By Katrina vanden Heuvel
In 1982, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a fever pitch. That June, as many as 1 million people braved the New York City summer, flooding Central Park and the streets outside the United Nations as it hosted a special session on disarmament. I was there. The energy was palpable and urgent as protesters called for a nuclear freeze. And the event, the largest political demonstration in U.S. history to that point, commanded the world’s attention.
Today, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is just as great as it was nearly 40 years ago. But the sense of urgency has since waned. We need a wake-up call, and former defense secretary William J. Perry, together with leading nuclear policymaker Tom Collina, has given us just that. Their new book, “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump,” is the alarm our nation needs — especially now.
Over the past four years, President Trump systematically undermined international arms treaties. He has pulled out from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Over the strident objection of our allies, his administration announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty, which helps ensure that signatories comply with arms-control measures.
In this case, as Perry and Collina detail, Trump’s moves are hardly unprecedented. In 2001, President George W. Bush pulled the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. At the time, he labeled the agreement a relic of the Cold War as he sought to build a massive missile defense system that tightened the nuclear hair trigger.
Of course, the threat of nuclear destruction did not disappear with the Soviet Union. Despite every precaution in place, the dangers of setting off a conflagration are still very real. That’s especially true of accidents or miscalculations. The book includes a list of harrowing incidents that have brought our world closer to nuclear annihilation — from faulty switches and failed computer chips to unanticipated weather patterns and human error. In 1995, for instance, Russia’s nuclear forces reached full alert after a Norwegian scientific rocket launched to study the Northern Lights was mistaken for an American missile.
Former California governor Jerry Brown has described our present situation in sobering terms: “We’re almost like passengers on the Titanic. Not seeing the iceberg up ahead but enjoying the elegant dining and the music. … And the danger and the probability [are] mounting that there will be some nuclear incident that will kill millions.”AD
So, how do we make sure we don’t hit the iceberg?
Perry and Collina offer 10 solutions that would place our nation on a more secure path. First, they would eliminate the president’s sole discretion to initiate nuclear attack. Instead, that decision would be shared with a select group from Congress. This move would deny any individual — particularly a reckless reactionary such as Trump — with the immediate and unchecked ability to start nuclear war.
Perry and Collina’s other ideas include diplomatically engaging with North Korea and Iran, saving the New START accord, retiring our stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and scaling back a $2 trillion plan to rebuild our nuclear arsenal. ICBMs are expensive to maintain — and as land-based nuclear weapons, they’re more likely to invite a strategic attack than to deter one. As Collina said to me: “Efforts to rebuild the economy, fight off the coronavirus, stop global warming and address racial injustice will all cost money. And we have a $2 trillion nuclear piggy bank we can use as a down payment.”AD
The authors’ final recommendation is simple: Elect a committed president. Trump’s record is one of armament. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, on the other hand, has a long track record of leading on nuclear disarmament. As senator, he spoke out against Bush’s attempts to establish a national missile defense system. During the Obama administration, he played an important part in realizing the Iran nuclear deal and the New START. Now he has pledged to pursue a renewed commitment to arms control and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.
To be clear, the ultimate goal should be the abolition of all nuclear weapons — an objective that has been endorsed, at least rhetorically, by presidents ranging from Reagan to Barack Obama. Electing a committed leader this November is just one step toward that long-term goal. As Perry told me, “As we learned with President Obama, there is still a need for outside pressure to remind the president of promises made and that there will be political costs if progress is not achieved. Even if Biden wins, voters must remain engaged and active.”
Americans know how to engage. In the past four years alone, we’ve seen a groundswell of grass-roots activism on threats from climate change and gun violence to racial injustice and gender inequity. Today, we must add one more to the list: the threat of nuclear weapons. As Collina said, “Nuclear disarmament must be part of the new mass movement.”AD
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for The Post. She has also edited or co-edited several books, including The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama (2011) and Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover (2009).
This article was published on July 7 in The Washington Post.