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Nuclear Confrontation and 'Peace in Our Time'

March 23, 1985

It has been said many times that nuclear deterrence and mutual assured destruction (MAD) get much of the credit for the fact that full-fledged war has not erupted between major powers for more than 40 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain alluded to this just recently in a public statement.

The pre-World War II lesson of Munich has been well learned: by keeping ourselves strong (meaning strength through nuclear weapons, ultimately), we preserve the peace and our safety--at least, so the argument goes.

But, in a major sense, world powers have drifted into a predicament that has much in common with Munich and Neville Chamberlain's achievements there. Through nuclear confrontation the nations have found the way to assure "peace in our time" ("more than 40 years") at a price that places at risk all future civilizations, even future human existence on Earth. I do not believe we have the moral right to exact this price in exchange for "peace in our time." Even if the policy of deterrence were to work for 500 years instead of just 40, before failing, it still would not be morally acceptable to jeopardize the chance for life of all future generations in this way.

It seems that the leaders of our nations are not able to come to grips with the possibility that nuclear weapons threaten the existence of all future generations. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger stated, "It will be difficult for historians to explain the intellectual paralysis that has thwarted the serious articulation of alternatives to general nuclear war." This is a concern of a magnitude never before faced by any leaders or peoples. Yet, the tenor of pronouncements by statesmen and arms-control negotiators reflects a level of urgency and anxiety that might be appropriate for discussions of dismantling weapon systems after World War I.

Albert Einstein said that in a nuclear age we need a new way of thinking if we are to avoid unparalleled catastrophe--and we don't seem to be getting this from our statesmen. What is needed is nothing less than the dismantling of all nuclear weapons, coupled with the political understandings and solutions to make these weapons unnecessary.

Our Administration seems to feel that a "Star Wars" defense may be part of the answer, but too many knowledgeable people believe this not to be the case. For one thing, the trillion dollars it would cost to put our "Star Wars" defense into operation is money that needs to be spent solving the problems of our nation and our world (world population explosion, famine, and exhaustion of natural resources).

Even people as knowledgeable as Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft have been quoted as saying a "Star Wars" scenario would not aid arms control, but might well lead to an increase in Soviet nuclear weapons to override our defense, and on and on. Recently in a Times essay (Opinion, Feb. 17) Thomas Powers labeled the "Star Wars" defense "an attempt to make ourselves safe, all by ourselves" while still being able to effectively threaten the Soviets. His profound conclusion was: "If we are ever going to know safety again, the Soviets will have to be safe too." What a difficult proposition! But it is a proposition that may contain the seeds of Einstein's "new way of thinking."


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