines of...

If you outlaw guns, only criminals will have them.

Unfortunately, pandoras box has already been opened on this one and there is absolutely no reasonable person that can say or verify that every single nuclear weapon will be demolished and no more will be created with any degree of certainty.

Come down out of the ivory towers and think in terms of the real world. You may get some pats on the back up in your towers for being, "so thoughtful and sensitive", but your naivete will be called out for the bs it is as soon as you walk amongst those of us that live in the real world.

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frank christian September 2, 2011 | 6:15 p.m.

mike m.- "If you outlaw guns, only criminals will have them." Expanding on that premise, comedian Chris Rock advised young folks: Don't never go to no party where guns ain't allowed. When you come out, the one's with guns will be waitin' and know you ain't got one.

(Report Comment)
Steven Starr September 2, 2011 | 7:31 p.m.

None of us will be left living in the 'real world' if any significant fraction of the current nuclear arsenals are detonated in conflict.

Nuclear weapons aren't guns and keeping thousands of operational and deployed nuclear weapons ready for immediate use will ultimately prove suicidal to all nations, regardless of who starts or ends the war.

We have a long way to go from the current 22,000 nuclear weapons that reside in the global nuclear arsenals, before we get to Zero nuclear weapons. However, if we do someday manage to get close to Zero, or arrive at Zero, the consequences of nuclear breakout (someone manufacturing or obtaining a handful of nuclear weapons) would not cause the destruction of the human race, as would a war fought with existing arsenals.

All that nuclear deterrence requires is for every leader (who controls nuclear weapons) to remain rational under all circumstances, forever. It just won't happen.

What is more realistic, to pretend nuclear war can be avoided forever, or to admit having these weapons ready to use will eventually lead to nuclear war, and to instead work towards nuclear abolition?

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Greg Allen September 3, 2011 | 10:02 p.m.

Maybe we should address what underlies the nuclear threat: those who are willing to use them.

There's been enough psychological, sociological, anthropological, and related research to be able to screen people for inordinate power seeking; should we use that knowledge to keep people with too much testosterone (or whatever causes someone to create and fight enemies) and not allow them into positions of high authority? It would have to be worldwide, of course, but what would it be worth to make it happen?

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Mark Foecking September 4, 2011 | 3:15 a.m.

Greg Allen wrote:

"It would have to be worldwide, of course, but what would it be worth to make it happen?"

You'd have tp install a world government, and IMO that would be the surest way to start a world war.

Unfortunately, MAD is the best we've come up with. Disarmament is intrinsically unverifiable. One state with the will to use a nuclear weapon is more likely to if they do not have to worry about retaliation in kind. Like the US at the end of WW II.


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J Karl Miller September 4, 2011 | 11:36 a.m.

First, I would like to thank Professor Kultgen for his kind words inasmuch as most of my critics are not that charitable. Nevertheless, reduced to its lowest common denominator, our differences revolve around whose "experts" are more credible, given the historical and political context of conflict between nations.

Perhaps in Professor Kultgen's sphere, only "some" of my views are on target; however, most of my 76 years have been spent in the "real world," among adversaries to whom the Marquis of Queensbury Rules and the Law of War are taken seriously by the weak and the foolish.

That " Knowledgeable and practical people have worked out the details of a step-by-step, verifiable process" is not very reassuring when one understands that those who mean us harm will permit verification only on their terms. National security is no venue for the practice of social engineering.

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Greg Allen September 4, 2011 | 8:58 p.m.

"MAD is the best we've come up with." Is it good enough? When those making policy aren't coming up with 'good enough' where should we go?

"National security is no venue for the practice of social engineering." To the contrary, Colonel. It's always practiced there.

(Report Comment)
frank christian September 4, 2011 | 9:29 p.m.

Gregg Allen - "When those making policy aren't coming up with 'good enough' where should we go?" I'd say vote for Democrats. They'll always tell you what you want to hear.

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