This is the transcript of a talk given by Jackie Cabasso at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. For more information about the symposium, click here.


It’s really a great honor and a little bit daunting to be on the podium here with Professor Chomsky, but he seems a pretty down-to-earth guy. [laughter] I’m going to try to limit my remarks to the allotted time, there’s a great deal to say on this topic. When I looked at my email this morning, I saw two subject lines one after the other. “Top British General warns of nuclear war with Russia, ‘the end of life as we know it'” immediately followed by, “The week the world agreed to make nuclear weapons illegal.” I think that this kind of sums at where we’re at, but it also underlines the point that with the internet and social media that we have available to us today, we’re operating in a blizzard of propaganda, probably unprecedented, that makes our work even harder, because we don’t know who to believe or what to believe. And this makes the imperative for critical thinking even more important. I believe that we need to think much more deeply and systematically about the causes of our existential predicament, which are the same as the causes of climate change, wars, unprecedented economic disparities resulting in a plethora of social ills, and we need to make strategic organizing and advocacy choices based on this analysis.

This will also help build a movement of movements that we will need to prevail on nuclear disarmament and many other pressing issues, the popular movement to that Noam was just talking about. I believe that nuclear weapons are not a single issue and cannot be understood as such. Nuclear weapons are ultimate instruments of power, power projection, militarism and war; they are the currency of global domination. There’s an inextricable link between nuclear and conventional weapons also, especially in light of today’s high-tech arms racing. Nuclear weapons cannot simply be plucked out of this equation. I believe that nuclear disarmament will not be possible unless accompanied by significant demilitarization and general disarmament, which is sometimes called strategic stability, and I’ll talk more about that.

At the height of the Cold War and the height of the anti-nuclear movement in 1982, as I was being arrested non-violently blocking the gates to the Livermore nuclear weapons lab, along with Dan Ellsberg and several thousand other people, I could not have dreamed that less than 10 years later the Soviet Union would disappear overnight and the Cold War would end. Like many others I think in such unlikely event I would have predicted that nuclear disarmament would quickly follow, but we were wrong. We didn’t understand the forces that were driving the nuclear arms race, and I’m not sure that we do now. When assessing the alarming lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, we sometimes forget the fundamentals haven’t really changed since the beginning of the nuclear age, and certainly not since the end of World War II.

In appealing to the 1982 United Nations Second Special on Disarmament the Hiroshima Mayor, Takashi Araki, said, “Hiroshima is not merely a witness of history, Hiroshima is an endless warning for the future of humankind. If Hiroshima is ever forgotten it is evident that the mistake will be repeated and bring human history to an end.” When the Cold War ended, it was almost as if the planet itself breathed a huge sigh of relief. People around the world hoped and believed that they had escaped the nuclear holocaust and largely put nuclear weapons out of their minds. During the 1980s, fear of nuclear war was by far the most visible issue of concern to the American public. Yet following the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons and especially US nuclear weapons, fell off the public’s radar screen. Nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament became increasingly isolated issues, experts in Washington DC redefined post-Cold War nuclear priorities almost solely in terms of securing Russian loose nukes and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists.

Meanwhile, deeply embedded in the military industrial complex, Pentagon planners and scientists at the nuclear weapons labs conjured up new justifications to sustain the nuclear weapons enterprise. Following the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Colin Powell, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “You’ve got to step aside from the context we’re been using for the past 40 years, that you base military planning against a specific threat. We no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for, what we planned for is that we’re a super power. We are the major player on the world’s stage with responsibilities and interests around the world.” And this sounds a lot like some of Ashton Carter’s recent rhetoric.

When looking back over things that I’ve written in the past, I found many similar themes recurring that I’d actually forgotten about, because things keep moving so fast. How many people remember Presidential Decision Directive 60 that was issued by President Clinton in 1997, nearly 10 years after the Cold War ended? This Presidential Directive reaffirmed the threatened first use of nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of US national security, and contemplated an expanding role for nuclear weapons to deter not only nuclear, but also chemical and biological weapons. The Bush doctrine of preventive war was a continuation and an expansion of programs and policies carried out by every US administration, Democrat and Republican, since President Harry Truman, a Democrat, authorized the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

You may remember the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, which I also had sort of put out of my mind. It stated that “nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will contemplate other military capabilities”. And it did something very important that described the transition to a new strategic triad, which provides an understanding of how the US planned to, and in fact is planning to carry out its global war-fighting strategy. In one corner of the new triad, the old strategic triad, the nuclear triad, consisting of submarine-based ballistic missiles, land-based based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers was moved up to one corner and combined with conventional high tech weaponry. This category was named Offensive Strike Systems.

The other legs of the new triad were defenses and a revitalized defense infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats. This was a super-sized infrastructure to serve as both the nuclear and the conventional weapon systems, the warheads and the delivery systems. And these were all bound together by enhanced command and control and intelligent systems. And these three legs of the new strategic triad were designed and are designed to work together to enable the United States project overwhelming military force. And in this context you can understand that, so-called defenses actually work like shields with the swords of offensive weapons, and protect the US forward deployments and freedom of action around the world. In particular, the missile defense systems, which we’re hearing a little bit about now as provocations to Russia and China, or as perceived provocations to Russia and China, were describe by Admiral Ramdas, the former head of India’s Navy, who’s describe US theater missile defenses as “a net thrown over the globe”.

Now, in 2010, the Obama Nuclear Posture Review was released, exactly one year and one day after the Prague speech. And despite hopes for dramatic change, of course, this Nuclear Posture Review revealed no substantial changes in US nuclear force structure, maintained all three legs of the strategic triad, only marginally reduced the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy, stating, “These nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world”. The NPR explicitly rejected reducing the high alert status of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic submarines, concluding that, “The current alert posture of US strategic forces with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert and a significant number of sea-launched ballistic missiles at sea at any given time should be maintained for the present”.

It also reaffirmed the policy of extended deterrence and retains the capability to forward deploy US nuclear weapons on tactical fighter bombers and heavy bombers, including at NATO bases in Europe, while proceeding with the modification of the B61 bomb carried on those planes. That was before the 2011 turnaround that Professor Chomsky talked about. I don’t have time to really go into it, but I want to talk about in greater specificity about the linkage between nuclear and high tech conventional offensive and defensive weapons, again, this concept called strategic stability.

Okay, I’ll move quickly. The US government as, I think everyone here knows, is officially committed to modernizing its nuclear bombs and warheads, delivery systems, the laboratories and plants that design and maintain them, and US policy and budget documents for many years now manifest an intent to keep thousands of US nuclear weapons in active service for the foreseeable future, and the capacity to bring stored weapons into service, and to design and manufacture new weapons should they be desired. Russia’s nuclear weapons programs and policies closely mirror those of the US, and are also reflected in the other nuclear weapons possessing states. But perhaps and even more dangerous than nuclear warhead modifications are upgrades for delivery systems for conventional weapons.

In 2008, General Kevin Chilton, head of the US Strategic Command, declared, “We have a Prompt Global Strike delivery capability on alert today, but is configured only with nuclear weapons, which limits the options available to the President and may in some cases reduce the credibility of our deterrents.” And along these lines the Pentagon began development of a new generation of long-range delivery systems, capable of carrying conventional warheads. The US is hoping to take advantage of continuing advances in space technologies and improvements in guidance technologies to place non-nuclear as well nuclear payloads on long-range missiles. The goal is to achieve “Prompt Global Strike, the ability to hit targets anywhere on earth in an hour or else and to hit them accurately enough so that non-nuclear payloads can destroy the target”. This is one of many ways in which the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons has been blurred.

In addition, the US is researching new kinds of weapons, including gliding, maneuvering reentry vehicles that could carry a variety of weapons and hypersonic weapons, intended to attack targets many times faster than the speed of sound, before a defender could react. Russia actually is believed to be testing these as a possible way to attack missile defense systems. Tests of hypersonic vehicles that are part of this research and development effort have been conducted in recent years at Vandenberg Air Force Base, not so far from here, where the US Air Force routinely conducts tests of unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. The possibility that Prompt Global Strike Program might succeed, although there are many technical obstacles, impedes nuclear disarmament efforts and is helping to accelerate a new round of arms racing.

Russian security analysts have been raising concerns for years that these conventional US alternatives to nuclear weapons might pose an obstacle to US/Russian nuclear arms control negotiations. In 2009, Alexei Arbatov at the Carnegie Moscow Center observed, “There are very few countries that are afraid of American nuclear weapons. But there are many countries which are afraid of American conventional weapons. In particular, nuclear weapon states like China and Russia are primarily concerned about growing American conventional, precision-guided long-range capability.” Paradoxically, Robert Einhorn, a special advisor for non-proliferation and arms control to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remarked in 2007, “We should be putting far more effort into developing more effective conventional weapons. It’s hard to imagine a president using nuclear weapons in almost any circumstance, but no one doubts our willingness to use conventional weapons.” And this statement, unfortunately, is all too true. In 2015, the US spent almost $600 billion on its military, more than twice as much as China and Russia combined, and more than one third of the world’s countries combined.

An even more overpowering conventional US military threat surely is not the desired outcome of the nuclear disarmament process. How will potential adversaries with fewer economic resources respond? Won’t they have an incentive to maintain or acquire nuclear weapons to counter US conventional superiority? And won’t that in turn entrench US determination to retain and modernize its own nuclear arsenal, thus rendering the goal of nuclear disarmament nearly impossible? This conundrum poses one of the biggest challenges to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

I wanted to actually just talk about the political machinations around the START II Treaty and the ratification process, because it’s an example of how nuclear disarmament treaties have been turned on their heads and actually have become anti-disarmament treaties. This was true with the comprehensive test ban process. But the political conditions attached to Senate ratification in the US, and mirrored by Russia, effectively did turn START into an anti-disarmament measure. And this was stated in so many words by Senator Bob Corker, a Republican Senator from Tennessee whose state is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of the proposed multi-billion dollar uranium processing facility.

He said, “I am proud that as result of ratification we have been successful in securing commitments from the administration on modernization of our nuclear arsenal and support of our missile defense programs, two things that would not have happened otherwise. In fact, thanks in part to the contributions of my staff and I have been able to make, the new START Treaty could easily be called, ‘The Nuclear Modernization and Missile Defense Act of 2010′”. And one of the problems that we face as anti-nuclear advocates is that this critique was kept out of the debate in Washington by the arms control groups who were trying to be realistic. So we’ve seen what the outcome of that has been. Those conditions, by the way, were essentially mirrored by the Russian Duma. And in my personal opinion, we’re worse off with that treaty, because of the process then we would be if it hadn’t happened in the first place.

So in conclusion, the concept of security, I think, needs to be re-framed and redefined at every level of society and government, with a premium on universal, human and ecological security, a return to multilateralism, and a commitment to cooperative, non-violent means of conflict resolution. Nuclear disarmament should serve as the leading edge of a global trend towards general and complete disarmament, and redirection of military expenditures to meet human needs and protect the environment. Progress towards a global society that is more fair, peaceful and ecologically sustainable is inter-dependent. We are unlikely to get far on any of these objectives without progress on all. And I want to emphasize that these are not preconditions for disarmament, but together with disarmament, are preconditions for human survival. In our relationships with both each other and the planet, we are now up against the hard choice that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., warned us about, non-violence or non-existence.