The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb
By Philip Taubman
(HarperCollins Books, 478 pages, $29.99)
Just as an Israeli airstrike against Iran appears increasingly likely, author Philip Taubman has published a book celebrating a growing movement among movers and shakers aiming to abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible. The effort is spearheaded by some big names: Nixon-era national security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, prime architect of American foreign policy during the Nixon years; Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz, who became an advocate of nuclear weapons abolition during his tenure; Clinton-era Secretary of Defense William Perry, also a key architect of the development of Stealth technology; and former Georgia Democrat Senator Sam Nunn, who became a top defense and foreign policy expert during his two dozen years on Capitol Hill. Joining them as an adviser was physicist Sidney Drell, who was a nuclear weapons designer and close confidant of Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov, called “the father of the Soviet H-bomb” by many historians. A sixth Cold warrior, diplomat Max Kampelman, also played an important role in getting the group together.
Following biographical portraits of his subjects, the main part of Taubman’s book narrates how the five men came to collaborate on the cause of promoting global abolition of nuclear weapons. The final section of the book explains the specific steps the five have taken to date, via articles, speeches, conferences, and tête-à-têtes with myriad prominent personages decorating their immense power Rolodexes.
The book offers interesting anecdotes that add color to what otherwise would have been a dry read. Nunn, as a 24-year-old Congressional intern, visited NATO’s massive Ramstein Air Base (in what then was West Germany) during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. He was told by an Air Force general that in event of a Soviet attack he had one minute to get his planes aloft so they could escape destruction. Visiting NATO sites in 1974 as a freshman senator, Nunn was stunned to learn that ground commanders facing far more numerous Warsaw Pact forces envisioned early recourse to nuclear weapons, to prevent the Soviet Union’s huge army from overrunning Western Europe. On that same visit Nunn was told by one base security officer that a team of terrorists could conceivably storm the base and make off with a nuclear weapon — not three or four, but a team of ten could succeed.
Taubman, whose thirty years with the New York Times included stints as chief of the Gray Lady’s Moscow and Washington bureaus, makes no effort to conceal his enthusiasm for the project. Noting early efforts to block the group’s initiative, Taubman writes that “entrenched interests… in the nuclear weapons priesthood are already mobilizing to block the disarmament movement.” He cites Nixon/Ford Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger as “mockingly” telling one audience of defense analysts: “The dividing line between vision and hallucination is never very clear.” Taubman notes that such skepticism is shared by Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, and Clinton-era CIA Director (albeit briefly) John Deutch.
Taubman offers a harrowing chapter on nuclear theft, lax security and careless handling of bombs and warheads. If you are looking for a good night’s sleep, skip this chapter. In a follow-on chapter he informs us that some 160 of 200 research reactors built worldwide run on bomb-grade fuel. There is, he writes, enough highly-enriched uranium — four and a half tons worldwide — to provide fuel for 170 nuclear bombs. (Their explosive yield is not specified, but presumably these would be Hiroshima-size bombs.)
He also recounts several near-nuclear confrontations between the U.S. and Soviet Union, besides Cuba in 1962: during the Vietnam War over U.S. escalation; in 1969 between Russia and China over border disputes; a mistaken radar alarm that triggered a launch of B-52 bombers; and the sudden confrontation in the Mediterranean towards the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, over Israel’s having trapped an Egyptian Army division on the west side of the Suez Canal. When the Nixon administration declared a nuclear alert during the confrontation, only Kissinger and then-presidential assistant Gen. Alexander Haig supported the move. Taubman reports that Kissinger told Haig, of the reluctant officials: “These guys were wailing all over the place.”
Taubman wistfully recounts Ronald Reagan’s near-acceptance of “nuclear zero” at the 1986 U.S. — Soviet Summit in Reykjavik as a missed opportunity to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2000. Gorbachev had offered it, subject to Reagan limiting his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to laboratory research alone. But Reagan refused.
The end of the Cold War gave strong impetus to superpower disarmament, with several arms reduction treaties passing. Nunn found himself in Russia during the August 1991 coup that unseated Gorbachev for a few days and led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin, who became the hero of the popular revolution that led to the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Nunn was appalled that during the days of the coup he could not get a straight answer from Russian officials as to whether the Russian nuclear arsenal remained under secure control. This was one of the spurs that led Nunn to collaborate with Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar in the hugely successful Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction project, securing by 2011 nearly all the loose nuclear material inside Russia and finding employment for thousands of nuclear scientists. In 2001 Nunn and Lugar joined forces with funding from billionaire Ted Turner to form the Nuclear Threat Initiative, to promote new solutions to nuclear issues.
It is in the final section that Taubman argues his case for proceeding towards nuclear zero. The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency put in the Oval Office a passionate advocate of total disarmament, only two years after the high-profile disarmament supporters published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
In broad brushstroke, key ideas already floated by the group include de-alerting missiles and bombers from Cold War high alert status; securing loose nuclear material; creating a collaborative inspection program; and extending international control over nuclear facilities, under the aegis of the United Nations. The advocates further stress that the United States must set an example by taking the lead in reducing their own nuclear arsenal to a very low level (a few hundred). Failing this they say it will be impossible to persuade other nations to do the same.
Taubman lauds the New START Treaty, ratified in December 2010, and the 2009 Nuclear Security Summit as examples of success in the direction of zero. But New START was a unilateral U.S. strategic arms reduction agreement, as the Russians were already below the treaty limits. The Russians can actually build newer, more modern missiles and add to their arsenal. And New START’s verification provisions are more limited than the treaty it replaced (the Bush Moscow Treaty of 2002).
The Washington, D.C. Nuclear Security Summit featured four dozen world leaders. Forced to attend was Israel, whose arm was twisted by the Obama administration. Israel got more attention for its arsenal than did North Korea for having exited the Nonproliferation Treaty and joined the nuclear club. Iran, meanwhile, continues to march towards nuclear capability.
And thus we see the three elephants standing hardly noticed by abolitionists in the proverbial room. First, rogue states will not only decline to follow our good example; they will be induced to increase their arsenals, which become more valuable as our arsenal shrinks — 100 nukes in Pakistan matter much more in a world with the U.S. at the same number, than in a world with the U.S. having a few thousand weapons. This runs counter to the psychology of civilized people who see nuclear weapons as being for deterrence only, but a nuclear Iran eager to destroy the Great Satan (U.S.) and Little Satan (Israel) will think differently.
Proof of this was provided by the Soviets in the eleven months between the November 1985 Geneva Summit and the October 1986 Reykjavik Summit. In that short span the Soviets capped off their 25 year strategic buildup by adding 5,300 warheads, topping out at some 45,000 warheads — this despite the U.S. having frozen the total number of its warheads in 1967 at just over 31,000, and reducing them constantly. So much for setting an example. Yes, Gorbachev came around, as Russia’s economy imploded. Do not expect the fanatical mullahs to do the same.
Second, absolutely confident verification of a clandestine stockpile of warheads and missiles is simply impossible at present, and likely will remain so for a long time. We failed to find a dozen jet planes Saddam hid in the sand, until after his overthrow. Concealing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads would be, by comparison, child’s play.
Finally, there is no justification for confidence in the UN’s ability to stop any determined nuclear aspirant. The worst nations will simply ignore entreaties and evade inspections. What can work — the only thing that can — is positive regime change. The Soviet Union evaded arms treaty obligations for years, and concealed the full size of its massive strategic buildup; only with the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev late in the Cold War did things change for the better. Until similar change comes to Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, expect abolition to remain what Schlesinger obliquely hinted it is: a hallucination masquerading as a vision.
It was precisely this opportunity — positive regime change — that President Obama spurned in June 2009 when the Iranian opposition formed in fury at the stolen election that returned Islamist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency. Instead of siding with the demonstrators and uniting a coalition to put maximum pressure on the mullahs Obama stood aside; he contented himself with feeble verbal sallies. He pursued arms talks with a leadership that had never honored an agreement made, and clearly was determined to pursue its nuclear ambitions. And he allowed Russia and China to water down several rounds of sanctions. Only in the past two months have sanctions against Iranian oil and financial interests become strong enough to bite.
Which brings us to the emerging showdown in the Persian Gulf, as Iran defiantly marches forward, Israel prepares to strike if, as is likely, sanctions fail, and America and Europe prepare for the convulsions likely to follow, which could include multiple wars in the Mideast and global economic disaster.
Nuclear zero creates another danger: that public desire for abolition trumps practical obstacles to verification and pushes Western nations to disarm first. Were a nuke to detonate anywhere on the planet, momentum for unilateral disarmament could snowball. Nuclear zero advocates fan such emotional flames.
Put simply, elephants in the room do not go away if you ignore them. And if not stopped, they can trample us all.