This article was originally published by The Sun Magazine.
In 1963 the prospect of war was on many Americans’ minds. The U.S. was increasing its military presence in South Vietnam and had come to the brink of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union a year earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. David Krieger was fresh out of Occidental College with a degree in psychology. Wanting to experience a foreign culture, he traveled to Japan, where he visited the sites of the World War II atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience left an indelible impression on the future nuclear-disarmament activist. “In the U.S. we viewed the bomb as a technological achievement that shortened the war,” he says. “The Japanese, however, viewed the atomic bombings as humanitarian catastrophes. It brought home to me the ways in which our government — perhaps any government — develops a narrative to justify its actions.”
After he returned to the States in 1964, Krieger was drafted into the army and got permission to join the reserves so that he could attend graduate school at the University of Hawaii. In 1968, having earned his PhD in political science, he was called to active duty, and a year later he was ordered to Vietnam. Convinced that the war was immoral and illegal, he applied for conscientious-objector status. When his application was denied, Krieger sued in federal court and won. It was another turning point for him. He’d learned that one could successfully challenge powerful institutions, even the U.S. government.
Krieger went on to become a professor and to work for think tanks and international organizations that supported nuclear disarmament. He also earned a law degree from the Santa Barbara College of Law in California and served as a temporary judge for the Santa Barbara County courts. In 1982 he cofounded and became president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org), where he has remained for thirty years, working for a world free of nuclear weapons. The organization currently has fifty-six thousand members, and Krieger has appeared on cnn and msnbc and is a frequent contributor to national print media. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, most recently The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers, coauthored with Richard Falk.
Although Krieger has opposed nuclear weapons primarily through educational and advocacy efforts, in February 2012 he was arrested — along with his wife, Carolee, Daniel Ellsberg, Cindy Sheehan, Father Louis Vitale, and ten other activists — for engaging in civil resistance at a test of the Minuteman iii nuclear-missile system at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Asked how he felt after his arrest, Krieger said, “Exhilarated.”
For this interview Krieger met with me at his office in a converted two-story Victorian house on a tree-shaded street in downtown Santa Barbara. In person he is disarmingly calm, even-tempered, and optimistic. Though he views current U.S. policy as a threat to humanity’s future, he reveals no bitterness, anger, or haste. He is engaged in this struggle for the long haul and believes that most people, once they understand the dangers, will join him.
Goodman: How many nuclear weapons are there in the world today?
Krieger: Far too many. Nine countries have a total of almost twenty thousand nuclear weapons. More than 90 percent are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. The remaining weapons are divided among the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
The U.S. has far more nuclear weapons deployed — 1,800 — than there are reasonable targets, especially considering that Russia is more than nominally our friend and China is one of our major trading partners. And we retain thousands more in reserve.
Goodman: Why so many?
Krieger: You’d have to ask the U.S. government, which has been reluctant to commit to a nuclear-weapons ban because it has found the arms useful for imposing its will on other nations. We can threaten, “Do as we say, or else.” I see this as an extraordinarily dangerous gambit, however, as we may be challenged to make good on our threat. The potential consequences of using nuclear weapons are so horrendous that any risk of their use is too high.
Goodman: The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from a peak of seventy thousand in 1986. Are the numbers still going down?
Krieger: Yes, they are still going down. The world has shed fifty thousand nuclear weapons since the 1980s. That’s a terrific accomplishment. But it’s not enough, especially given that the U.S. and its nato allies made no commitment to further nuclear-arsenal reductions when they met in 2012. And nato reaffirmed its commitment to nuclear weapons at its 2012 summit in Chicago.
The only number that is truly significant is zero, and, more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the nuclear-armed countries still have no real plan to get there.
Gandhi, when asked about the U.S. using nuclear weapons against Japan, said that we could see the effect on the cities that were destroyed, but it was too soon to know what effect the bomb would have on the soul of the nation that used it. In many respects the soul of America has been compromised. We can’t go on developing ever more powerful weapons indefinitely. Those of us born at the onset of the nuclear age are challenged in ways unknown to previous generations, because we grew up in a world in which humans have the capability to destroy everything. If the taboo on nuclear use in warfare, which has existed since 1945, is broken, the consequences could be eight thousand years of civilization coming to an end and a radioactive planet. One nuclear weapon dropped on New York City could be sufficient to destroy the U.S. as a functioning nation. But it’s not too late. We still have the capacity to walk back from the brink.
Goodman: Why is there not a greater sense of urgency today about the need to reduce nuclear arsenals?
Krieger: Nuclear weapons have been sold to the public as a necessary protection against nuclear attack. People have bought into the theory of deterrence — the idea that the fear of nuclear retaliation will keep the peace between the nuclear-armed powers. But a terrorist organization could still use a nuclear weapon and leave no way to retaliate because it has no discernible territory. And if just having nuclear weapons actually protects us, then why do we design so-called missile-defense systems to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles? We are planning for nuclear war as if it were winnable, not unthinkable. That is not rational.
Another reason for the seeming lack of concern is that too many people defer to experts. I think it is important for the public to reclaim the issue, as happened in 1982, when a million people gathered in New York’s Central Park to support a freeze on nuclear buildup.
Goodman: What is the difference between long-range nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons? Are the two kinds equally important to eliminate?
Krieger: Long-range weapons are also called “strategic” nuclear weapons and have intercontinental-delivery capabilities. They can be launched from silos, submarines, or aircraft. Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, with a limited range and generally less explosive power. Strategic weapons can do the most damage, but tactical weapons are more likely to get into the hands of terrorist organizations.
The U.S. has already eliminated most of its tactical arsenal, but it retains some 180 tactical nuclear weapons in five European countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Russia still has some three to four thousand of them. I believe that strategic and tactical nuclear weapons are equally important to eliminate. My goal is zero nuclear weapons on the planet.
Goodman: What message does the U.S. send the rest of the world by maintaining such a large arsenal of nuclear weapons?
Krieger: As long as the U.S. and other powerful nations claim to need nuclear weapons for security, it encourages additional countries to do the same. If the most powerful nation on the planet needs nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t every country need them? The more nuclear weapons there are, the greater the chance that they will end up in the hands of extremist groups or an irrational leader who will one day decide it is in his or her country’s national interest to use them.
Goodman: Is the U.S. likely to use nuclear weapons again?
Krieger: I certainly hope not, but so long as the weapons exist in the U.S. arsenal, there remains the possibility that they will be used. Most Americans would probably be surprised to discover that the U.S. has never had a policy of “no first use.” We have given some countries “negative security assurances” — that is, promises that we won’t attack them with nuclear weapons — but we give this only to nations that do not have nuclear weapons and that we believe are in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, a treaty that aims, in part, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Countries that possess nuclear weapons or that the U.S. believes are out of compliance do not receive such assurances.
Goodman: So we say that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to use, but we will not commit to not using them.
Krieger: Actually, we don’t officially say that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to use. U.S. leaders reserve the right to use them under certain circumstances. If the U.S. were to adopt a no-first-use policy — and then get all the nuclear-armed countries to make the same pledge, with legal consequences for violation — it would be a significant step toward nuclear disarmament. But that doesn’t fit the policy of deterrence.
General George Lee Butler, who was once in charge of all U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, writes, “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.” This is a denunciation of the very principle by which countries justify their possession of nuclear weapons.
The policy of mutual assured destruction may have been successful during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but it came close to ruinous failure. The decision makers in the Cuban Missile Crisis have said on many occasions that there was an enormous amount of misinformation and misunderstanding. They were later shocked to discover how much they didn’t know and how fortunate we were to avoid a full-out nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Goodman: Still, there has been no use of nuclear weapons for sixty-seven years.
Krieger: We should not take too much comfort in that, because it’s a relatively short period in human history. That rationalization is analogous to a man who, having jumped from the top of a hundred-story building and fallen sixty-seven stories without a problem, thinks everything is fine.
Also, you can’t prove that nuclear deterrence is the reason there hasn’t been a war. I could say with just as much certainty that the reason there hasn’t been a nuclear war is because people drink Coca-Cola. Correlation is not causation. We don’t know if both the U.S. and the Soviet Union having nuclear weapons prevented nuclear war. What we do know is that we came close to having a nuclear war on at least one occasion.
Goodman: But the nuclear era is the longest period of peace between great powers in history.
Krieger: It has resulted in numerous proxy wars, however. During the Cold War, conflicts were sparked by the power rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the major nuclear powers’ continued pursuit of hegemony in critical regions of the world has caused much violence. Millions of people, primarily in poorer countries, have been the principal victims. Consider the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among many others.
Goodman: What are your biggest fears in regard to nuclear weapons?
Krieger: I worry that humanity is stumbling toward its own extinction, and that the U.S. is leading the way. Americans don’t want to have to deal with the serious implications of our nuclear policy. We like to stay “above the fray,” which is the position of a pilot who drops the bomb. We want to keep the discussion on a technological or intellectual level and not deal with the terrifying possibility of the extinction of the human species and other complex forms of life on the planet. We don’t want to consider what it means to live in a society that bases its security on threatening to murder hundreds of millions of innocent people.
Goodman: How many detonations would it take to end all life on the planet?
Krieger: I don’t think anyone can answer that with certainty, but surely the U.S. and Russia each have enough thermonuclear weapons to accomplish it, should either country use them by accident or intention. Scientists have modeled what would happen if there were a relatively “small” nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving fifty Hiroshima-sized bombs each on the other side’s cities. Those hundred nuclear weapons would, in addition to the destruction of the cities, put enough soot into the upper stratosphere to reduce the sunlight reaching the earth’s surface, decreasing temperatures, shortening growing seasons, causing crop failures, and leading to hundreds of millions of deaths, perhaps a billion, by starvation caused by famine. Using all or most of the deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, perhaps even some smaller number of these weapons, could reduce temperatures to below freezing on most of the agricultural land in the northern hemisphere and result in the extinction of humans and other forms of complex life.
Goodman: If terrorists were to detonate a single nuclear bomb in a major U.S. population center, how might it affect life in the entire country?
Krieger: Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people would die from the blast, more would die from the fires the blast would cause, and still more would die from the radiation poisoning, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The detonation of a single nuclear bomb in New York City could be a thousand times worse than the 9/11 tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine the full psychological impact, but people throughout the country would be stunned and frightened about which city might be next. The long-term cleanup and reconstruction would be overwhelming. What would we do in response? Would we pick a country we felt was responsible and destroy one or all of its cities? And we are talking here about only one bomb setting all of this in motion.
Goodman: How great is the risk of an accidental nuclear war?
Krieger: It’s above zero, and any number other than zero is too great a risk. I also know that the more countries that develop nuclear weapons, the greater the risk of inadvertent nuclear war. Accidents happen, no matter how careful we are. The Russians thought they had control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The operators were going through a routine exercise, and before they knew it, they had a meltdown on their hands. The Japanese thought they had control at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant before the tsunami hit. Human fallibility and natural disasters are always with us. A computerized training program could lead to the false belief that we are really under attack, as has happened before. Or a nuclear submarine could lose communication with the command structure or misinterpret a command. In 1995 a U.S.-Norwegian launch of a weather satellite was mistaken by the Russians as a missile attack aimed at Moscow. Boris Yeltsin was awakened in the middle of the night and told Russia was under attack. He had only a few minutes to decide whether or not to launch a “counterattack” against the U.S. Fortunately, Yeltsin took longer than the time allotted to him, and it became apparent that the satellite was not a rocket aimed at Moscow.
There are many other examples of accidents that could have triggered nuclear detonations but didn’t. There have been midair refueling problems where nuclear weapons have fallen from planes, and planes have crashed with nuclear weapons onboard.
Goodman: I presume we don’t fly nuclear-armed airplanes over foreign soil.
Krieger: I believe that is our policy, but such incidents have occurred inadvertently. I can’t say with certainty whether it’s the policy of other nuclear-armed nations.
Goodman: As a young adult you spent nearly a year in Japan and visited the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How do you respond to the common belief that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 saved lives by ending the war?
Krieger: It’s interesting that, after the war, the number of lives supposedly saved by the bomb kept going up and up. At first they talked about 250,000. Within a relatively short time it was up to a million: I would say that’s a myth. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, published in 1946, concluded that, even without the atomic bombs, and even without the Soviet Union entering the war in the Pacific, the fighting would have ended in 1945 without an Allied invasion of Japan. Japan had put out feelers to surrender, and the U.S. had broken Japan’s secret codes and knew about its desire to surrender, but we went ahead and bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest ranking member of the U.S. military at the time, wrote in his memoir that the atomic bomb “was of no material assistance” against Japan, because the Japanese were already defeated. He went on to say that, in being the first to use the bomb, the U.S. “had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
It’s interesting that, after the war, the number of lives supposedly saved by the bomb kept going up and up. At first they talked about 250,000. Within a relatively short time it was up to a million.
Goodman: How close is Iran to developing nuclear weapons?
Krieger: Iran’s nuclear program has been under scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea), and there is no evidence at this point that the Iranians have a nuclear-weapons program. They are enriching uranium to 20 percent u-235. You must enrich uranium to higher levels — 80 to 90 percent u-235 — to have the fissile material necessary for constructing nuclear weapons. But they could enrich to that level in the future, so it’s important to keep an eye on the situation. It would be reprehensible, however, to initiate an attack against Iran simply because it could potentially create highly enriched uranium.
There’s been a subtle shift in the way information about Iran is being conveyed to the American people. The government has gone from talking about the danger of Iran “obtaining” nuclear weapons to talking about the danger of Iran having nuclear-weapons “capability.” Many countries have nuclear-weapons capability without possessing nuclear weapons. Germany and Japan are two. The Scandinavian countries, as well as Brazil and Argentina, probably have the means to make nuclear weapons, but they don’t have them.
U.S. foreign policy might actually be pushing Iran toward a nuclear-weapons program. Iranians may view threats from the U.S. and Israel as dangerous to their sovereignty and well-being. George W. Bush described an “Axis of Evil” composed of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Iraq gave up its nuclear-weapons program, and the U.S. invaded, overthrew its government, and executed its leader. Meanwhile North Korea developed nuclear weapons, and the U.S. continues to negotiate with its leaders. If you were the leader of Iran and observed what’s gone on with the other two members of the so-called Axis, which path would you take?
Goodman: Iran is led by a fundamentalist regime that many view as being of dubious sanity. Shouldn’t we worry about their having even nuclear-weapons capability?
Krieger: They may be of dubious sanity, but that can be said of many regimes. There have been many leaders, in the U.S. and elsewhere, who have acted irrationally at times. If, in fact, Iranian leaders are insane and irresponsible, of course they should not have nuclear weapons. But they also should not have them even if they are perfectly sane. No one should.
By the way, the Iranian situation points out a problem in the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself. A nuclear-power program gives a nation the ability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons, but Article iv of the Non-Proliferation Treaty refers to nuclear power as an “inalienable right.” Is there really such a “right” to nuclear power? How can we promote nuclear power and nuclear disarmament simultaneously? Personally, I would like to see us rethink the role of nuclear power in the world, because there is such a close connection between the nuclear fuel cycle and the ability to make nuclear weapons.
Goodman: What should U.S. policy be toward Iran?
Krieger: First, we should propose that Iran put the enriched uranium created by its nuclear plants under the safeguards of international inspectors. I think Iranians would accept this. Really, any process that creates fissile materials should be put under strict international control. That includes nuclear power in the U.S.
Second, we should continue to apply sanctions to Iran if it does not allow full inspections of its nuclear fuel cycle.
Third, U.S. policy needs to be in accord with the promise we made in 1995 to pursue a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and we cannot have that without the participation of Israel. It is almost universally believed that Israel has a relatively large nuclear arsenal, even though it does not admit to it.
There are successful nuclear-weapons-free zones in a number of regions: Antarctica, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central Asia and Mongolia. Virtually the entire southern hemisphere is composed of nuclear-weapons-free zones. There have been calls for such a zone in Northeast Asia, to include North and South Korea, Japan, parts of China, and the U.S. fleet in the region. But nuclear weapons are a global problem, and regional solutions will not be sufficient. We need to have a global set of negotiations to achieve a new treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.
Goodman: Why do we need a new treaty? What’s wrong with the existing one?
Krieger: The existing Non-Proliferation Treaty calls for nuclear disarmament, but that goal hasn’t been effectively pursued by its nuclear-armed member states — the U.S., Russia, the UK, France, and China — nor pursued at all by the other four nuclear-armed countries that are not parties to the treaty: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. In fact, North Korea withdrew legally from the treaty in its “supreme interests.” We need a treaty that bans the possession of nuclear weapons and provides a road map by which we can move to a world without them.
A starting point would be a commitment by all nuclear-armed nations to a no-first-use policy. Step two would be major reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia — down to, say, two or three hundred weapons on each side. This is still far too many, but it would bring those nations into rough parity with the other nuclear powers in the world. After that, a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons could be negotiated.
I hope the leadership to move toward a nuclear-free world will come from the U.S. It appeared there was potential for this when President Obama said in Prague in 2009 that America seeks “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
But even if we have leaders who are ready to lead on this issue, there will still need to be broad public support. Many Americans remain convinced that nuclear weapons provide security when, in fact, they act as a dangerous provocation and an incentive for proliferation.
The path to security doesn’t lie in keeping a stash of nuclear weapons for ourselves and preventing other countries from getting any. It’s hypocritical to say that the U.S. should have these weapons and Iran shouldn’t. It also creates resentment and a greater desire to possess them. The path to security can only be through total nuclear disarmament. We cannot indefinitely maintain a world of nuclear haves and have-nots, and we cannot go attacking every country that we think might be on the path to making a bomb.
Goodman: Do you think the U.S. will go to war with Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?
Krieger: The U.S. isn’t prepared for the consequences of attacking Iran. Iran is much bigger and better organized than Iraq, where our troops fought for nine years. There is no telling how long it would take to subdue Iran or to deal with the consequences throughout the Middle East — and the world.
If we attacked Iran, it would harden the resolve of its leaders and those of other countries to develop nuclear arsenals so they wouldn’t be attacked in the future. Remember our bellicose behavior toward Iraq and our conciliatory behavior toward North Korea. And Iran is a proud country; probably nothing would be more effective in uniting Iranians around their current regime than a U.S. or Israeli attack against them.
An attack would also be viewed as a violation of international law, an act of “aggressive warfare.” In the Nuremberg trials after World War ii, aggressive warfare was one of the three crimes for which the leaders of the Axis powers were tried and convicted. Many were hanged. U.S. leaders committed the same crime in Iraq, and I would say in Afghanistan too.
Goodman: And in Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen with drone attacks?
Krieger: If some country sent drones to attack our leaders or citizens, I’m sure we would call that “aggressive warfare.” But when we do it, for the most part it goes unremarked upon in the mainstream media. Few Americans are clamoring for accountability from our leaders.
Goodman: We have already proven we are not afraid to institute regime change, as we have done in Iraq and as we did in Iran in the 1950s. Is that our intention in Iran today?
Krieger: That would not be the intention of saner minds. Iran is in the mess it’s in now as a result of our meddling in Iranian affairs sixty years ago by overthrowing its democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. When you overthrow regimes, there are always unintended consequences. Iran and Iraq were frequent rivals and fought a long war in the 1980s. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, we shifted the power balance in the Middle East toward Iran. If we overthrow Iran’s regime, there may be something worse in store for us.
The U.S. should do what it can to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, but it shouldn’t do it by military means. That would only undermine our own security.
Goodman: Is total disarmament realistic? Assuming we can’t put an end to war, isn’t it natural for all sides to want the biggest and best weapons?
Krieger: Not necessarily. Imagine you are one of our early human ancestors, and you have a choice among several sizes of club. You don’t want one that is too thin and will break, but, at the same time, a fallen oak tree will be too big to handle. You want a piece of wood the right size to carry around and use.
Today the U.S. military needs weapons that can be used efficiently and that don’t destroy indiscriminately. For quite some time there have been laws of warfare against weapons that fail to discriminate between soldiers and civilians. International humanitarian law also forbids weapons that cause unnecessary suffering, such as bullets that expand inside the body and rip out organs, and chemical and biological weapons.
Goodman: Are there any examples from history of a country voluntarily giving up its military advantage?
Krieger: It depends what you mean by “military advantage.” The countries that signed the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention saw greater military advantage in all countries giving up the weapons than in retaining the weapons for themselves. Many countries have agreed to a ban on land mines and cluster munitions, although the U.S. has not.
Goodman: Let’s say we do achieve total nuclear disarmament, but then a rogue nation builds a nuclear weapon. Wouldn’t this destabilize global relations?
Krieger: No, any treaty that would get us to zero would have safeguards against a country breaking out. To go from twenty thousand to zero nuclear weapons we’ll need a verifiable process based on inspections in all countries. After we finally reached zero, the act of developing a nuclear weapon would be akin to breaking a taboo, and the countries of the world would rise up in protest and retaliation against the treaty breaker. And one nuclear bomb would not be sufficient to defeat a country like the U.S., even if the U.S. had no nuclear weapons, because our conventional forces are so powerful.
To have an effective disarmament plan, we will also need to institute nonmilitary ways of resolving conflicts so that the elimination of nuclear weapons does not create a world that is safer for conventional warfare. All countries want security, and the strongest guarantee of security is a system in which conflicts are resolved without violence. This is what is set forth in the United Nations Charter. The use of force, except in cases of self-defense or upon authorization of the UN Security Council, is prohibited. Unfortunately the permanent members of the Security Council have not fulfilled their responsibilities to keep the peace. Nor have they fulfilled their responsibilities to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament.
Goodman: Does the 2010 New START treaty with Russia effectively reduce nuclear stockpiles or is it just a pr tactic?
Krieger: It’s both. It is not reducing our stockpile much more than the Moscow Treaty did, which George W. Bush signed in 2002. The New START treaty will reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 on each side and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700 on each side. But it also allows for modernizing the arsenals. It is a means of managing nuclear arms rather than a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.
Whether it is going to be an effective stepping stone to further cuts is questionable, particularly because the U.S. has been pursuing the deployment of antiballistic missile defenses up to the Russian border in Eastern Europe, and the Russians are very upset about this.
Goodman: What are antiballistic missiles?
Krieger: They are missile defenses that theoretically can take down offensive nuclear missiles in the air before they reach their targets. If only one side has them, that nation could believe it’s able to launch a preemptive first strike and then use its defense missiles to avoid retaliation. It’s really imagining a worst-case scenario, but that’s the way military planners think.
For thirty years we had an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, signed by Richard Nixon, which limited the number of antiballistic missiles that either side could deploy. That treaty was unilaterally abrogated by George W. Bush in 2002. In 2012 the U.S. made attempts to place missile defenses in Eastern Europe along the Russian border, supposedly to guard against an Iranian attack. It’s as if the Russians put their missile-defense system on the U.S.-Canadian border and said to the U.S., “Don’t worry. It’s aimed at Venezuela.” We would not be reassured.
Goodman: What is the cost of maintaining our current nuclear arsenal?
Krieger: Through the middle of the last decade, the U.S. had spent $7.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The annual figure now is $50 to $60 billion for the U.S. and $100 billion for all nuclear-weapons states. So the world is currently spending about $1 trillion a decade on modernizing and maintaining nuclear arsenals.
Clearly, with our federal debt crisis and the extent of global poverty, we can’t afford to spend this money. Nuclear weapons are relics of the Cold War. What possible scenario would require us to have a few thousand nuclear weapons ready to be fired at a moment’s notice?
Goodman: Tell me about your civil resistance in February 2012.
Krieger: I have worked for peace and nuclear disarmament for most of my adult life, but it was only recently that I joined in civil resistance to a Minuteman iii missile launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. These unarmed test launches aren’t publicized much, but they occur regularly. I joined others in protesting at Vandenberg because the Minuteman iii missile is a first-strike weapon. The 450 Minuteman iii missiles in the U.S. arsenal are always on high alert, ready to be fired within moments. In a period of extreme tensions between the U.S. and Russia, each side would have an incentive to launch such land-based missiles so that they could not be destroyed in their silos. This is a dangerous and thoughtless carry-over from the Cold War. It was foolish then, and it is even more so now.
The routine missile test launches from Vandenberg use the Marshall Islands as targets. Imagine if the situation were reversed and the Marshall Islands tested missiles in the ocean off the California coast, putting our marine habitats and cities at risk. The Marshall Islands were our trust territories after World War ii, and we abused that trust by conducting sixty-seven atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests there over a period of twelve years. It was the equivalent of exploding one and a half Hiroshima-sized bombs daily for those twelve years. The Marshallese people still suffer serious health problems from those tests, and they have not been compensated fairly for the wrongs done to them. By contaminating their islands with radiation, we have taken from them not only their health and well-being but their sacred land.
Goodman: The web address for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is www.wagingpeace.org. What does “waging peace” mean to you?
Krieger: “Waging peace” means that peace is active, not passive. You can’t sit back and wait for peace to come to you. You must work for it. You must shake off your apathy and demand it. This is not always easy in a culture of war, such as we have in the U.S., but it is necessary.
It is clear that war makes great demands on its participants. We need to think of peace in the same way. Peace is not the absence of war or the space between wars; it is a goal to be achieved by actively demanding that the world’s governments find nonviolent means of settling disputes.
Goodman: Hasn’t war been with us since the beginning of humanity?
Krieger: There is no good anthropological evidence that war existed before the advent of agriculture. At the dawn of human history, it took all the able-bodied adults in a tribe to hunt and gather food. Agriculture enabled specialization, and with specialization came organization and hierarchy and leaders who wanted to increase their territory and wealth through military means. So civilization opened the door for warfare. Military service was encouraged through a system of rewards; soldiers received a portion of the spoils for doing the bidding of the leaders — if they didn’t die in battle. Smart politicians tell soldiers that they are fighting for a noble cause, no matter how ignoble it actually is, and smart military leaders reward their soldiers well to maintain their loyalty and thus increase their own power. Warfare is a socially conceived way of settling disputes, or expanding territory, or gaining riches without working for them.
Goodman: So you don’t believe human beings are warlike by nature?
Krieger: I don’t. Humans have a fight-or-flight instinct that resides in the reptilian portion of our brains. When threatened or trapped, we can go berserk. But the vast majority of the time we don’t behave this way. We must be taught to be warlike. It isn’t easy to get humans to kill each other in war. It requires considerable training, the primary goal of which is to get young people to identify with their fellow soldiers. It also takes considerable societal propaganda to dehumanize the enemy. Militarized societies take advantage of the loyalty and trust of recruits and turn them into killers.
Goodman: You emphasize the need for peace leadership training. Why is it important?
Krieger: Many Americans are complacent because they feel helpless to bring about change. We need to train and empower people. If someone wants to be a soldier, there are institutions that will train that person for war — the rotc, military academies, the army, navy, and air force — but if you want to work for peace, there are few places to obtain training. We need more institutions to provide opportunities for people to make a career of peace.
Peace leadership is not based on hierarchy. It must be leadership by example. A peace leader must demonstrate kindness and compassion, resolving conflicts nonviolently. Peace leadership also requires organizing, research, public speaking, working with the media, and expressing oneself with sincerity. The most important trait of a peace leader, though, is a passion for achieving peace, because that passion will be reflected in all that one says and does. It will attract others to the cause. Great peace leaders, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were also courageous.
Wars could not exist without the support of the people, particularly the young people who must fight in them. The old antiwar slogan “What if they gave a war and no one came?” reminds us of this. If young people would not participate in wars, there could be none. I don’t think there are contemporary political leaders anywhere who would go out and fight wars themselves. They rely upon the young to do the killing and dying.
Goodman: Is the nuclear threat a greater threat than climate change?
Krieger: That’s like asking if you’d rather be executed by a firing squad or an electric chair. Both nuclear war and climate change can destroy human civilization.
Goodman: You often quote physicist Albert Einstein, who said that human survival in the nuclear age requires us to change our “modes of thinking.” What do you think he meant?
Krieger: Einstein worried that we would remain stuck in our old warlike modes of thinking, which, in the nuclear age, would lead to “unparalleled catastrophe.” He believed that nuclear weapons made it necessary to abolish warfare altogether and find nonviolent means of resolving our differences. Nations can no longer solve their problems in a warlike manner; they need to use cooperative means.
Goodman: You have said that investing our defense dollars in foreign aid would make us safer. Can we really buy friends that way?
Krieger: Calling it “buying friends” sounds patronizing to me. It trivializes the miserable conditions that much of the world lives in — without adequate food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare. You call it “buying friends,” but a better word for it is justice. And, yes, I think it is a far more effective strategy for national security than threatening or killing people in war. Moreover, it is the humane and ethical thing to do. Because we spend hundreds of billions of dollars building up our military, we use force when a conflict comes along, rather than being generous with our resources and trying to help people. Large numbers of humans live in dire poverty while a small percentage live with obscene riches. If we want to prevent war and ensure the survival of the human species, we need to change this.
We could also prevent war by improving education and reducing poverty in this country. Many young people who join the military do so to get an education or find a better livelihood. If they had more alternatives, fewer of them would turn to the military. Some enlist out of a sense of patriotism, of course, so we also need to teach children that we are members of a single species. We should pledge our allegiance to humanity itself and to our incredible planet. This is the key to creating peace and bringing the nuclear age to an end.