If it weren't so tragic, it would be a joke. India dares to test a few crude nuclear bombs and the United States, which has 8,000 strategic warheads mounted on sophisticated launching devices aimed at targets throughout the world, is outraged.
The largest of the Indian tests involved the equivalent of 43,000 tons of TNT, a small hydrogen bomb by U.S. standards. The "father" of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, was honored with a national medal by President Reagan. Before the U.S. reluctantly accepted a ban on nuclear testing, we spent decades setting off explosions that ranged into the millions of tons of TNT.
Of course, it is dangerous nonsense for India to think nuclear weapons can provide peace through deterrence; an Asian nuclear arms race is a prescription for the end of the world. But what hypocrisy for the president of the United States, the only country ever to use nuclear weapons as an implement of war, to deny other nations the same opportunity to "defend" themselves. Even now, our national weapons labs are pioneering ever deadlier nuclear weapons using computer simulations beyond the technological abilities of less-developed countries like India.
We are the ones who invented the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, believed as a matter of stated national policy that nuclear war was "winnable" and continue to deploy nuclear weapons as the bedrock of our military force structure. Congress insists on spending billions on Teller's nuclear war-fighting pipe dream euphemistically called the Strategic Defense Initiative, and we still build stealth bombers and submarines whose only real military function is to fight a nuclear war.
Did we not just expand NATO to bring even more nations under the "protection" of the U.S. nuclear umbrella? Have Germany and Japan, which condemned India, not always assumed that the U.S. would be willing to launch a nuclear holocaust to protect them? Or England and France, which insisted on joining the nuclear club just for an extra measure of "security?"
Both the Bush and Clinton administrations approved the sale to China of advanced technology helpful to guiding missiles accurately against likely targets, which certainly include India. By what measure of reason does Clinton now seek to isolate India economically while pushing for ever more extensive trade with China, which has a much longer history of testing its nuclear arsenal? Every American president since Nixon has favored communist China over democratic India. It is not surprising that 90% of the Indian public feels sufficiently threatened to tell pollsters that they favor the development of a nuclear deterrent.
Despite the end of the Cold War, our country under both Republican and Democratic administrations has failed to move toward or even endorse the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. As Jonathan Schell warned in a seminal article in the Nation magazine, the "underlying strategic doctrine of the Cold War--the doctrine of deterrence--has remained in place."
As long as the Clinton administration continues to assert this nation's right to possess and threaten the use of nuclear weapons, we have no moral, legal or logical basis for telling others not to do the same. The only path to sanity is to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
In his important new book, "The Gift of Time," Schell quotes extensively from a long list of veterans of America's nuclear establishment supporting the case for abolishing these weapons. The cause has been taken up by the Physicians For Social Responsibility, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its anti-nuclear weapons activity a decade ago, but the mass media and leading politicians have proved largely indifferent.
The explosions in India should shock us out of our complacency. The real danger is far less from India, which is a functioning democracy, than from rogue states and insurgent forces that exist only to disturb the peace of others.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has made the technology of mass destruction far more accessible to those willing to risk all for profit or fanaticism. The deadly ingredients stolen from Russia and capable of destroying whole cities turn up at random throughout the world. Why do we continue to bankroll Russia when it has failed to ratify the START II arms reduction treaty that Boris Yeltsin agreed to five years ago?
The United States and Russia must take the lead in eliminating their massive nuclear arsenals as part of an international campaign to end this scourge. If we can move in that direction, then the explosions in the Indian desert will prove a blessing.
Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: email@example.com