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Tomgram: James Carroll, Entering the Second Nuclear Age?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

He was the candidate who, while talking to a foreign policy expert, reportedly wondered "why we can't use nuclear weapons." He was the man who would never rule anything out or take any "cards," including nuclear ones, off the proverbial table. He was the fellow who, as president-elect, was eager to expand the American nuclear arsenal and told Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski, "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." I'm referring, of course, to the president who, early on, spoke with his top national security officials of returning the country to a Cold War footing when it came to such weaponry and called for the equivalent of a tenfold expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I'm thinking of the president who once threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like the world has never seen" and proudly claimed that he had a "bigger nuclear button" than that country's leader, Kim Jong-un.

Given his fascination with nuclear weaponry, it's hardly surprising that the very same president would decide to pull the U.S. out of the Cold War-era 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) or that his vice president would refuse to rule out -- another potentially treaty-busting act -- the deployment of nuclear weapons in space. It's a gesture that, as TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll explains today, could not be more devastating when it comes to creating a new nuclear arms race on this increasingly godforsaken planet of ours. Reading Carroll's piece, I thought of a mobilizing nuclear moment in my own life. It was the time in 1982 when I read Jonathan Schell's bestselling book The Fate of the Earth, which helped create a global anti-nuclear movement, millions of active citizens desiring a nuke-free world, that prepared the way for the INF Treaty. In that remarkable volume, Schell offered a stunning vision of what a ten-thousand-megaton nuclear strike on the U.S. might mean. ("In the ten seconds or so after each bomb hit, as blast waves swept outward from thousands of ground zeros, the physical plant of the United States would be swept away like leaves in a gust of wind.") In the end, after radiation had also taken its toll, he wrote, the United States -- in a phrase that's haunted me ever since -- "would be a republic of insects and grass."

That, in other words, is what it might mean, in the twenty-first century, as in the previous one, for a president to put all those nuclear "cards" back on the table and "outmatch... and outlast them all." Tom

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"They Will Not Forgive Us"
Donald Trump Welcomes in the Age of "Usable" Nuclear Weapons
By James Carroll

It was only an announcement, but think of it as the beginning of a journey into hell. Last week, President Donald Trump made public his decision to abrogate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 agreement with the Soviet Union. National Security Advisor John Bolton, a Cold Warrior in a post-Cold War world, promptly flaunted that announcement on a trip to Vladimir Putin's Moscow. To grasp the import of that decision, however, quite another kind of voyage is necessary, a trip down memory lane.

That 1987 pact between Moscow and Washington was no small thing in a world that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis only 25 years earlier, had reached the edge of nuclear Armageddon. The INF Treaty led to the elimination of thousands of nuclear weapons, but its significance went far beyond that. As a start, it closed the books on the nightmare of a Europe caught between the world-ending strategies of the two superpowers, since most of those "intermediate-range" missiles were targeting that very continent. No wonder, last week, a European Union spokesperson, responding to Trump, fervently defended the treaty as a permanent "pillar" of international order.

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To take that trip back three decades in time and remember how the INF came about should be an instant reminder of just how President Trump is playing havoc with something essential to human survival.

In October 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, briefly came close to fully freeing the planet from the horrifying prospect of nuclear annihilation. In his second inaugural address, a year and a half earlier, President Reagan had wishfully called for "the total elimination" of nuclear weapons. At that Reykjavik summit, Gorbachev, a pathbreaking Soviet leader, promptly took the president up on that dream, proposing -- to the dismay of the aides of both leaders -- a total nuclear disarmament pact that would take effect in the year 2000.

Reagan promptly agreed in principle. "Suits me fine," he said. "That's always been my goal." But it didn't happen. Reagan had another dream, too -- of a space-based missile defense system against just such weaponry, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also dubbed "Star Wars." He refused to yield on the subject when Gorbachev rejected SDI as the superpower arms race transferred into space. "This meeting is over," Reagan then said.

Of the failure of Reykjavik, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze would then comment: "When future generations read the transcripts of this meeting, they will not forgive us." At that point, the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the USSR had hit a combined 60,000 weapons and were still growing. (Five new American nuclear weapons were being added each day.) A month after Reykjavik, in fact, the U.S. deployed a new B-52-based cruise missile system in violation of the 1979 SALT II Treaty. Hawks in Moscow were pressing for similar escalations. Elites on both sides -- weapons manufacturers, intelligence and political establishments, think tanks, military bureaucracies, and pundits -- were appalled at what the two leaders had almost agreed to. The national security priesthood, East and West, wanted to maintain what was termed "the stability of the strategic stalemate," even if such stability, based on ever-expanding arsenals, could not have been less stable.

But a widespread popular longing for relief from four decades of nuclear dread had been growing on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In a surge of anti-nuclear activism, millions of ordinary citizens took to the streets of cities in the U.S. and Europe to protest the superpower nuclear establishments. Even behind the Iron Curtain, voices for peace could be heard. "Listen," Gorbachev pleaded after Reykjavik, "to the demands of the American people, the Soviet people, the peoples of all countries."

A Watershed Treaty

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As it happened, the Soviet leader refused to settle for Reagan's no. Four months after the Iceland summit, he proposed an agreement "without delay" to remove from Europe all intermediate missiles -- those with a range well under that of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). When Pentagon officials tried to swat Gorbachev's proposal aside by claiming that there could be no such agreement without on-site inspections, he said fine, inspect away! That was an unprecedented concession from the Soviet Union.

President Reagan was surrounded by men like then-Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz (later to become infamous for his role in promoting a post-9/11 invasion of Iraq), who assumed Gorbachev was a typical Soviet "master of deceit." But for all his hawkishness, the president had other instincts as well. Events would show that, on the subject of nukes (SDI notwithstanding), Reagan had indeed recognized the threat to the human future posed by the open-ended accumulation of ever more of those weapons and had become a kind of nuclear abolitionist. Even if ending that threat was inconceivable to him, his desire to mitigate it would prove genuine.

At the time, however, Reagan had other problems to deal with. Just as Gorbachev put forward his surprising initiative, the American president found himself engulfed in the Iran-Contra scandal -- a criminal conspiracy to trade arms for hostages with Iran, while illegally aiding right-wing paramilitaries in Central America. It threatened to become his Watergate. It would, in the end, lead to the indictments of 14 members of his administration. Beleaguered, he desperately wanted to change the subject. A statesman-like rescue of faltering arms-control negotiations might prove just the helping hand he was looking for. So the day before he went on television to abjectly offer repentance for Iran-Contra, he announced that he would accept Gorbachev's INF proposal. His hawkish inner circle was thoroughly disgusted by the gesture. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger promptly resigned in protest. (He would later be indicted for Iran-Contra.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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