This article was originally published by Reader Supported News.
Professor Peter Kuznick, Ph.D., and director Oliver Stone recently gave the prestigious Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future, presented annually by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California. Previous honorees (all of whom have addressed the dangers of nuclear weapons) have included Daniel Ellsberg, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Professor Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, and Robert Scheer.
Peter Kuznick is director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and co-author (with Oliver Stone) of the 12-part documentary book and film series, “The Untold History of the United States.” Journalist Jane Ayers conducted several phone interviews with Professor Kuznick over the past month regarding his concerns about the Trump administration’s intention to add to the already existing trillion-dollar budget to modernize and increase the U.S. nuclear arsenals. Kuznick also focused on his serious concerns about the dangers of nuclear engagement with North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Isis by President Trump.
Q: As an expert on nuclear issues, what do you think about the current news that President Trump wants to expand U.S. nuclear arsenals to ensure being at “the top of the pack,” especially after Obama had already allowed a $1 trillion budget to be added to modernize all the nuclear arsenals?
Kuznick: There is no “top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear war. We know that any large scale use of nuclear weapons will be just as suicidal for the nation that strikes first as for the nation under attack – whether or not the latter retaliates. It will just take the citizens of the attacking nation a little bit longer before they feel the effects. Trump’s playground bully mentality reminds me of the kind of insane logic that fueled the Cold War. We are seeing it worldwide right now, with all nine nuclear nations modernizing their arsenals. The U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Britain, France, North Korea – all of them are making their nuclear arsenals more precise, efficient, and deadly.
But, language aside, Trump’s statement about nuclear weapons is not that much different than Obama’s declaration in Prague in 2009 that helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama called eloquently for nuclear abolition, but he also indicated that the United States would be the last nation, not the first, to give up its nuclear weapons. The difference is that Obama was not a shallow, rash, impulsive person. Most of us trusted that he understood the consequences of nuclear war and was horrified by the thought of using nuclear weapons. But Trump saying he wants a more modern and efficient nuclear arsenal is terrifying precisely because he does seem so reckless and impulsive. Does anyone really sleep easily at night knowing that Trump has access to the nuclear codes and the ability to launch America’s nuclear arsenals? Does anyone really trust Donald Trump with the ability to end all life on this planet? I certainly don’t.
Q: Doesn’t “top of the pack” mentality increase the likelihood of all nuclear nations (and more non-nuclear nations) to respond by increasing their arsenals too? Doesn’t more buildup in the U.S. and/or Russia equate to more nuclear weapons worldwide, even possibly causing a reaction by terrorists? In his first address to Congress on Tuesday evening, President Trump stated he wants to “demolish ISIS … to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.” Does this concern you that he might use nuclear options?
Kuznick: Trump reportedly asked what was the point of having nuclear weapons if we can’t use them. Most people would agree and conclude that we should eliminate the nuclear arsenal. Trump, however, draws a different conclusion. He, like Barry Goldwater and George W. Bush, wants to make them more useable. He said that if ISIS attacks the U.S., we should respond with nuclear weapons. He has also said that nuclear proliferation is fine. In fact, he stated that it was okay if Japan, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia developed their own nuclear arsenals. He even went so far as to inveigh against the nuclear deal with Iran and threaten to tear it up his first day in office. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened.
In endorsing Trump, Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University basketball coach, declared, “Harry Truman, with what he did in dropping and having the guts to drop the bomb in 1944 [sic] saved, saved millions of American lives. And that’s what Harry Truman did. And he became one of the three great presidents of the United States. And here’s a man who would do the same thing, because he’s going to become one of the four great presidents of the United States.” Instead of Trump saying he wouldn’t do that or correcting Knight’s ignorance about the atomic bombings ending the war and saving ‘millions’ of American lives, Trump just gushed, “Such a great guy. Wow, how do you top that? You should be proud of him in Indiana.… That is a national treasure, OK?” I’m still vomiting from that exchange.
Q: Yes, I remember Knight stated that he has “the guts” to drop atomic bombs wherever there is a threat. Is this standard of having guts to use nuclear bombs the proper definition of a “good” president at this time in history, especially in these times of heightened global intensities?
Kuznick: No, just the opposite. We now understand that the 1980s studies of nuclear winter actually underestimated the danger of nuclear war and the threat to the continued existence of life on this planet. But those studies, which warned that the smoke and debris from the nuclear incineration of cities would block the sun’s rays causing global temperatures to plummet, were falsely and erroneously debunked by the 1980s equivalents of today’s ‘experts’ who deny man-made climate change.
The latest research shows that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were to be detonated would cause partial nuclear winter and the deaths of up to 2 billion people over the next decade. There are still approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and most are 7 to 80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Anyone who talks glibly about using nuclear weapons is a certifiable madman and should be locked up.
Q: Russia has 7300 nuclear warheads, and the U.S. has 6970 warheads. President Trump also is currently stating that he is the first to say that nobody should have nukes, but that the U.S. just can’t fall behind Russia. With the Obama $1 trillion budget for modernizing our nuclear arsenals in place right now, why is Trump wanting to add $54 billion to the military budget? Is all this modernizing budget just a major distraction/ploy that will sabotage the international demand for the nine nuclear nations to aggressively work towards disarmament?
Kuznick: Trump recently said that it would be fine to have an arms race with Russia. It would be fine for the arms manufacturers who used to be aptly called the ‘merchants of death’. But it wouldn’t be fine for the rest of us. As Hillary Clinton correctly pointed out, “Any man who can be provoked by a Tweet should not have his hands anywhere near the nuclear codes.” That would be true whether he had big hands or tiny ones.
The U.S. and Russia, between us, have 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. The U.S. spends on its military more than the next 10 nations combined. More military spending is the last thing this country needs. We should be spending that money on schools, housing, health care, roads, bridges, dams, museums, the arts, and scientific research. I would like to see us CUT $54 billion dollars from the military budget each of the next few years. It is absolutely shameful that the U.S. is the only major developed nation that doesn’t offer health care as a right to all its citizens.
Q: President Trump has stated he is “very angry” about North Korea’s recent testing of ballistic missiles. He emphasized the need for our allies (Japan and South Korea) to have the option to accelerate their own missile defense systems. In fact, he also wants to develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to keep Iran and North Korea from attacking the U.S. What do you think about this?
Kuznick: No one outside of North Korea is happy about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. I would love to see North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. But there is little chance of that happening right now. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the official communication from North Korea stated that the U.S. would not have invaded if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons. That’s how North Korea sees the world: they believe they need nuclear weapons to keep the U.S. and others from invading them and overthrowing their brutal regime.
So first we need to build trust and nudge them toward reform in a way that won’t heighten their paranoia. That won’t be easy to do, but we need to keep trying. We need to sign a treaty to officially end the Korean War – a war that has been over for 64 years. Using sanctions, threats, and other sticks with North Korea hasn’t worked. We need to collaborate with China to offer more carrots. There’s no guarantee that that would work, but it behooves us to at least make the effort. There is no other reasonable alternative and North Korea’s bellicosity only justifies further right-wing intransigence in Japan and South Korea.
Missile defense in Europe and Asia has been destabilizing on its own. Russia sees missile defense in Romania and Poland as targeted at them, not at Iran. The Chinese see the THAAD system in South Korea as part of a U.S. strategy for undermining the Chinese deterrent. We need to find ways to defuse tensions, not exacerbate them, in this dangerous world. The nuclear experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had very good reason to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight – the nearest the world has been to nuclear war since 1953. With the Trump presidency and the tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Syria, Ukraine, and the Baltics, the danger of war and ultimately nuclear war is very real.
Q: Since North Korea once again tested four more ballistic missiles a few weeks ago, do you think the U.S. response to deploy the anti-missile system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), will further enrage China?
Kuznick: The U.S. and North Korea are engaged in a very dangerous game of escalation right now. Each side uses the other’s threats and provocations as an excuse for further threats and provocations of its own. This can only end badly. North Korea’s latest simultaneous launch of four ballistic missiles has alarmed U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and South Korea. The ability to simultaneously launch multiple missiles suggests that North Korea could overwhelm defensive measures that are being taken or contemplated. The vulnerability of missile defense has always been that it can be overwhelmed with offensive missiles and decoys. The U.S. began to install its THAAD missile system in South Korea recently, despite the fierce opposition of China and the concerted opposition of many inside South Korea. The U.S.-South Korean agreement on THAAD was made with President Park Geun-hye, who is now facing possible impeachment. Opponents say that it has never been adequately debated.
Chinese officials believe that deployment of THAAD in South Korea will weaken their nuclear deterrent and they threaten to retaliate. Right now, China has only around 260 nuclear weapons. They have decided not to build a vast nuclear arsenal like those maintained by the United States and Russia, but they could decide to increase the number they do have. To make matters worse, Abe and other Japanese leaders may use this as an excuse to increase military spending and to install their own THAAD systems, so everyone is ratcheting up their capabilities.
We know that Obama considered a preemptive strike on North Korea to destroy its nuclear weapons program but decided against it for various reasons. Who knows what Trump is cooking up? He says all options are on the table, which means also nuclear options. The situation grows more dangerous by the hour. Neither Kim Jong-un nor Donald Trump is known for statesmanship and restraint.
Q: Trump also criticized the recent Russian deployment of intermediate-range missiles, stating Russia was in violation of the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to curtail the use of intermediate range nuclear missiles. Do you think he is correct in his complaints?
Kuznick: The U.S. has been charging since 2014 that the ground-launched cruise missiles Russia was developing were in violation of the INF Treaty. Now it claims Russia has actually begun deploying the missiles. Russia has made counter-charges about U.S. violations, which the U.S. dismisses as spurious. I take all such charges and counter-charges as serious at a time when there is so much tension and mistrust between the two nuclear behemoths. Don’t forget that the U.S. and Russia have nearly a thousand nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hair-trigger alert. Something must be done about that immediately.
Q: What do you think of President Trump stating that the New START international treaty is a “one-sided deal, just another bad deal”? Five nuclear nations are under international treaty mandated to head toward nuclear disarmament, not to regress. Does this flippant disregard for the New START treaty show Trump’s ignorance in continuing to discredit and undermine complex international nuclear treaties, especially this one signed by Obama, which limits both U.S. and Russia on the number of nuclear warheads they can possess?
Kuznick: This is another reckless move by Trump. The treaty limits both sides to 1,550 nuclear warheads by 2018. That is still well above the threshold for nuclear winter. If that number of weapons were detonated, most complex life forms on this planet would be eliminated. During Trump’s January 28th call with Putin, Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty. Reuters reported that Trump had to pause the call to ask his aides what the New START treaty was. When he got back on the phone, he angrily denounced the treaty. U.S.-Russian relations still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s cancellation of the ABM Treaty. Now we have further provocation. Trump must be stopped on this before it’s too late.
Q: What is your opinion concerning the modernization of the nuclear arsenals? Is building new smaller, yet more powerful nukes just giving an appearance of having smaller numbers of nuclear weapons when in reality they will be more dangerous? Is this ‘less is more’ but more modern (more powerful) the smart way to go, or is it a strategy to avoid true change? Doesn’t the modernization category actually allow a country to get around the limits set by New START treaty?
Kuznick: The fact that Barack Obama committed the U.S. to a 30-year $1 trillion dollar nuclear modernization program is sufficient grounds for rescinding his Nobel Peace Prize. What was he thinking? This won’t make the U.S. safer, it will make the world more dangerous. The U.S. will be modernizing every category of nuclear weapons. It will make them more useable. That is a terrible legacy for a man who started out saying he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons. Shame on him.
Q: What did you think of General Lee Butler, the last Commander in Chief of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, calling for nuclear abolition when he stepped down years ago?
Kuznick: General Butler has been a voice of sanity when it comes to nuclear arms. He has called for their abolition. He considers them “immoral and therefore anathema to societies premised on the sanctity of life.” He urgently wants to scrap land-based ICBMs, which he contends are anachronistic and dangerously vulnerable to preemptive attack. Like William Perry, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, he believes that nuclear weapons are a scourge upon humanity that must be eliminated.
Q: In closing, President Trump has stated that he wants $54 billion added to the military budget, but he plans to cut non-military programs by the same amount. This includes environmental protections, at a time when climate change has been cited as a national security issue. Do you foresee an increase of nuclear threats if the effects of climate change increase tensions worldwide?
Kuznick: Trump’s assault on the environment is the flip side to his militarism. Both are crimes against the present and the future. Let’s encourage him to do something positive instead. He has said that he wants to improve relations with Russia. That would be a major step in the right direction. Let’s also see him reverse course on China. He has eased his rhetoric a bit on that.
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt called for “four policemen” to guarantee the peace and stability of the postwar world. We may not need ‘policemen,’ and Britain’s day on the world stage has largely passed, but let’s see the U.S., Russia, China, and Germany work together to ease tensions and move the world down the path of peace and development. Other countries can join in that effort. Abolishing nuclear weapons and initiating a crash program to develop clean energy will be high on that agenda, as will be a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. Oxfam’s recent report that the richest 8 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.6 billion should also give a clear sign that we have a lot of work to do.
Jane Ayers has conducted interviews with world figures concerning global issues for the Los Angeles Times INTERVIEW page, and for the editorial page (Inquiry Interview) for USA Today. She is a regular contributor to Reader Supported News, and can be reached at JaneAyersMedia@gmail.com