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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 32, November 1998

Remarks by General Lee Butler

Statement by General George Lee Butler (US Air Force (retired),Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command, 1991-92), JFK Library, Boston, 22 November 1998

"It is...a privilege to be your speaker this afternoon in this magnificent setting. I am indebted to the Lawyers Alliance for World Security for this recognition, and inspired by their intelligent, responsible efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. Those of us who have been in the arena, especially Ambassador Tom Graham, do not take the role of critic lightly. We are keenly aware of the constraints, the obstacles and the frustrations that confront the policymaker.

At the same time, we are equally seized by a sense of profound dismay, of opportunity lost, of danger prolonged, that the creative dimension of leadership has been displaced by the cautious underreach of the bureaucracy. In this 35th anniversary year of the signing of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, who cannot yearn for the vision, the eloquence and above all the sense of personal accountability of a John F. Kennedy? He understood intuitively what legions of experts discounted, or ignored: that the prospect of nuclear war was intolerable.

That is precisely the understanding that compelled me from the blessed anonymity of retired life into the role of public critic of the nuclear-weapon States and what I judge to be their irresponsible and potentially disastrous perpetuation of the most acute risks of the Cold War era.

This is not a role that I sought, relish or ever imagined. I became an instant icon of the abolition movement, about which I knew very little, in many respects admire, but with some elements of which I have sharp disagreements. I am besieged with invitations to speak, to appear, to write books and to otherwise take on a broader role I did not want and with which I am very conflicted. I frequently remind the more ardent critics of US foreign and security policy who come to me for support that I was the co-author with Colin Powell of a post-Cold War military strategy premised on robust conventional forces and an unswerving US commitment to global leadership. ...

Why then, you may very well ask, do I persist, however reluctantly, in this very public role of critic and in a more private role as advisor to policymakers who seek my views? Most simply put, because with every passing day I am increasingly convinced and concerned that the world has yet to grasp the elemental truths and the acute penalties which inform my condemnation of nuclear weapons.

I have labored as diligently as time and other responsibilities permit over the past two years to detail these truths and penalties, and more importantly, to understand the powerful forces that lead societies to tolerate, accept, embrace and even to celebrate nuclear weapons.

My efforts have been instructed and encouraged by the responses of both proponents and opponents of my public commentary. Ultimately, however, the several judgments that now follow are the product of deep and often painful reflection on nearly four decades of experience as a nuclear strategist, policymaker, planner and commander.

First, that from the earliest days of the nuclear era the risks, costs and consequences have never been properly understood nor calculated by the theorists, the planners and the poised practitioners of nuclear war.

Second, that nuclear weapons are not weapons at all. They are insanely destructive agents of physical and genetic terror, whose effects transcend time and space, poisoning the earth and deforming its inhabitants for generation upon generation.

Third, that the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists but the fate of mankind.

Fourth, that the prospect of shearing away entire societies has no military nor political justification.

Fifth, that the fateful decision of governments to acquire nuclear weapons ushers in a vast enterprise whose scope and complexity will inevitably move beyond the power of any individual or central authority to manage or to control.

Sixth, that despite the ringing rhetoric of deterrence, the mammoth organizations, with their gargantuan appetites, that make up the enterprise of nuclear weapons capability, are powerfully disposed toward greater numbers, enhanced destructiveness, more dangerous postures and first use in a crisis or conflict.

Seventh, that in the nuclear age, the increasingly convoluted prescriptions of deterrence became a formula for unmitigated disaster. Because the consequences of failure were intolerable, the quest for advantage was relentless, igniting cycle after cycle of trepidation, worst case assumptions and a reckless proliferation of nuclear devices and delivery systems.

Eighth, that nuclear weapons prey upon our deepest fears and pander to our darkest instincts. They thrive in the emotional climate born of utter alienation and isolation. They are the natural accomplice of visceral enmity. The unbounded wantonness of their effects is a perfect companion to the urge to destroy completely.

And, finally, that after decades of accommodating to their hideous presence, we have come to accept them as commonplace, inured to their consequences and perpetuating virtually unchanged the frightful policies, practices and postures of the Cold War. I find this incomprehensible and morally intolerable.

The penalties imposed on the nuclear-weapon States have been severe. They have been especially so in our own society, corroding our sense of humanity, numbing our capacity for moral outrage and undermining the essential mechanisms of the democratic process. As President Kennedy remarked to Dean Rusk after his first formal briefing on the consequences of a general nuclear war, 'and we call ourselves the human race.'

Over the long, dark nightmare of the Cold War, the forces of fear, ignorance, greed, power, arrogance and secrecy invaded, weakened and subverted the most basic elements of democratic dialogue, debate and decision-making. From its earliest days, the piercing 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 solemn innovation of vital national interests.

I have seen the price of such folly at close hand, been party to it, railed against it, and struggle still to understand its origins. But, I do understand the consequences and they are chilling. Vitally important decisions were routinely taken without adequate understanding; assertions too often prevailed over analysis; requirements took on organizational biases; technological opportunity and corporate profits 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 purposefully denied access to critical information essential to the proper exercise of their office.

These are harsh lessons. They go directly to the proposition, that for me lies at the heart of the matter and underwrites Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty: that the dictates of State sovereignty and supreme national interest cannot impose arbitrary limits on the establishment of global norms and sanctions promoting decent, civilized behavior…and prohibiting reckless, destructive behavior that threatens our planetary welfare.

Given this perspective, I want to make clear that for me the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons as legitimate instruments of national power is not an endpoint, it is a waypoint. It is an essential precondition to a state of moral grace that, having rejected the wholesale slaughter of human beings as an acceptable resort, is moving instead toward global endorsement of the rule of law. I would argue that goal will remain beyond our moral reach so long as we continue to cloak nuclear weapons as agents of stability, as if their possession somehow conveyed wisdom and forebearance, immunity from the rages of implacable hostility and clarity in the grip of crisis. We cannot at once hold sacred the gift of life and sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it utterly. Otherwise we fall victim to Stalin's horrific homely that we live in an age where the death of a single individual is a tragedy and the death of millions is a statistic.

It matters enormously that we finally regard nuclear weapons for what they are: the antithesis of hope and aspiration, destroyers of civilizations, purveyors of global ruination.

But how then, do we break free from the present dismal circumstances that we have invited by clinging so tenaciously to the fears and beliefs, the cautions and calculus, the policy and postures of a bygone era?

How is it we tolerate the spectacle of an arms control agreement held hostage to sovereign gridlock, its core numerical ceiling of 3,500 operational weapons grossly excessive to the security needs of either party and indeed already well beyond the reach of a Russian strategic nuclear force in growing distress?

How is it we accept the realty of thousands of nuclear warheads still poised on high states of alert, ready for launch on a moment's notice? What can possibly justify this foolish, risky, costly and irrelevant posture? What could possibly send a more threatening, confusing and counter productive message to a Russia sliding into chaos, fearful and suspicious of western intentions, yet desperately needing our resources and our good will?

How is it that NATO, having made what is in my strategic view the highly regrettable decision to expand toward Russia's collapsed western flank, insists upon retaining a nuclear weapons policy and posture that is wholly out of touch with its new security circumstances. Is it any wonder that Russia has abandoned its 'no first use' policy, perversely earning the criticism of a NATO that refuses steadfastly to itself adopt such a policy despite it's now overwhelming conventional advantage?

But most importantly, what explains the intellectual and political paralysis in the nuclear-weapon States that not only chills new thinking on these issues but actively penalizes it? The looming historical judgment of this community of political elites is that it proved unworthy of its era, incapable of seizing the moment so desperately sought, of exploiting the extraordinary opportunity for which we risked so much for so long.

This is a stunning turn of events. It suggests a major dislocation between the attitudes, habits and modalities conditioned by Cold War security concerns and the challenges, needs and opportunities of the global village that is emerging in its wake. Clearly, that is the case with respect to the incremental, numbers driven and exquisitely detailed approach to nuclear arms control enshrined in the SALT and START negotiations. What matters far more now are the policies, postures and practices that incentivize proliferation, perpetuate enmity, prolong risk and divert precious resources. Separation of warheads from delivery systems, cessation of testing and fissile material production, inventory transparency and accounting, no first use declarations, nuclear free zones and most importantly, a genuine commitment to elimination over the longer term are far more useful than arbitrary, incremental reductions over absurdly prolonged intervals.

New thinking on these and a host of other issues of planetary significance is of utmost urgency. If such thinking will not or worse cannot come from governments, then it must instead come from the rich resources of intellectual capital present in every society, and so abundantly in our own. Whether in the great universities...; the laboratories endowed with such brilliance; the NGOs that continue to flourish and to attract remarkable talent; the foundations, councils, centers and institutes who sponsor and nourish individual genius, our nation has an infinite capacity to marshal its intellectual, economic and moral power.

Our present circumstances are not dire, but they are urgent. In the end it may matter little whether we poison our planet spontaneously, in a spasm of nuclear conflict; or incrementally, by rendering its climate incapable of supporting human life. In either case, the larger issue is that of free will, whether we shall choose to be crass and self-indulgent or noble and altruistic; savage and destructive, or civilized and decent; grasping and deceitful or generous and ethical. ..."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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