Why the hawks started worrying and learned to hate the Bomb

John Lewis Gaddis

  • The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons by Jonathan Schell
    Granta, 240 pp, £9.99, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 230 2

One of the difficulties with weapons is that they do not automatically self-destruct once they have fulfilled their function. The problem particularly afflicts Americans who, taking advantage of lax gun-control laws, tend to buy whatever they think they need to defend themselves. But as the danger recedes, they frequently forget about the lethal arsenals they have accumulated. Stored carelessly in closets and sock drawers, an appalling number of rifles, shotguns and handguns are used for purposes that their owners never intended. The means of defence outlive the need for it, often with disastrous results.

The world has treated nuclear weapons in much the same way: there is a long history of reinvented purposes. The United States, Great Britain and Canada began to build the first atomic bomb because they feared that Hitler’s Germany might beat them to it. The work did not cease, though, when these fears proved unfounded: the Americans simply used the available bombs against the next available enemy, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki the targets.

This preference for adaptation over disposal has continued ever since. With the onset of the Cold War, the Americans deployed their primitive nuclear capabilities against yet another adversary, the Soviet Union, and when it successfully tested its own atomic bomb in 1949, they quickly began work on thermonuclear weapons, a technology the Russians were already pursuing. The first tests convinced both Washington and Moscow that hydrogen bombs were far too powerful for traditional military purposes; purposes were found for them, nonetheless.

Eisenhower discovered that nuclear weapons could cut costs: they were cheaper than conventional military capabilities. Khrushchev learned that by coupling them with missiles he could reap political benefits. By the early Sixties, American strategists were beginning to see the ultimate weapon of war as a guarantor of peace: they defined ‘stability’ in the nuclear arms race as the capacity of each side instantly to annihilate the other. When the Russians signed the 1972 treaty effectively banning defences against ballistic missiles, they, too, accepted the appropriately acronymed doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’.

It was never easy to see how vulnerability could ensure security, though, and one who resisted making this leap of logic was Ronald Reagan. His 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative turned MAD inside out by finding yet another use for nuclear weapons: they would now destroy enemy warheads in flight, thereby ensuring invulnerability. With defences in place, the President promised, nuclear capabilities would become ‘impotent and obsolete’. By a long and circuitous route, adaptation had come around to at least the prospect of elimination.

Few people took Reagan’s rhetoric seriously, until Mikhail Gorbachev sensed, on meeting the President for the first time in Geneva in 1985, that he might actually mean what he was saying. The new Soviet leader tested this possibility with a proposal for the outright abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, and at the Reykjavik summit the following year Reagan surprised his own staff by announcing that this was what he had wanted all along. For a few hours an amazed world watched its two most powerful leaders design a future in which there would be no nuclear weapons at all.

The vision quickly faded. Gorbachev demanded an end to SDI testing, Reagan would not grant it, and the opportunity was lost. Nor is it clear, even if they had agreed, that the two leaders could have sold the idea of abolition to their own and allied governments – Mrs Thatcher was particularly scathing. But as Jonathan Schell points out in The Gift of Time, ‘history often creates a problem whose only real solution lies beyond the pale of current political acceptability.’ Reykjavik expanded the pale: it brought the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons into the realm of mainstream political discourse. It created the prospect that the most destructive weapons of the Cold War might not survive its end.

One such system did disappear: the intermediate-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads that the Russians and then the Americans had deployed in Europe during the late Seventies and the early Eighties. Reagan and Gorbachev concluded that it would be easier to verify a total rather than a partial ban on such weapons, and by 1988 each side was actually destroying its own under the other’s watchful eyes.

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