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News

Averting Nuclear Armageddon

  • Operation Crossroads-Bikini Atoll, Micronesia 1946
    United States Army
February 01, 2021

“Disarmament … is a continuing imperative.”

            That public statement is not from an ideologue of the political left, but by outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Farewell Address to the nation, delivered six decades ago as he prepared to leave office.

            President Joe Biden has returned arms control negotiations with Russia to status as a top policy priority. He seeks a five-year extension of the New START Treaty signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. The agreement, which was about to expire, limits nuclear warheads on each side to 1550, plus limitations on missiles and bombers.

            Nuclear arms represented the highest-stakes arena of the Cold War. In response, governments achieved both nuclear and conventional weapons control agreements, and such efforts have continued since that global conflict ended.

            The Trump administration proved erratic on nuclear weapons matters. Initial emphasis on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was unsuccessful. In August 2019, the administration withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, complaining of violations by Russia.

`           Nuclear Summits involving large numbers of nations and international organizations was an important initiative of the Obama Administration. The 2016 Nuclear Summit in Washington D.C. concluded with a formal statement underscoring nuclear weapons control.

            Unfortunately, Russia did not participate. That reflected strained relations with the U.S. and other nations following annexation of Ukraine.

            Nonetheless, the major conference reinforced the important, tangible UN framework to coordinate national efforts regarding the threat of nuclear terrorism. Specifically, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, passed in 2004, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) provide a legal foundation for action, and facilitate cooperation.

            The first Nuclear Summit took place in 2010, also in Washington D.C. Others took place in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, and 2014 in The Hague in the Netherlands.

            In 1986, during the Soviet-U.S. summit in Iceland, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan surprised their staffs as well as the world by pledging themselves to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. That utopian vision fostered a more practical result, the INF Treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987.

            Reductions are desirable, but efforts to outlaw all nuclear weapons fundamentally flawed. Destroying all known nuclear weapons would provide a decisive advantage to any power which decided – openly or secretly – to hold back even a few. Verification remains vexing.

            Another benchmark in the history of nuclear weapons, arms control and the Cold War occurred in 1972 when the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) led to treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union limiting both offensive and defensive missile systems. A second round of negotiations resulted in a follow-on agreement in 1979, but the U.S. Senate did not ratify the treaty in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that year.

            After the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, concluded when the Soviet Union withdrew nuclear weapons from the island, President John F. Kennedy’s political standing rose considerably. During the Christmas season, JFK held a televised discussion with network correspondents. He gave emphasis to a world soon to contain a number of nuclear powers.

            In fact, proliferation has moved much more slowly than anticipated at the time. Various nuclear-capable nations, including our close ally Canada, have decided that any conceivable benefits are simply not worth the expense and risks.

            Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an initiative of President Eisenhower, facilitates peaceful nuclear energy and provides a long-term drag on military pressures to get the Bomb. Ike, always comprehensive in vision, also achieved demilitarization of Antarctica.

            The military threats we face today are not only external. Eisenhower closed his Farewell Address by warning of the dangers inherent in a massive arms establishment, which he termed “the Military-Industrial Complex.”

Learn more: Arthur Larson, “Eisenhower: The President Nobody Knew” (Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu