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A Nuke-Free World Is Within Reach

Disarmament: To prevent another Hiroshima, the U.S. must, among other steps, drop national missile defense plan.

August 06, 2000|JOHN O. PASTORE and PETER ZHEUTLIN | John O. Pastore is secretary and Peter Zheutlin is associate program director of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize

This week is the 55th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and international efforts to prevent nuclear war are at a critical juncture. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, we are poised to go in one of two directions: forward toward deep reductions in nuclear arms or backward into a costly, and possibly lethal, arms race. The deciding factor could well be U.S. deployment of a national missile defense system. This is the "son of 'Star Wars' " system, ostensibly being developed to protect the United States, the most powerful military power on Earth, from nuclear attack by tiny countries such as North Korea.

Despite two spectacular failures in the testing of the system, both major U.S. presidential candidates have endorsed national missile defense, or NMD, even as many key U.S. allies, such as France and Germany, have decried it. And, because NMD cannot be deployed without violating the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of nuclear arms control, the stakes are enormously high.

Just how high was made clear in a June 24 letter from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to the organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Putin wrote: "Either we will be able to save and enhance by joint effort everything we achieved in nonproliferation and reduction of nuclear weapons, or the entire system of the international and bilateral agreements developed in past years in this field will be threatened. Particularly important will be the outcome of the debate over the ABM treaty triggered by the U.S. intention to create a national missile defense."

The prospect of ditching decades of painstaking progress in nuclear arms control for a costly (government estimates range from $31 billion to $184 billion), misguided and unworkable system to protect against remote threats is especially galling in light of what might be possible without it. In his letter, Putin further stated, "There are opportunities to go beyond the total levels of 2,000-2,500 [nuclear] warheads as it was agreed by the leaders of the two countries in Helsinki in 1997 and reduce them down to 1,500 units." Putin made it clear, however, that to get to such levels the U.S. not only must forgo NMD but must also ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT.

So bizarre is the U.S. position on NMD that U.S. negotiators, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, have assured the Russians that, under any future arms treaties, they could maintain "large, diversified, viable arsenals of strategic offensive weapons capable of delivering 'an annihilating counterattack' " and keep those forces on constant alert.

Proponents of NMD argue that missile defenses are needed to protect the nation from "rogue" states--renamed "states of concern" by the State Department--suspected of seeking nuclear weapons. That is ironic, indeed. Having preached the nonproliferation gospel for decades, the U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT in late 1999, dealing a serious blow to efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons and to prevent nuclear war.

We urge a series of steps leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons so that the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not repeated.

First, the U.S. should abandon national missile defense. The ABM treaty has been a major pillar of nuclear arms control and must not be abrogated. The alleged threats NMD is supposed to protect against pale in comparison to the dangers of a renewed nuclear arms race.

Second, the U.S. should ratify the CTBT.

Third, the thousands of nuclear warheads in U.S. and Russian arsenals now on hair-trigger alert should be de-alerted. The presidents of the two nations have only a few minutes to decide whether to "launch on warning" of a nuclear attack. The risks of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation remain far too high. A single one-megaton warhead is capable of killing millions.

Fourth, START III negotiations should proceed immediately, and Putin's goal of 1,500 warheads per side should be embraced as the next step toward the "unequivocal undertaking" the U.S. and Russia (and 185 other nations) agreed to in New York in May: the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Fifth, a framework and a forum must be established for negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threatened use of nuclear weapons.

A world without nuclear weapons is no longer a utopian vision. It is within our grasp, and it's time to get started.

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