Paul Nitze: A good reason to scare the tourists
December 22, 2010
Soon after moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the Roosevelt administration, my grandfather bought a farm in Charles County, Md., a farm that’s still in the family. Top priority for him when he started to fix it up was installing a well-equipped bomb shelter a few yards from the main house. When I point the shelter out to friends, they react with a whimsical smile, like they’re viewing a prop from “Dr. Strangelove.”
To my father and his siblings, there was nothing whimsical at all about the shelter. Living under the roof of a man who spent the last half of his career negotiating nuclear arms treaties, they were unusually well-versed in the nuclear threat.
Small plastic replicas of Minutemen, SS-18 and Trident missiles sometimes made their appearance at the table. Despite that familiarity, not much separated their experience in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s from that of millions of other families. Bomb shelters were everywhere.
That generational gulf separating those who lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the rest of us is a well-earned dividend for winning the Cold War. But there’s been a steep cost in eroding public awareness of nuclear policy. Back in the ’70s you could walk into a diner and strike up a conversation at the counter about missile throw weights and hardened silos. Now we are at a loss to explain any piece of the New START treaty that passed the Senate this week.
Widespread ignorance of the treaty has allowed opponents to spin it in ways that would make earlier generations of anti-disarmament hawks blush. When Sen. Jon Kyl takes to the floor to claim that New START impedes our development of a missile defense system, or allows the Russians to achieve superiority via “battlefield nukes,” he can do so knowing the public won’t call him on it.
Lies and manufactured hysteria have been part of our arms control culture for decades. SALT II was cashiered by a group of hawks (my grandfather among them) who claimed that the treaty would perpetuate a “missile gap” with the Soviets and fatally wound our second strike capability.
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If Richard Perle and other neoconservatives had their way, the Senate would never have ratified the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1988. Now Perle applauds INF as a crowning Reagan achievement, but wants the Senate to reject New START.
Opposition to a treaty like New START is especially shameless, because there are virtually no legitimate grounds on which to oppose it. At least not from the right. In the old days, hawks and doves were engaged in a debate about how best to position ourselves in the event of a Soviet first missile strike, or a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Now the debate has shifted to how we should modernize an arsenal that is no longer at risk of a Russian first strike, and how to use the arms control process to limit proliferation.
Ironies abound in the Senate’s debate over New START ratification, but if I were to pick just one, I’d point to the fact that so-called conservatives tried to block a treaty that is profoundly conservative. Since the end of the Cold War the arms control debate has shifted. Bilateral arms control efforts with the Russians appear tangential to our real goals of preventing rogue states from acquiring nukes, clamping down on the trade in fissile materials, and, in some quarters, missile defense.
For those on the left, New START is a tough pill to swallow because it perpetuates the status quo and makes it much less likely that hopes for radical disarmament will bear fruit under this president. Far from weakening our arsenal, the president has now committed to spend $85 billion, a huge sum, to modernize our nuclear capabilities.
Buried beneath coverage of New START was another piece of nuclear news that deserves equal billing – FEMA has begun a public education campaign on how to protect ourselves in the event of a nuclear blast. In a nutshell, the report advises people to seek shelter in the event of a blast instead of fleeing. A physicist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory calculated that even basic shelter, like a car, could cut fallout casualties from a hypothetical attack in Los Angeles from 285,000 to 125,000 people.
But don’t expect too big a push from the White House, which is concerned about stoking public fears. A planned disaster preparedness drill in Las Vegas was cancelled when local businesses got wind of it due to concerns that it would scare away tourists. As we spend billions of dollars to prevent a terrorist attack using a nuclear device, we willfully politicize preparedness should an attack occur.
National security fear-mongering is here to stay. Although there was greater bipartisanship on national security during the Cold War, there were plenty of politicians on both sides who exaggerated the threat for personal gain.
In retrospect, one of the reasons we avoided catastrophe in those years was because the public was better-informed about which threats were real and which were illusionary. Debate over New START has been a depressing reminder that even as we maintain an arsenal that is as deadly as ever, we don’t carve out much mental space to ponder the nuclear dilemma. Far from stoking fear, efforts like FEMA’s force us to confront the consequences of nuclear war and help us hold the political class to account.
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