General George Lee Butler University of Pittsburgh Speech

By |2013-08-01T17:59:54-07:00May 13, 1999|

” … it is my profound conviction that nuclear weapons did not, and will not, of themselves prevent major war. To the contrary, I am persuaded that the presence of these hideous devices unnecessarily prolonged and intensified the Cold War. In today’s security environment, threats of their employment have been fully exposed as neither credible nor of any military utility.”

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, and thank you Wes for your gracious introduction. My relationship with Wes Posvar is one of the threads that traces the evolution of my thinking back to the earliest years of my life as a military professional. His powerful intellect and rigorous standards of excellence imbued me with a profound determination to be worthy of my responsibilities as servant of the nation’s security. That is a responsibility that continues to move me very deeply, and indeed, it accounts for my presence this evening.

I have brought with me another servant of the national interest whose contributions and sacrifices made a lasting imprint on my career and on the lives of thousands of colleagues with whom I served. My wife Dorene assumed the demanding obligations that derived from my duties with extraordinary grace and competence. She left a lasting mark on the quality of life of military families. In our new life, she serves as a principal officer in our foundation dedicated to reducing nuclear dangers, and is my most trusted and valued advisor.

I want also to acknowledge the University of Pittsburgh for organizing this conference to address the future role and mission of nuclear weapons. In my judgment this is the central issue of our age. I still find it near miraculous that we now live in an age where the prospective elimination of these weapons can be seriously addressed. But, as I have made clear in my public remarks over the past three years, I am dismayed by how badly the handful of nuclear weapon states have faltered in their responsibilities to reduce the saliency of their arsenals.

It is not my intention tonight to reiterate the explicit concerns that underlie my dismay. Those concerns are spelled out in a series of five speeches that progressively develop my thinking as I have absorbed the arguments of my critics, devised alternative strategies for elimination with like-minded colleagues and reflected on the steadily eroding progress of traditional arms control approaches.

With respect to critics, I noted with interest that the convenors of this conference chose a negative formulation of its subject: why not nuclear abolition? That is useful if only because it serves as a reminder that proponents of abolition must be deeply mindful of the risks and obstacles that must be accounted for both along the path and at the end state of a presumptive nuclear weapons free world. By way of introduction to my principal remarks, I will suggest that these difficulties and dangers are most often posited in terms of three key arguments. First, that nuclear weapons cannot be “disinvented;” second, and relatedly, that abolition cannot be verified; and third, that the absence of nuclear weapons will make so-called “major wars” once again possible.

I will touch on the first two of these arguments briefly and the third at length. But let me begin by noting that they all obscure an absolutely vital understanding. I came to appreciate early on in my long association with nuclear arms control that issues regarding risk reduction and prospectively abolition depend in the final analysis upon judgments about costs and benefits, both along the path and at the end state. These judgments in turn depend upon a disciplined and continuing assessment or the security environment in which reductions might be taken, or state of abolition is to be maintained.

Too often, however, the risks of abolition are simply asserted as if they could not be adequately mitigated. Such assertions typically project upon that end state a risk calculus posed in terms of today’s sovereign relationships, technological tools and societal attitudes. This mindset ignores or discounts the stunning reality that the global security environment has already been profoundly transformed by the end of the cold war. It also misses the point that this astonishing and wholly unanticipated eventuality was itself the product of both serendipity, such as the elevation to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the willingness of statesmen to work relentlessly toward reducing nuclear dangers even in the face of unrelenting tension.

As to the merits of these arguments, with respect to the first I would suggest that a world free of nuclear weapons but burdened with the knowledge of their possibility is far more tolerable than a world wherein an indeterminate number of actors maintain or seek to acquire these weapons under capricious and arbitrary circumstances. The former is effectively a condition of existential deterrence wherein all nations are marginally anxious but free of the fear of imminent nuclear threats. The latter is a continuing nightmare of proliferation; crises spun out of control and the dreaded headline announcing a city vaporized in a thermonuclear cloud.

As regards verification, I need only to pause and reflect on the extraordinary progress we have witnessed in this arena since the superpowers committed themselves to reduce their nuclear arms, and then imagine what can be achieved when they finally commit themselves to their elimination. I can equally imagine, having already 13een party to an instance of forcible denial, the regime of both sanctions and incentives that can be designed to severely penalize cheating and rewar13 compliance. That regime will become increasingly imaginable and attainable as the distant goal of abolition draws nearer and nearer.

Finally, with respect to the argument that nuclear weapons have and will in perpetuity preclude so-called “major war,” I take great exception with its unstated premise that the Soviet Union was driven by an urge to armed aggression with the West, and that nuclear deterrence was the predominant factor in a presumed Soviet decision to refrain from armed attack. Greater access to former Soviet archives continues to shed critical new light on the intentions and motivations of Soviet leaders. For example, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Vojtech Mastny, a senior Research Scholar at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center, has concluded that, and I quote, “the much-vaunted nuclear capability of NATO turns out, as a practical matter, to have been far less important to the eventual outcome than its conventional forces. But above all, it was NATO’s soft power that bested its adversary.”

The importance of this point cannot be overstated, because it goes to the heart of the debate over the future role of nuclear weapons as justified by the asserted primacy of nuclear deterrence in averting major conflict during the Cold War era. Certainly, there is no question that the presence of nuclear weapons played a significant factor in the policies and risk calculus of the cold war antagonists. It may well be that once these weapons were introduced into their respective arsenals, nuclear deterrence was their best, and their worst, hope for avoiding mutual catastrophe.

It is equally clear, however, that the presence of these weapons inspired the United States and the Soviet Union to take risks that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. It is increasingly evident that senior leaders on both sides consistently misread each other’s intentions, motivations and activities, and their successors still do so today. In my own view, as I observed in my speech to the national press club in February of last year, nuclear deterrence in the cold war was a “dialogue of the blind nth the deaf. It was largely a bargain we in the west made nth ourselves.”

As a strategist, I am offended by the muddled thinking that has come increasingly to confuse and misguide nuclear weapons policy and posture, the penalties of which are increasingly severe. Arms control negotiations are in gridlock as the United States and Russia cling to doctrines and forces that are completely irrelevant to their post-cold war security interests. Both nations are squandering precious resources at the expense of conventional military capabilities in growing demand and in the process of being steadily eroded. They have rendered moot their obligations under article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and thereby greatly diminished their moral capacity to champion its cause. The price of this folly is of historic import. By exaggerating the role of nuclear weapons, and misreading the history of nuclear deterrence, the united states and Russia have enshrined declarations and operational practices that are antithetical to our mutual security objectives and unique defense requirements. Worse, in this country, they have weakened our grasp of the power and the application of classic deterrence in an age when we stand preeminent in our capability to bring conventional military power to bear on our vital interests.

We continue to do so in the face of compelling evidence that nuclear deterrence was and remains a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence and fragile human relationships. The fog of fear,

Confusion and misinformation that enveloped the principals caught up in the Cuban missile crisis could have at any moment led to nuclear annihilation. The chilling fact is that American decision-makers did not know then, and not for many years thereafter, that even as they contemplated an invasion some one hundred soviet tactical nuclear warheads were already in place on the island. No further indictment is required to put the elegant theories of nuclear deterrence in perpetual question.

But this lesson has been made time and again, in Korea, in Indochina and most recently in the Persian Gulf, successive presidents of both parties have contemplated and then categorically rejected the employment of nuclear weapons even in the face of grave provocation. Secretary James Baker’s infamous letter to Saddam Hussein was a bluff as concerns the potential use of nuclear weapons. Not only did Iraq violate its prohibition against “the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields,” but analysis had already shown that a nuclear campaign against Iraq was militarily useless and politically preposterous.

In sum, it is my profound conviction that nuclear weapons did not, and will not, of themselves prevent major war. To the contrary, I am persuaded that the presence of these hideous devices unnecessarily prolonged and intensified the cold war. In today’s security environment, threats of their employment have been fully exposed as neither credible nor of any military utility.

And so we now find ourselves in the worst of all outcomes. Policy is being reduced to simplistic declarations that nuclear arms are merely “political weapons,” as if they can be disconnected from the risks of misperceived intent, the demands of operational practice, and the emotional cauldron of an acute confrontation. Superpower postures are being largely maintained at cold war levels, at enormous expense and increasing risk. New entrants are elaborating primitive forces and so-called deterrent policies without benefit of the intricate and costly warning and control measures essential to any hope of crisis stability. Finally, new forces are coming into play as political pressure build to deploy ballistic missile defenses, as governments rise and fall, and as regional animosities deepen.

This is truly a dismal state of affairs. But it was not foreordained. Rather, it is the product of a failure of the worst kind in the realm of national security, that is, a failure of strategic vision. I do not make that criticism lightly, because I have held responsibilities for anticipating and acting on the perceived consequences of strategic change at the highest levels of government. I want to dwell on that experience for a moment because it leads me to a precise explication of how I view nuclear abolition as a goal and as a practical matter in light of contemporary circumstances.

Ten years ago I was engaged in one of the greatest intellectual challenges of my military career: rewriting United States’ national military strategy in anticipation of the end of the cold war. At the time I was the director of strategic plans and policy for the nation’s armed forces, reporting directly to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. I was working under his guidance to redefine the roles, missions, organization and equipage of our military forces in light of what we both foresaw as the precipitous decline of soviet-style communism. Having concerted our views on the broad-brush strokes of this new global canvas, it was then my task to fill in the details and present them for his consideration. I felt well prepared for this effort, having spent the previous two years engaged in intensive interaction with high level soviet officials. I had also invested an enormous intellectual effort to imagine how historic forces might re-emerge after the Cold War to shape the world security environment.

In my view, the revised strategic portrait I drew nearly a decade ago, amended by my conclusions during three subsequent years as commander of the strategic nuclear forces, is still largely relevant to the security tasks that presently confront us. First and foremost, it was founded on the premise that the United States must continue to play the leading role in sustaining and extending global peace and stability. Second, it posited that managing relations with a Soviet Union engaged in a sweeping transformation was by far our primary security interest, especially in its nuclear dimension. Third, it identified stability in the Persian Gulf and Korean peninsula as vital interests, which is to say that challenges to those interests must be met with immediate and overwhelming force. Fourth, it imagined that other smaller contingencies might arise requiring some form of American intervention with less robust forces and objectives.

This broad global framework was tied to a highly detailed and rationalized force structure and organization that differed dramatically from the cold war era. It presaged a thirty-percent reduction in the size of the armed forces, a much more compact alignment, a premium on joint warfighting and a highly sophisticated equipage that would elevate warfare beyond the reach of any prospective opponent.

That vision of global leadership, security priorities and robust conventional forces was short lived. It began on a high and promising note. Events in the summer of 1990 quickly proved the thesis that we would not tolerate a challenge to our vital interests in the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s aggression aims were stopped, reversed and harshly penalized by forceful American leadership and a brilliant combined arms campaign that took Iraqi forces out of play with blinding speed and with minimal coalition casualties. Shortly thereafter, president bush took a series of unilateral steps that dramatically advanced the purposes and the prospects of nuclear arms control. Then, with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Empire, the stage seemed set for an historic realignment of the forces and the rules governing security relations among sovereign states.

Today, I am dumbfounded as I survey the global security landscape. United States leadership is unfocused and uncertain, reeling from crisis to crisis, sharply divided over ends and means, bereft of a sense of larger purpose. Our nation is materially driven and spiritually depleted. Relationships with Russia and with China hang by diplomatic threads, the consequence of policies that have proven intemperate, shortsighted and too often premised on wishful thinking. Saddam Hussein has restored his power base and dismantled the inspection regime, and we have yet to decode the bait and switch tactics emanating from Pyongyang.

Finally, our precious conventional forces are under enormous stress, stretched thin across a host of roles and deployments, their capabilities diminished by falling readiness, only recently have congress and the administration acknowledged these debilitating circumstances and begun to provide the resources required to reconcile our strategic ends and means. In the meantime, all of the services have seen their ranks thinned by disaffection, grinding deployments and economic distress. Worse, the services are still required to fund a highly wasteful base structure and an unending array of pork barrel projects and programs.

What then is missing from the current security debate? Why are we en aged in such an indeterminate and divisive quarrel over the most fundamental questions of national security? With respect to the conventional roles and missions of our armed forces, the answer is clear: as a nation we have yet to redefine much less to inculcate into our national psyche the broader scope of our vital interests in the post-cold war era.

Nothing could make this point more sharply than the agonizing events in Kosovo. We are conducting a major air campaign in an undeclared war for extremely demanding objectives, yet unwilling to commit the ground forces essential to victory or to suffer the inevitable casualties. We want our strategic cake and to eat it as well. We have declared intolerable, that is, contrary to our vital interests, the humanitarian disaster in the Balkans yet want to reverse its circumstances on the cheap. As a consequence, we have contributed to the disaster and called into question our commitment to defend what we declare to hold dear.

With respect to nuclear forces and policy, the failure of vision is compounded by a failure of imagination, of sheer intellectual paralysis. The traditional arms control process, which served us well through the tensions of the cold war, is not just stalled, but dysfunctional, it is freighted with psychology, language, assumptions and protocols that perpetuate distrust, constrain imagination, limit expectations and prolong outcomes. It is mired in partisan politics; the nation’s most vital interest reduced to a spiteful liberal — conservative standoff. It focuses on things that now matter relatively less, like numbers of warheads, at the expense of things that matter a great deal more, such as the policies that drives the numbers, and the rapid response postures. With regard to the non-proliferation treaty, ingrained pat-terns of interaction between the nuclear and now nuclear weapon states are promoting a train wreck; a collision of competing expectations that I believe is at this juncture irreconcilable.

Clearly, it is time for reappraisal of what is possible and what is not, what is desirable and what is not, or simply what is in our best national interest. Was it mine alone to resolve I would propose the following path. With respect to the goal of abolition, I believe it is the only defensible goal and that goal matter enormously. First and foremost, all of the formally declared nuclear weapon states are legally committed to abolishing their arsenals in the letter and the spirit of the nonproliferation treaty. Every President of the United States since Dwight Eisenhower has publicly endorsed elimination. A clear and unequivocal commitment to elimination sustained by concrete policy and measurable milestones is essential to give credibility and substance to this long—standing declaratory position.

Such a commitment goes far beyond simply seizing the moral high ground. It focuses analysis on a precise end state; all force postures above zero simply become waypoints along a path leading toward elimination. It shifts the locus of policy attention from numbers to the security climate essential to permit successive reductions. It conditions government at all levels to create and respond to every opportunity for shrinking arsenals, cutting infrastructure and curtailing modernization. It sets the stage for rigorous enforcement of nonproliferation regimes and unrelenting pressures to reduce nuclear arsenals on a global basis.

That being said, however, in keeping with the unanimous conclusions of my colleagues on the national academy of science committee on international security and arms control, in our 1997 report, I am persuaded that the more attainable intermediate step is the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Prohibition is the more familiar coin of the realm in global efforts to constrain weapons of mass destruction. The biological and chemical weapons conventions have put down the indisputable marker that as weapons of mass destruction these means are morally repugnant and an affront to humanity. The realization cannot be far behind that as the only true weapons of mass destruction, nuclear arms are not only a candidate for prohibition, they should have been the first objective.

Next, regarding the steps toward prohibition, clearly the most urgent concern should be those elements of nuclear capabilities that pose the most immediate danger. In my judgment, those

elements begin with the practice of maintaining thousands of warheads on high states of alert, which is to say, launch readiness. Having successfully proposed to President Bush in 1991 to reduce bomber launch readiness from several minutes to days, I am appalled that eight years later land and sea based missiles remain in what amounts to immediate launch postures. The risk of accidental or erroneous launch would evaporate in an operational environment where warheads and missiles are de-mated and preferably widely separated in location.

Third, it is imperative to recognize that all numbers of nuclear weapons above zero are completely arbitrary; that against an urban target one weapon represents an unacceptable horror; that twenty weapons would suffice to destroy the twelve largest Russian cities with a total population of twenty-five million people-one-sixth of the entire Russian population; and therefore that arsenals in the hundreds, much less in the thousands, can serve no meaningful strategic objective. From this perspective, the start process is completely bankrupt. The start 11 ceiling of 3000 to 3500 operational warheads to be achieved by the year 2007 is wholly out of touch with reality; the start iii objective of 2000 operational warheads is a meaningless reduction in terms of the devastation at such levels.

In light of the current, complexly interrelated and intransigent attitudes of the nuclear weapons states-declared or otherwise-the best compromise is an arbitrary figure in the hundreds as defined by the arsenals of China, France and Great Britain. Numbers above that level are simply irresponsible, owing more to bureaucratic politics and political demagoguery than any defensible strategic rationale.

At some future juncture, the thorny questions of warhead versus delivery system accountability, and tactical nuclear stockpiles must come into play. But what matters most in the current atmosphere is to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons. That first requires the United States and the former Soviet Union to stop brandishing them by the thousands as if their cold war hostility were undiminished. America and Russia are not enemies. Rather, we are common survivors of a perilous enmity who could find no better solution to their entangled security fears than the monstrous resort of mutual assured destruction.

Finally, with regard to the crucial question of deploying a national ballistic missile defense, let me recall here what I said to the Congress on this subject as a member of the Rumsfeld Commission. My position rests upon the following conditions, none yet evident. First, that we devise a system relevant to the threats described by the commission report. Second, that the technology essential to deploy such a system with high confidence be in hand. And, third, that in any case, we bend every effort to accommodate such a system within the bounds of ABM Treaty amended as necessary in concert with Russia. To do otherwise invites a series of consequences that may leave us far worse off, than the missile threats we strain to confront.

In closing, let me underscore that this imposing agenda is a necessary but far from sufficient step toward regaining our strategic footing as the worlds most powerful nation. We cannot shrink from devoting the resources necessary to sustain conventional forces of unchallengeable strength. The capabilities and professionalism of our intelligence Community, badly eroded since the end of the cold war, must be rebuilt. And we must recognize our unique responsibility to preserve and extend the capacity of international organizations to combat global poverty and human abuse.

Above all, we must remedy our loss of strategic vision and restore a sense of larger purpose, we have become much too prone to demonize our enemies, real or prospective, too ready to wield the meat axe of power politics than to stay the course of patient diplomacy. Nothing I have read makes this case more cogently than the sophisticated agenda set forth by Bill Perry and Ash Carter in their recent book, Preventive Defense, which should be required reading for both diplomats and warriors.

Our best guide in the process of national renewal is simply to act in accordance with the principles and values that set us apart from tyranny and above the murderous inst114cts of racial, ethnic and religious hatred. That is what must underwrite your deliberations in this conference. It is also the test that will ultimately define our goodness as a people, our worth as a nation and our legacy to humanity.

* General George Lee Butler retired from 33 years of military service on February 28, 1994. He served with distinction and completed numerous flying and staff assignments, including professor of nuclear subjects at the Air Force Academy. General Butler was the last Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) before that command ended in 1992. He served as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command, successor to the SAC, at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and formulated strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In both command positions he helped in the revision of US nuclear war plans. He was the principal nuclear advisor to the president to whom the president would have issued a command tolaunch America’s nuclear arsenal. Butler currently serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as the Committee on International Security and Arms Control for the National Academy of Sciences and the Canberra Commission. He serves on numerous boards of Omaha civic organizations. He founded the Second Chance Foundation which, which has its headquarters in Omaha, and is dedicated to the effort of globally eliminating nuclear weapons by promoting public education of awareness of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and sponsoring activities to reduce or to eliminate these dangers. Butler received the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation 1999 Distinguished Peace Leader Award for his courageous advocacy of abolishing nuclear weapons.