In an article in TAS in November, I noted that U.S. allies were concerned that the Biden administration may adopt a “no-first use” of nuclear weapons policy even in the face of a recent Pentagon report which warned that China was engaged in a significant nuclear buildup, including a massive silo-building program. Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, has warned that China’s recent silo building indicates that the PLA “may be on its way to developing 2,500-3,500 nuclear warheads.” Meanwhile, China has both a geographical and conventional force advantage in any conflict that may breakout in the South China Sea. Now, more than 600 American scientists and engineers have signed a letter to the president urging him to adopt “no-first use,” reduce our deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads, cancel our ICBM modernization program, and modify a president’s authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
The letter, dated December 16, 2021, notes that the signatories are “gravely concerned about the risks posed by nuclear weapons” and suggests that the president, based on previous remarks, shares their concern. The signatories acknowledge that we are engaged in a “renewed nuclear arms race with Russia and China,” but only calls upon the United States to “dampen” the arms race by taking “steps towards disarmament.” There is no reference to urging China’s President Xi or Russia’s President Putin to take similar steps. Perhaps the letter’s signatories have forgotten what President Jimmy Carter’s Defense Secretary Harold Brown said of the Soviets in response to similar domestic calls for unilateral U.S. disarmament measures: “When we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”
The first step, according to the letter, is for Biden to “declare that the United States will not use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances, and would consider using nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack on itself or its allies.” Such a declaration, they write, will reduce “the likelihood that a conflict or crisis will escalate to nuclear war.” Apparently, the scientists and engineers believe that it is the United States — not China or Russia — that poses the greatest nuclear threat to the world. Many scientists and some elder U.S. statesmen held similar views during the Reagan administration, warning that Reagan’s nuclear buildup and Strategic Defense Initiative — not the Soviet’s massive nuclear arsenal and strategic defenses — were threatening nuclear Armageddon.
Step two, according to the letter, is to modify the president’s authority to order a nuclear strike. The scientists and engineers state that while they have confidence in Biden’s judgment, “history indicates that giving this awesome responsibility to a single person is unwise.” They do not, however, explain what “history” they are talking about, although they do state that this would be an “important safeguard against a possible future president who is unstable or who orders a reckless attack.” One suspects that they have in mind Nixon’s nuclear alert during the Yom Kippur War in the midst of the Watergate crisis (which effectively deterred the Soviets from directly intervening in the war), or Reagan’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union (which won the Cold War), and of course, Trump — the left’s definition of an “unstable” president, yet who was the least belligerent president in the past two decades.
Step three is the reduction of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads to “fewer than” 1,000. Again, how “fewer” they do not say. They praise President Obama for saying in 2013 that the U.S. could remain secure by reducing its arsenal to about 1,000 warheads, “even if Russia did not follow suit.” The scientists and engineers do not call upon China or Russia to reduce their strategic nuclear forces or halt their modernization programs. The signatories obviously realize that their influence, if any, is limited to their own government. They are therefore effectively calling for unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament, just as so many Americans and Europeans (including many scientists) did in the 1980s when Reagan and our European allies courageously responded to the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe with the deployment of Pershing II intermediate ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in Western Europe and refused to adopt a “no-first use” policy.
The final step recommended by the scientists and engineers is for Biden to cancel the planned modernization of our ICBM force, and instead extend the life of our already dangerously aging missiles for another 20 years. The Minuteman III missiles were first deployed in 1970. But the authors of the letter give away their true goal when they suggest the elimination of silo-based ICBMs in favor of submarine-launched missiles, effectively ending the U.S. nuclear triad.
The signatories of the letter probably feel good about themselves for having the “courage” to suggest steps to avert nuclear war and end the arms race. They seem unconcerned, however, with the destruction caused by great power conventional wars, and apparently fail to appreciate the role our nuclear deterrent has played in averting such wars since 1945. Where are our modern day Edward Tellers?
The scientists and engineers who signed this letter want their own country to drop out of the nuclear arms race, regardless of what Russia or China does, and regardless of how many great power wars might erupt in the absence of the fear of a nuclear response to a conventional attack. What the late, great Angelo Codevilla called the “arms control delusion” lives on.
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