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General News    H3'ed 11/7/16

Tomgram: Michael Klare, Whose Finger on the Nuclear Button?

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

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: There will be no TD post this Tuesday. The next one will appear sometime between Thursday morning and Sunday night. Now, go vote. Tom]

I was born on July 20, 1944, the day of the failed officers' plot against Adolf Hitler. That means I preceded the official dawning of the nuclear age by exactly 361 days, which makes me part of the last generation to do so. I'm speaking not of the obliteration of two Japanese cities by America's new "wonder weapon" on August 6th and 9th, 1945, but of the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexican desert near Alamogordo on July 16th of that year. When physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," witnessed that explosion, the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, that famously came into his head was: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

How apt it still remains more than seven decades later, at a moment when nine countries possess such weapons -- more than 15,000 of them -- in their arsenals, most of which are now staggeringly more destructive than that first devastating bomb, and as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, some of which are closer to possible use than at any point in at least a couple of decades. For those of us who lived through the years of bomb shelters, atomic movie monsters, the Cuban Missile Crisis (which left me, age 18, fearing I might be toast in the morning), the rise and fall of antinuclear movements, and nuclear nightmares of a sort I still remember vividly from my youth in a way I no longer recall the dreams of last night, it's a horror to imagine that nuclear war is still with us; even more so, because, in Election 2016, we have a presidential candidate who is not only ignorant about those weapons in hard-to-believe ways, but who wonders why "we can't use them," and who might months from now have his finger on that "nuclear button" (or rather command of the nuclear codes that could launch such a war). Don't tell me that this isn't a living nightmare of the first order.

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I find it eerie in the extreme and unnervingly apt that the Clinton campaign has brought back a living icon of our nuclear fears, the little girl from the 1964 election who appeared in the famous (or infamous) "Daisy" ad President Lyndon Johnson ran against Republican contender Barry Goldwater (who, in retrospect, seems like the soul of stability compared with you know whom). She was then seen counting to 10 as she plucked petals off a daisy just before an ominous, echoing male voice began the countdown to an atomic explosion that filled the screen. Now, that girl, Monique Luiz, a grown woman, is shown saying, "The fear of nuclear war we had as children, I never thought our children would ever have to deal with that again. And to see that coming forward in this election is really scary."

She's now 55 years old and, however the Clinton campaign may be using her, there's still something deeply unnerving for those of us who had hoped to outlast the nuclear age simply to see her there more than five decades later. And if you think that's unnerving on the eve of the most bizarre presidential election in memory, then read today's piece by Michael Klare and imagine just how unsettling, in nuclear terms, the years ahead may prove to be. Tom

Election 2016 and the Growing Global Nuclear Threat
Playing a Game of Chicken with Nuclear Strategy
By Michael T. Klare

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Once upon a time, when choosing a new president, a factor for many voters was the perennial question: "Whose finger do you want on the nuclear button?" Of all the responsibilities of America's top executive, none may be more momentous than deciding whether, and under what circumstances, to activate the "nuclear codes" -- the secret alphanumeric messages that would inform missile officers in silos and submarines that the fearful moment had finally arrived to launch their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) toward a foreign adversary, igniting a thermonuclear war.

Until recently in the post-Cold War world, however, nuclear weapons seemed to drop from sight, and that question along with it. Not any longer. In 2016, the nuclear issue is back big time, thanks both to the rise of Donald Trump (including various unsettling comments he's made about nuclear weapons) and actual changes in the global nuclear landscape.

With passions running high on both sides in this year's election and rising fears about Donald Trump's impulsive nature and Hillary Clinton's hawkish one, it's hardly surprising that the "nuclear button" question has surfaced repeatedly throughout the campaign. In one of the more pointed exchanges of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump lacked the mental composure for the job. "A man who can be provoked by a tweet," she commented, "should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes." Donald Trump has reciprocated by charging that Clinton is too prone to intervene abroad. "You're going to end up in World War III over Syria," he told reporters in Florida last month.

For most election observers, however, the matter of personal character and temperament has dominated discussions of the nuclear issue, with partisans on each side insisting that the other candidate is temperamentally unfit to exercise control over the nuclear codes. There is, however, a more important reason to worry about whose finger will be on that button this time around: at this very moment, for a variety of reasons, the "nuclear threshold" -- the point at which some party to a "conventional" (non-nuclear) conflict chooses to employ atomic weapons -- seems to be moving dangerously lower.

Not so long ago, it was implausible that a major nuclear power -- the United States, Russia, or China -- would consider using atomic weapons in any imaginable conflict scenario. No longer. Worse yet, this is likely to be our reality for years to come, which means that the next president will face a world in which a nuclear decision-making point might arrive far sooner than anyone would have thought possible just a year or two ago -- with potentially catastrophic consequences for us all.

No less worrisome, the major nuclear powers (and some smaller ones) are all in the process of acquiring new nuclear arms, which could, in theory, push that threshold lower still. These include a variety of cruise missiles and other delivery systems capable of being used in "limited" nuclear wars -- atomic conflicts that, in theory at least, could be confined to just a single country or one area of the world (say, Eastern Europe) and so might be even easier for decision-makers to initiate. The next president will have to decide whether the U.S. should actually produce weapons of this type and also what measures should be taken in response to similar decisions by Washington's likely adversaries.

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Lowering the Nuclear Threshold

During the dark days of the Cold War, nuclear strategists in the United States and the Soviet Union conjured up elaborate conflict scenarios in which military actions by the two superpowers and their allies might lead from, say, minor skirmishing along the Iron Curtain to full-scale tank combat to, in the end, the use of "battlefield" nuclear weapons, and then city-busting versions of the same to avert defeat. In some of these scenarios, strategists hypothesized about wielding "tactical" or battlefield weaponry -- nukes powerful enough to wipe out a major tank formation, but not Paris or Moscow -- and claimed that it would be possible to contain atomic warfare at such a devastating but still sub-apocalyptic level. (Henry Kissinger, for instance, made his reputation by preaching this lunatic doctrine in his first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.) Eventually, leaders on both sides concluded that the only feasible role for their atomic arsenals was to act as deterrents to the use of such weaponry by the other side. This was, of course, the concept of "mutually assured destruction," or -- in one of the most classically apt acronyms of all times: MAD. It would, in the end, form the basis for all subsequent arms control agreements between the two superpowers.

Anxiety over the escalatory potential of tactical nuclear weapons peaked in the 1970s when the Soviet Union began deploying the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile (capable of striking cities in Europe, but not the U.S.) and Washington responded with plans to deploy nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles and the Pershing-II ballistic missile in Europe. The announcement of such plans provoked massive antinuclear demonstrations across Europe and the United States. On December 8, 1987, at a time when worries had been growing about how a nuclear conflagration in Europe might trigger an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

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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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