Admiral Noel Gayler: Dispelling Nuclear Illusions

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Admiral Noel Gayler: Dispelling Nuclear Illusions

David Krieger recalls the importance of Adm. Noel Gayler's proposal for nuclear disarmament from December 2000. Adm. Gayler passed away at the age of 96 in July 2011.

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David KriegerAdm. Noel Gayler, a World War II Navy pilot who later rose to the rank of four-star admiral and served as Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command in the 1970s, died on July 14 at the age of 96. Adm. Gayler was one of the most prominent US military leaders to publicly call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and put forward a proposal to achieve this goal.


Adm. Gayler’s proposal, published in December 2000 by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, presents a sober assessment of the dangers that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and calls for the total elimination of these weapons.  His assessment was influenced by viewing Hiroshima from the air only six days after its devastation on August 6, 1945 by a US nuclear weapon.  He also witnessed the atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands in the 1960s. 


In his proposal, Adm. Gayler dispels some common illusions concerning the military value of nuclear weapons. These include:



  • Physical defense against nuclear weapons is possible;
  • Nuclear weapons can be used in a sensible manner;
  • Nuclear disarmament imperils our security; and
  • Nuclear deterrence is an effective defense.

“With these illusions dispelled,” Adm. Gayler stated, “it becomes evident that nuclear disarmament works to the advantage of every power.  Only in this way can the world be made safe from unprecedented murder and destruction.”


The central thesis of Adm. Gayler’s proposal is that US and global security would be vastly enhanced by the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  The proposal states, “An irony is that in developing and using nuclear weapons, we, the United States, have done the only thing capable of threatening our own national security.”


Adm. Gayler’s proposal involves the delivery of all nuclear weapons to a central point, where they would be irreversibly dismantled.  Adm. Gayler’s passing provides an appropriate moment to revisit his vision and proposal to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world.


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A Proposal for Achieving Zero Nuclear Weapons
by Admiral Noel Gayler, US Navy (Ret.)*, December 2000


It is conceded by all hands that we stand at some continuing risk of nuclear war. The risk is possibly not imminent, but it is basically important above all else — for survival. The Defense and Energy Departments together have made promising starts to reduce possession of nuclear weapons, but far more and much faster action is needed.


Credible report has it that weapons are adrift, potentially available to irresponsible regimes and to terrorists. Independent development by them is not needed to establish threat. The peculiar characteristic of nuclear weaponry is that relative numbers between adversaries mean little. When a target country can be destroyed by a dozen weapons, its own possession of thousands of weapons gains no security. Defense against ballistic missiles is infeasible. What is more, it is irrelevant. Half a dozen non-technical means of delivery are available, in addition to cruise missiles and aircraft.


The recognized and awful dangers of other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological, do not compare to nuclear, despite their vileness. On the tremendous and incredible scale of killing, the others are retail as compared to the nuclear’s wholesale; but there need not be competition since all can be — must be — addressed concurrently.


Drafting a successor to the nuclear arms treaty is purportedly underway. If START III repeats the mistakes of the past, it may well bog down into haggling over relative numbers. More productive can be a process continuing toward total nuclear disarmament, the only way in which both we and the world may be truly secure from nuclear destruction.


An irony is that in developing and using nuclear weapons, we, the United States, have done the only thing capable of threatening our own national security. We have comparatively weak and friendly neighbors to the north and south, control of the seas, and a powerful air and combat-tested armed forces. We are proof that this in no way diminishes the need, as the world’s single greatest power, for Army, Navy, Air, and Marines capable not only of our own defense, but of intervention abroad in the interest of peace and human rights. These forces do not come into being overnight, but need to be continually developed and supported. The argument for a nuclear component is no longer valid. The time is now for a concrete proposal that meets the problem. Process, as opposed to negotiating numbers, is the basic principle of the proposal that I suggest. It is nothing less than drastic: the continuing reduction to zero of weapons in the hands of avowed nuclear powers, plus an end to the nuclear ambitions of others.


The proposal: Let weapons be delivered to a single point, there to be dismantled, the nuclear material returned to the donors for use or disposal, and the weapons destroyed. This process, once underway, will be nearly impossible to stop, since its obvious merits, political and substantive, will compel support. The “single point” may well be a floating platform, at sea, in international waters. A handy platform can be an aircraft carrier that has been removed from “mothballs” and disarmed, yet capable of steaming to the desired location and operating support aircraft and ships to handle heavier loads. Living quarters for personnel, ships company, and disarmament processors, would be integral, as would be major protected spaces.


The US, of course, is the obvious source of a carrier, but there could be international manning, following the precedent of NATO. This would make the American ship politically palatable to the participants and Russia would be handled sensitively. Obvious and major advantages of security, inspection, availability, timing, and cost would ensue. Those regimes and groups not initially participating can be put under enormous pressure to join. Any remaining recalcitrant can be disarmed militarily, this time with a concert of powers. The need for persuasion and understanding of the participating powers is, of course, fundamental, and probably the most difficult requirement to meet. To meet this need of public understanding and consequent action, domestic and foreign, will require that we dispel some common illusions, such as:



  • Is physical defense against nuclear weapons possible? No. What’s more, it’s irrelevant. A half dozen non-technical means of delivery avail.
  • Can nuclear weapons be used in any sensible manner? No. This includes “tactical.”
  • Does nuclear disarmament imperil our security? No. It enhances it.
  • Is deterrence of nuclear or other attack by threat of retaliation still possible? No. The many potential aggressors are scattered — even location unknown. No targets!

With these illusions dispelled, it becomes evident that nuclear disarmament works to the advantage of every power. Only in this way can the world be made safe from unprecedented murder and destruction. It remains to take the necessary actions. They are feasible and imperative.


Admiral Noel Gayler (US Navy, Ret.) was a four-star admiral and served as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC). He was responsible for nuclear attack tactical development and demonstration of nuclear attack tactics to the Chairman and Joint Chiefs.


David Krieger
David Krieger
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author and editor of many books on peace and nuclear weapons abolition, including "Speaking of Peace: Quotations to Inspire Action."

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