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“There are two sets of scenarios in which a US president might order a nuclear strike. The first is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial: launching a retaliatory attack after or during an enemy nuclear attack.”
The writers of this sentence in Foreign Affairs magazine, Richard Betts and Matthew Waxman, ignore expert military, scientific and humanitarian exposés, reports and confessions that have unified most of the world against any and all use of nuclear weapons. After 30 years of authoritative analysis of nuclear weapons effects, the bland assertion that their use would be “uncontroversial” betrays either gross ignorance of the literature or the deliberate employment of disinformation.
The global unification of anti-nuclear weapons opinion (beyond the nuclear weapons states) was demonstrated last July 7 with the United Nations adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading to their total elimination.
Betts and Waxman today sound much like Reagan presidential advisor Paul Nitze, whose article “Atoms, Strategy & Policy” considered “massive retaliation” versus “graduated deterrence” in the same magazine in 1956. Dr. Nitze wrote then: “the main point at issue between the two concepts is the reliance which should be placed upon the capacity to bomb centers of population and industry with nuclear weapons.” Betts’s and Waxman’s reference to “uncontroversial” nuclear weapons attacks blatantly glosses over, denies or simply wishes away the unanswerable lessons learned in the last 60 years.
Amazingly, Dr. Nitze, a life-long anti-Communist hawk and Cold War proponent of nuclear weapons, reversed himself in 1999 and totally rejected US nuclear war policy. In a New York Times op/ed titled “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves” Nitze wrote, “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them … adds nothing to our security. I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us.”
The most shocking and informative concept here is to refuse nuclear weapons “even in retaliation for their prior use against us.” With it, Nitze pre-demolished the lie by Betts and Waxman that nuclear retaliation is unopposed, accepted generally, and lacks controversy. Nitze was right to reject every excuse to use the Bomb, and so were the nuclear trigger men who preceded him.
Air Force General George L. Butler, who had been chief of Strategic Air Command and its Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (where he directed nuclear war planning), shocked the world Dec. 4, 1996, when he renounced his work and declared at the National Press Club that nuclear weapons are “morally indefensible” and should be abolished. In March 1999, a few months before Nitze’s public reversal, Gen. Butler said, “Nuclear weapons are not weapons at all. They are insanely destructive agents of physical and genetic terror… They’re some species of biological time bombs whose effects transcend time and space, poisoning the earth and its inhabitants for generations.”
In 1998, 60 retired generals and admirals from around the world joined Gen. Butler in calling for the stand-down and abolition of the world’s nuclear arsenals. The group took out ads in major papers everywhere. Yet today’s coldblooded talk by high-ranking officials of detonating nuclear weapons against North Korea, nuclear war advocates still appear ignorant of its catastrophic consequences and of the illegality of perpetrating, much less initiating massacres.
While the new national security advisor John Bolton advocates “pre-emptive” use of US nuclear war against North Korea, the National Academy of Sciences warned 30 years ago that “the primary mechanisms for human fatalities would likely not be from blast effects, not from thermal radiation burns, and not from ionizing radiation, but, rather, from mass starvation.”
Betts’s and Waxman’s claim that retaliation with H-bombs is “uncontroversial,” and Bolton’s call for unprovoked genocidal nuclear first strikes fly in the face of binding US treaty law including the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions which forbid all indiscriminate attacks and any use whatsoever of poisoned weapons. UN General Assembly Resolution 1653, although not a treaty, declares “Any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the UN, asking contrary to the laws of humanity, and as committing a crime against [hu]mankind and civilization.”
Beyond the criminality of deliberately detonating nuclear warheads against human beings, are the inevitable, irreversible and catastrophic health and environmental effects that would result. Three diplomatic conferences held between 2013 and 2014 in Norway, Mexico and Austria brought renewed global attention to these consequences. The International Committee of the Red Cross was instrumental in informing the three gatherings, and the ICRC painstakingly explained that no state or international body could ever adequately address the human health disaster caused by even the most limited nuclear attacks.
Betts, Waxman and Bolton teach everyone that mass murder isn’t controversial, not a lesson our gun-happy country should learn.