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Sleepwalking and ‘old thinking’

Ursula Carlson

Charlie Rose on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) interviews a wide array of nationally prominent people: presidents, CIA experts, law professors, actors, scientists, politicians, judges. In other words, anyone who has special knowledge and is respected in his or her field. Rose asks excellent, probing questions and his guests are generally far more forthcoming than they are elsewhere.

I happened to be watching when Rose interviewed President Obama and also when he interviewed Hillary Clinton. At the end of each interview, he asked, “What one issue concerns you most in the world?” or words to that effect. Both Obama and Clinton responded with “the nuclear threat.” I was surprised — not so much with that response as with the fact I don’t see many, if any, state, or national representatives expressing any particular concern.

That is, according to William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense (1994-1997), partly because “much of it (nuclear weaponry) is hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands,” and because humans fear facing the “unthinkable.” Or, because others “welcome the illusion that there is or might be an acceptable missile defense against a nuclear attack.” Perry, expert on nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, nuclear disarmament, and nuclear proliferation, states in his recently published book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, the danger “of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War.”

Early in his career as a scientist at Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories, he had to evaluate ways of “jamming” or countering any attacking Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). He found that jamming successfully reduced fatalities from a medium-sized nuclear attack by about two-thirds. This translates into reducing immediate deaths from 75 million people to “only” 25 million. And that didn’t take into account long-term deaths from radiation, or the numbers wounded who couldn’t be treated, not to mention the total disruption of the economy and society.

Ever since then Perry has been convinced there’s no acceptable defense against a mass nuclear attack.

The greatest problem with any nuclear anti-ballistic missile defense system is its vulnerability to human error, to jumping the gun, to making the wrong assumption. We came a hair’s breath to destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, not only in Cuba, but at the same time in Europe when an American reconnaissance plane went off course into Soviet airspace and both Soviets and Americans sent attack planes (ours with nuclear-tipped missiles) to battle which was averted only because the off-course pilot discovered his mistake and hustled back to neutral territory. To compound the situation, America had launched an ICBM (as a routine test), which luckily, the Soviets didn’t misinterpret as a sign of attack which they easily could have given the perilous circumstances in Cuba.

Perry writes the Trident submarine is sufficient for America’s deterrent needs because it’s difficult to track and destroy and has more than enough firepower.

Yet the latest U.S. defense budget proposes spending $1 trillion on nuclear modernization over the next several decades. Russia has already responded it will “bring five new strategic nuclear missile regiments into service.” This escalation of nuclear weaponry is “old thinking.” It’s also “sleepwalking” — a term historians use now for explaining the stupidities that got European leaders into World War I and after. Let us not be stupid again.

We once had Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) who spearheaded the Salt II mutual accord agreement in the mid-1990s when thousands of missiles, warheads, and chemical weapons were destroyed by the U.S. and Russia. Who are our comparable leaders today?

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.