Uncommon Cause – Memoirs of General Lee Butler USAF (Ret)
Volume I of General Lee Butler’s elegantly written memoirs covers in highly personal, refreshingly candid detail his origins, upbringing and 33-year stellar US Air Force career. This history of his formative years may not be of compelling interest to non-military readers. However, Volume II is an absorbing, roller-coaster chronicle of Butler’s gradual transformation from top US nuclear warrior to inspiring, uniquely authoritative advocate for a nuclear weapon-free world. It is essential reading for all those who yearn for this – and those who resist it.
Volume II opens with a disturbing discovery. The USAF and US Navy had been allowed to develop and run separate nuclear war machines with no coordination save a compromise Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff (JSTPS) that proved to have severe coordination issues of its own. Butler learned this on becoming a three-star General as Director of Strategic Plans and Policy for all US armed forces in 1990, with responsibility for promulgating nuclear weapons targeting guidance from the President and Secretary of Defense to this targeting staff located over a thousand miles away. He was astounded to find that the US Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) created by the JSTPS neither reflected Presidential guidance nor meshed with NATO’s targeting plan. For example,
…in a very large number of cases, U.S. and Allied pilots would have been directed to risk their lives by penetrating Warsaw Pact air defenses in order to strike targets already destroyed by U.S. strategic missiles.
While he and colleagues were ironing out these disconnects between different parts of the nuclear target planning bureaucracy, a momentous instance of serendipity was unfolding in the heart of Europe. The sudden end of the Cold War rendered all their ‘monstrous war plans’ moot.
Butler’s exceptionally perceptive vision – the product of intellectual brilliance and an unusually cosmopolitan world view facilitated by fluency in Russian and French – gave him a swift grasp of the implications and opportunities flowing from the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. His acceptance of the need to achieve a ‘peace dividend’ through major force reductions fitted comfortably with the ‘informed intuition’ of General Colin Powell, who became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff within weeks of the Berlin Wall coming down in November 1989.
President Bush Senior wanted the leaders of the UK, France, Germany and Italy warned of the impact on NATO of his planned cuts before announcing them in his next State of the Union address. This led to Butler briefing Margaret Thatcher in 10, Downing Street in early January 1990, as the military member of a three-strong US delegation to London, Paris, Bonn and Rome comprising Robert Gates, deputy to Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Advisor, and Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker’s Deputy Secretary of State. Thatcher, after an imperiously effusive “Welcome, Larry,” allowed Butler an uninterrupted twenty minutes before launching into ten minutes of hard questions. Seemingly satisfied with his responses,
…she turned on Eagleburger. “Well, Larry, all this makes a modicum of sense. You can tell the President that I will, of course, support his initiative; indeed, I have no choice. But, Larry, let us understand each other. This is not consultation. This is take it or leave it.” With that, she stood, smiling, to signal the end of the meeting. She walked us to the door, opened it, and bade us farewell with one final smack of the handbag: “Always good to see you, Larry. You are welcome back at any time. But not on this subject.”
Butler’s controversial recommendation to shift US military preoccupation with the Soviet threat to regional conflicts was soon vindicated by Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Finding himself at the heart of planning the US military response, he was closely involved in top secret research for Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that rejected any use of nuclear weapons, because of their counterproductive effects.
The risk of a chemical-headed Scud missile barrage on Israel was one of his and Powell’s worst fears: ‘No question it would have provoked an Israeli response no matter the damage to our coalition.’ In response to the US blitzkrieg in January 1991, Saddam launched his Scud barrage. Butler sat in on a tense meeting between Cheney and a senior Israeli official, where Cheney had to placate him with sending Patriot anti-ballistic missiles to persuade Israel not to retaliate. US satellites had spotted nuclear-tipped Israeli Jericho missiles deployed ready for launch. While terrified Israelis wearing gas masks cowered in basements, Israel’s nuclear weapons had failed to deter Saddam – but they had coerced the US. The Patriot batteries could not prevent 38 more Iraqi attacks, the Scuds’ conventional warheads luckily causing only minor casualties.
As a relatively young four-star Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC) in 1991-92, General Butler presided over revolutionary changes he had recommended to US President George Bush Senior, including unilaterally taking the strategic B-52 bomber force and their supporting in-flight refueling tanker fleet off quick reaction alert. Strategic Air Command was disestablished, and management of all three legs of the nuclear triad combined under a new joint USAF-USN Strategic Command. This led to massive USAF restructuring, again initiated by Butler. In his final appointment, Butler became the first CINCSTRATCOM, commanding all US strategic nuclear forces from 1992-94. His iconoclastic, yet gently fearless leadership style won over some resistance from among his staff, drawn from hitherto proudly independent USAF and USN nuclear warriors.
On retirement in early 1994, Butler was increasingly dismayed by the Clinton administration’s failure to build on the nuclear disarmament momentum generated by the 1991 mutual initiatives of Bush Senior and Mikhail Gorbachev which he had helped facilitate, and for its ‘dismal’ efforts to improve US-Russian relations.
In 1995, he made a serendipitous decision to accept an invitation to speak on his world view at the annual meeting of members of the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. This drew him into a CFR Commission, jointly chaired by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and ex-Defense Secretary Harold Brown, to examine NATO’s post-Cold War role. When Kissinger tried to predetermine that little change was needed, Butler had the temerity to suggest NATO should be stood down while its purposes were rethought. For good measure, he added that
…perpetuating, let alone expanding, NATO is the worst possible signal to send to Russia, a defeated foe whose sensibilities are rubbed raw and which retains an arsenal of nuclear warheads numbering in the thousands.
An apoplectic Kissinger resigned from the Commission, leaving Brown to come up with a unanimous, balanced report on how to rethink NATO’s future.
The ripples from this audacious intervention must have reached John Holdren, chair of another prestigious group, the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences. Having accepted Holdren’s invitation to join them, Butler learned at his first CISAC meeting that the key agenda item was deciding what issue it should study next. He quickly proposed a wholesale review of nuclear weapons policy. Though controversial, with Holdren’s support his persuasive arguments backed by unrivalled experience persuaded most of CISAC to support a sharp critique of nuclear deterrence, and their report recommended that the US should fulfil its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to get rid of its nuclear arsenal.
By the time Butler presented CISAC’s views at the National Academy of Sciences to a surprisingly supportive audience, he had been invited to join the Canberra Commission. He chronicles his inside story of that admirable Australian initiative by Prime Minister Keating to explore the elimination of nuclear weapons. There he met, among other commissioners, Robert McNamara, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, British Field Marshal Lord Michael Carver, and Professor Joseph Rotblat, a founder of Pugwash. Butler’s fluent French facilitated an unlikely friendship with Rocard; but this was where he first came up against the more uncompromising demands of the anti-nuclear movement, represented by Swedish ex-MP Dr Maj Britt Theorin, and Sri Lankan disarmament ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala. Sadly, the Commission’s report was ‘dead in the water’ (Butler’s words) because of Australia’s uncritical support for US foreign policy as one of its closest allies.
Butler’s frustration at this outcome spurred him to accept another serendipitous invitation, to be keynote speaker at a gathering of Gorbachev’s State of the World Forum in October 1996. It was here that Butler first fully explained why, in light of his deep inside knowledge and first-hand experience, he had moved from ‘unquestioning acceptance to moral repugnance’ of nuclear deterrence. His goal was
… to make the case that deterrence had driven the Cold War arms race, prompting worst-case planning, immense expenditures, extremely dangerous force postures and monstrous war plans whose destructiveness threatened all life on the planet.
Following his sensational speech, Butler was introduced to veteran former US Senator Alan Cranston. A passionate nuclear abolitionist, Cranston invited him to become spokesman for an international group of ex-military leaders calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Butler’s account of his ‘coming out’ moment in that ultimate media arena is riveting – not least because of the brutal resistance he now encountered from some former colleagues.
Ex-US President Jimmy Carter invited him to his Atlanta Center. After an intense meeting, Carter wrote to Clinton supporting Butler’s request for all US strategic nuclear forces to be stood down from high alert, and to expedite negotiations for a START III treaty with Russia’s President Yeltsin. Nothing came of it.
Determined to spread his message, Butler flew to Wellington, New Zealand to give the inaugural Erich Geiringer Memorial Oration. In the early 1990s, Geiringer played a crucial role mobilising support for the World Court Project, an international campaign to challenge the legality of nuclear deterrence in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 1996 the Court confirmed that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be illegal. Butler’s passionately eloquent oration, honed from his earlier speeches, included a searing condemnation of nuclear deterrence. It was a triumph. I was Chair of World Court Project UK, and my New Zealand wife was one of the pioneers of the Project. The next day, I accompanied him on a visit to an island nature reserve, sharing experiences of breaking free from our pro-nuclear deterrence brainwashing.
Butler chronicles how he was buoyed up by responses to his NZ oration: these included supportive meetings with Michael Douglas and Warren Buffet, and an invitation from Michel Rocard to address the European Parliament. While subsequently visiting Paris, Rocard confirmed to him that
… nuclear weapons were still at the core of the [French]nation’s claim to first-tier status on the world stage. That said, I could read between the lines an acknowledgment that, beyond symbolism, their arsenal had no practical use. It simply kept them at the same table with the Americans, the Russians, the British and the Chinese as nations owning the ultimate trump card in international one-upmanship.
On his return home, Senator Cranston and others pressed him to become a fulltime anti-nuclear activist. Butler describes the sobering, hugely stressful experience for him and his wife Dorene after they courageously established their Second Chance Foundation, with a mission to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The title came from this quote from one of Butler’s speeches:
Mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in greatest proportion. If we now fail to step back from the nuclear abyss, if we persist in courting the apocalypse, we will have squandered our Creator’s gift of a ‘second chance.’
They now found their carefully focused objectives increasingly compromised by the overly ambitious expectations, demands and tactics of some members of the international anti-nuclear and peace movements, who looked to Butler as their potent new spokesman. While trying to keep them at arm’s length and encouraging them to strategise more coherently, he embarked on a gruelling tour of NATO capitals and NATO HQ in Brussels, where he was left in no doubt of their disapproval. In London
…I spent two days meeting with senior officials of the Foreign Office, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence and the Chiefs of the Defence Staff. These discussions served only to highlight the degree to which the Brits followed the U.S. lead on nuclear issues.
Undeterred, Butler persisted, visiting France again, India and China, re-engaging with former colleagues in the US nuclear policy bureaucracy, and meeting US Senators. He was shocked to learn that India’s government had not issued a nuclear weapons policy despite having conducted tests the year before. Worse, it had not involved the military; whereas in Pakistan the situation was reversed. He stunned his Indian military hosts by spelling out the utter impracticalities of implementing nuclear deterrence against Pakistan. Later, they arranged for him to give a top adviser to India’s Prime Minister a tutorial on the intricacies of managing a nuclear war machine. This gave added purpose to a discreet gathering he orchestrated in Omaha of three top retired military officers from India with three from Pakistan, which resulted in
…a mutual recognition of how poorly the two sides understood each other professionally, the frightening misperceptions they had harboured throughout their careers about each other’s actions and intentions and, most importantly, the dangerous path they were on with respect to their nuclear planning and force postures.
Butler’s Beijing visit opened his eyes to China’s dramatic advances. He was deeply impressed by the shrewd judgment and high calibre of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Chief of Military Intelligence, senior diplomats and academics who met him. He believed their assurances that China had no intention of wasting resources on nuclear capabilities that were beyond its perceived minimum needs.
George W. Bush’s unlikely replacement of the discredited Clinton as President precipitated the closing of the Second Chance Foundation. It had been a prodigious personal effort to bring some wisdom to the nuclear weapon debate, but he had failed to prevail against years of pro-nuclear hubris, indoctrination and outmoded thinking.
In his closing chapter, Butler reflects on his withdrawal from anti-nuclear advocacy with little sense of success or closure. He acknowledges the toll exacted on himself and his family by his unflinching stand for integrity, justice and doing what he felt was right, however unpopular or controversial. Further Afterthoughts outline his pessimistic prognosis for any substantial progress towards a nuclear weapon-free world. Nonetheless, he expresses his faith in the potential for serendipity, persistence and unanticipated political developments to offer openings for the international anti-nuclear movement.
General Lee Butler’s incisive arguments are of immense value in convincing military and political decision-makers of the increasingly urgent need to step back from the nuclear abyss. These memoirs ensure that the legacy of his courageous, enlightened leadership will endure.
Robert Green served in the Royal Navy from 1962-82. As a Fleet Air Arm Observer (bombardier-navigator), he flew in Buccaneer nuclear strike aircraft with a NATO SIOP target in Russia, and then anti-submarine helicopters equipped with nuclear depth-bombs. On promotion to Commander in 1978, he worked in the Ministry of Defence before his final appointment as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet during the 1982 Falklands War. Now Co-Director of the Disarmament & Security Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand (www.disarmsecure.org), his 2010 book ‘Security Without Nuclear Deterrence’ has been translated into Japanese; and a revised, updated English ebook version is available from www.amazon.com/dp/B00MFTBUZS.