21 September 2006

The button

It has always bothered me, in a vague sort of way, that the President of the United States was a “push-of-the-button” away from starting a nuclear war.

It was commonly believed that a Secret Service agent followed the President everywhere with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. Inside that briefcase was “the button.” If the Soviets launched nuclear missiles at us, the President would open the briefcase, “push the button” and launch our nukes at them in return.

He could “push the button” at a state dinner. Or while traveling. Or in the Oval Office.

I always hoped he had a bunch of very sober, very serious advisors nearby, too, and that he’d be the kind of man who’d consult closely with them before he “pushed the button.” The President, I hoped, would be a sober and serious sort himself, one with a good understanding of the world and of the consequences of his actions. I hoped he would understand that when he “pushed the button” he would actually be “ending the world.”

Because of the twin horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we believed that the United States would never, ever again “push the button” first.

What bothered me about all this – what niggled -- was that one day we might elect a President who would “push the button” not because there were already missiles streaking from Russia toward us from the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, but just because he could.

When the Cold War ended, so did a lot of my vague worry about such things. Soviet-style Communism collapsed. We had nuclear non-proliferation treaties. The Doomsday Clock was set at 7 minutes to “midnight” by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 to convey the particular peril posed to the world by nuclear weapons.

Since then, the clock’s minute hand has moved forward and back 18 times. The Bulletin set it at 3 minutes to midnight in 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear missile, and down to 2 minutes to midnight in 1953 when the U.S. and the Soviets tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other.

In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the long-stalled Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and announced further unilateral cuts in tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, they set the Doomsday Clock back to 17 minutes to midnight.

Since then, nuclear weapons have been tested in Pakistan and India, and the world faces the risk of nuclear “leakage” from poorly guarded facilities in the former Soviet Union. Little progress has been made on global nuclear disarmament, and in 2002, the United States rejected a series of arms control treaties and announced it would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Today, we fear terrorists seek to acquire and use nuclear and biological weapons. The Doomsday Clock stands, once again, at 7 minutes to midnight and has since 2002.

Could it be that George W. Bush is the insane President I always worried about, the one who’ll “push the button” because he can? He’s certainly been making all the right noises, with his “bunker-buster” nukes and chest-beating talk about Iran.


Anonymous said...

This is a real threat.

There is a solid contingent who favor using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's processors. This despite the fact that it would be impossible to do that without at least 100,000 instant civilian deaths.

Not to mention the slight irony of using nukes to convince the world not to develope nukes.

And, it is not only the President and his posse of neocons.

In Pennsylvania we have the odious choice of Rick Santorum and Bobby Casey Junior.

Junior, during the primary debates, endorsed the use of nuclear weapons against Iran if "that's what it took" to stop their enrichment program.

Personally, I think the WWII use of nukes qualifies as the largest terrorist attack ever perpetrated -- if one views terrorism as the use of violence against civilian populations to affect the target population's political leadership.

Unfortunately, we at the point where a majority of our leadership have no personal memory of those horrors and any memories of the cold war nuclear threat of the 50s & 60s is too distant.

It is wholly inappropriate for the only nation to have lobbed nukes in anger to threaten others with them if they don't capitulate to international demands.

Unfortunately, the current Washington crowd -- Bush, neocons, and Hillary Dems -- fail to see the moral difference between keeping all options on the table and promising never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon.

Isn't it ironic -- it is the military leadership that is applying the brakes in an attempt to slow down the aggressive tendencies of the civilian leadership.

A Big Fat Slob (posting "anonymously" because Google screwed with Blogger Beta -- DON'T CONVERT)

Tom said...

Blue Wren,

If ever there was a poster boy for America's urgent need for critical thinking (within the general population), that poster boy is G.W. Bush. In our hubris, we elected a reflection our ourselves. If ever there were an arguement that Americans must learn reasoned debate regarding significant issues, that arguement is the current administration.

What happened? Our abject refusal to support public schools and our teachers is part of what happened. And, as a member of a large religious denomination, I can say our cowardice, when pressured by 'religious' bullies who wanted to assume authority, is part of what happened.

I'm barely old enough to remember the Kennedy / Nixon debates but I can assure you, the current administration would not have even placed during that race.

Blue Wren, you may not be old enough to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but there was a time in America when people of faith stood strong on behalf of those who are oppressed, as opposed to siding with the oppressors.

Now? We pursue the sound-byte, further ignorance and diversions that do not encourage critical thought. Now? We worship profits, growth, human fecundity and our own self-righteousness. The only media that evidences much common sense is blogs like yours and Public Television.

The current administration is only a symptom of our national disease. There is a treatment and we must pursue that treatment or face the bitter medicine that will be forced onto ourselves (and the world) if we fail to forsee the consequences of our recklessness.

The treatment? Part of it is simply humility, along with a sincere desire to be responsible, a sincere desire to learn and a sincere desire to be a good neighbor nation to those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

The changes might be hard but the consequences of not changing will be worse.

Blue Wren, please keep on blogging.

Kevin Wolf said...

Noam Chomsky's book Failed States dealt with the nuclear issue and, even with all the other heavy topics in the book, this came across as the #1, scariest, most dangerous thing going on in the world today.

And, worse, the US is doing almost nothing to contain what is already out there, and is acting the bully which encourages reaction from Iran, etc.

Madison Guy said...

Excellent post, more timely than ever. What really scares me about Bush and his neocon enablers is their smug, unimaginative cockiness moving forward in Iraq with their "surge." They know the number of troops they're sending are farcically small compared to what their "job" would require. So why are they doing it? I think they think they have something up their sleeve, an equalizer -- and I think I know what it is. It makes a very big bang.