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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 23, February 1998

'The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence:
From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders,'
Speech by Retired General Lee Butler, former Commander of US Strategic Command, National Press Club, Washington, 2 February 1998

Editor's note:

General Butler (Commander-in-Chief, United States Strategic Air Command, 1991-92; Commander-in-Chief, United States Strategic Command, 1992-94) delivered his remarks at the press conference arranged to launch the abolition statement by civilian leaders featured in Senator Cranston's article in this issue.

Extracts from Speech

"I have two roles to serve this afternoon, both very much akin to the events marking my appearance here just over a year ago. As your speaker, 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 age.

But first, it is my privilege to announce a compelling addition to the roster of distinguished international figures who have joined their voices in calling publicly for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Last year General Goodpaster and I unveiled a list of some 60 retired generals and admirals from a host of nations who declared their strong conviction that the world would be better served by the total elimination of these weapons. Today, at a press conference following my remarks, Senator Alan Cranston and I will present the names of more than one hundred present and former heads of State and other senior civilian leaders who have signed their names to a powerful statement of common concern regarding nuclear weapons and who have endorsed a reasoned path toward abolition.

The willingness of this extraordinary assembly to speak so publicly and directly to these issues is very much in keeping with what I have experienced since I became engaged in the abolition debate some two years ago. I have met legions of remarkable men and women from every corner of the earth who have labored long and patiently in this cause. Their ranks have now been swelled by tens of millions of citizens of our planet who reject the prospect of living in perpetuity under a nuclear sword of Damocles.

My purpose in entering the debate was to help legitimize abolition as an alternative worthy of serious and urgent consideration. My premise was that my unique experience in the nuclear weapons arena might help kindle greater antipathy for these horrific devices and the policies which justify their retention by the nuclear-weapon States. My purpose this afternoon is to share with you the abiding concern I harbor about the course of the debate. I accepted the press club invitation because I believe this forum is well suited to speak to that concern. In so doing, I intend to render a much more explicit account than I have given to date of the lessons I have drawn from over thirty years of intimate involvement with nuclear weapons.

Permit me, however, to preface my remarks by postulating that with 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 these issues matter, 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. I am persuaded that in every corner of the planet, the tide of public sentiment is now running strongly in favor 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.

Conversely, 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 who speak with great assurance and authority. I was for many years among the most avid of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons, and for that I make no apology. 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 savior that brought an implacable foe to his knees in 1945 and held another at bay for nearly a half-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.

These are powerful, deeply rooted beliefs. They cannot and should not be lightly dismissed or discounted. 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 mankind 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.

At 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 nor 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 knew the moment I entered the nuclear arena 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.

The 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 unshakable articles of faith. As my own career progressed, I was immersed in the work of all of 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.

Ultimately, 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 mankind. 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.

These 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, to not just 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?

These 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 distill them from the experience of three decades in the nuclear arena, these lessons resolve into two fundamental conclusions.

First, 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 behavior 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.

The 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. ... 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.

By the early 1960's, 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 paralyzed by its grip. East-West confrontation dominated the nation-State system. Every quarrel and conflict was fraught with potential for global war. ...

What 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.

That also brings me to the focal point of my remarks... For 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 mutual assured destruction. We ignored, discounted or dismissed its flaws and cling still to the belief that it obtains in a world whose security architecture has been wholly transformed.

But 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.

How 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 absent any substantive personal association? Why did we imagine a nation that had survived successive invasions and mindnumbing 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. ...

Deterrence 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.

Thus 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 reveled in the industrial base required to support production at such levels.

I was part of all of 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 mutual 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. ...

Deterrence 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 rivaling the power of the creator.

Is 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 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.

The 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 policymakers, constraining their latitude for decision. Many were simply denied access to critical information essential to the proper exercise of their office.

Over 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.

But 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.

What 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.

And 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."

Extracts from Questions-and-Answers

"Question (Doug Harbrecht, Moderator): '[Should the US consider using nuclear weapons in] Iraq or in response to any chemical or biological weapon threat?'

Butler: '... I had the opportunity to go through this calculus. When I was the director of strategic plans and policy in the 1989 to '91 time frame, it was my direct responsibility to draw up the strategic objectives of our prospective war in the Persian Gulf, to imagine outcomes and to set war termination objectives.

At the very heart of that calculus was to imagine the prospect of using nuclear weapons. And I would point out to those of you here who might have read Colin Powell's memoirs that he goes through this himself in the latter stages of his book, because he was asked to imagine the kinds of targets in the Persian Gulf that might be struck with nuclear weapons. I share his reservations absolutely.

The first issue, of course, is the one that I posed in my remarks. If we rightfully abhor and condemn the resort to the use of a weapon of mass destruction, how is it we could possibly justify - we, the United States, a democratic society - ourselves steeping to such ends?

Number two, can you imagine the impact in a part of the world where we worked so assiduously for so many years to build our presence, to build support and credibility, of being the nation that used a nuclear weapon against Arab peoples? Only the second time in history that such a device had been used, and it would be the United States, and it would be in a part of the world where even today those actions raise powerful suspicions.

...thirdly, what would have happened to the coalition? How painstakingly we worked to put together a coalition of some 30 nations from very disparate points on the ideological and cultural compass in order to provide the proper underpinnings of the international community for that war. Can you imagine the impact on that coalition if we, the United States, had used a nuclear weapon, even in response to the use of a weapon of mass destruction by the Iraqis? It would have been devastating.

There's the question of targets. If you were the target planner for the use of a nuclear weapon in the Persian Gulf, what would be your choice? Surely it would not be the city of Baghdad. Would you hold hundreds of thousands of people accountable for the acts of their leader? Would it be an Iraqi division in the far western reaches of that nation? You might be interested to know the calculation of how many tactical nuclear weapons it requires to bring even one division to its knees when it's spread over such a vast expanse.

What would have happened to the fallout from the blast? If you want to do maximum damage, you use a [surface aspirant]? How is it that the fallout patterns would have arrayed themselves beyond the borders of Iraq, perhaps even to the south if the wind had been blowing in that direction? The real point of the exercise is that the United States has put itself happily in a position where it has no need to resort to weapons of mass destruction to respond to such provocation. We brought Iraq to its knees conventionally. We could have decimated that country. We could have occupied it as we did Japan and Germany at the end of World War II. We chose not to do that, but it was within our capacity to do so. And if we could do that in 1991, when they had the fourth-strongest army in the world and a significant air force, can you imagine the task today when we've reduced all of that by at least two-thirds? It is wrong from every aspect. It is wrong politically. It makes no sense militarily. And morally, in my view, it is indefensible.' ...

Question (Mr. Harbrecht): 'What can be done to persuade an emerging superpower like China to give up nuclear weapons? Would such a decision have to wait for the emergence of democracy in China?'

Butler: 'There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, but it's been in the literature for many years, as to why it was that the Chinese acquired nuclear weapons capability. The story goes that it was proposed to Mao and he said, "Why should I do this?" And he was told, "Well, other nations have them." And his answer purportedly was, "Well, I guess we should have some."

If you look at the Chinese nuclear arsenal, it is far from modern. Their forces are not on alert. They're struggling to bring up its safety and security characteristics. China has avowed time and again that they are a no-first-use nation and that they are strongly on record in favor of nuclear abolition. I don't know what it would take to persuade China to abandon their nuclear arsenals, but I am comforted by what they say.

I believe that the keys to creating a climate in which the Chinas of the world - Great Britain, France, the non-declared States - are willing to join in a serious-minded, forthright and concrete series of commitments and steps to move steadfastly toward the abolition of nuclear weapons is for the United States and Russia to take the lead.

I believe that we are missing priceless opportunities in what is perhaps a perishable window of opportunity to move forward much more swiftly and boldly in getting our forces off alert, bringing tactical nuclear weapons home from Europe, declaring no-first-use policies, and most importantly, reaching out to our friends in Russia and making the decision that it is time to get on with concrete measures for much more severe cuts in nuclear stockpiles than we've been willing to acknowledge to date.

It is, in my view, a sad commentary on the current state of thinking on this issue that we are comfortable with a goal for reductions that would still have 3,500 operational nuclear weapons on alert 10 years from now. It is a dismal commentary on the current state of thinking that we still believe that distant nuclear arsenals that measure in the hundreds is a low number. It is time for the United States to act much more boldly and with stronger leadership with respect to getting on with getting the nuclear era to a close. ..."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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