Nuclear weapons: Is full disarmament possible?
As world leaders convene in Washington for a summit on halting the spread of nuclear weapons, a global debate is rising on the merits – and feasibility – of total nuclear disarmament.
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Meanwhile, proliferation is set to increase due to boosts in civil nuclear programs and the black art of illicit nuclear trade. A key worry is that the highly conscious disciplines of a cold-war generation – the nuclear safeguards, the cares and customs and unwritten codes of deterrence – are far less rigorous today. Nukes are treated almost casually.Skip to next paragraph
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At his home in Stanford, Calif., Schultz worries about precisely this – human obtuseness on such a life-and-death issue. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is "unraveling because there hasn't been significant commitment on the part of countries that have nuclear weapons to get rid of them," he says. "We haven't had a calamity. But do we have to wait for one ... before it is a problem?
"If a nuclear weapon went off in Bombay or Myanmar, somewhere, anywhere, Peking or Paris – we would all get up and say we have to do something about this. Get rid of these weapons! Why can't we do something before it happens?"
Schultz was weaned in an era of thinking the unthinkable – a thermonuclear exchange that would destroy the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union. During World War II, he was a US Marine on a ship headed for San Diego, with men who had all fought in the Pacific, to prepare for the invasion of Japan, when he first heard about the atom bomb.
Later, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the GI Bill. It was an era, post-Holocaust, where leading thinkers – physicists like Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, and public intellectuals like Harvard president James Bryant Conant and sociologist David Riesman – wrestled with the moral and ethical dimensions of modern science. Many argued that nuclear technology was a leap so advanced that humans would be unable to restrain their baser instincts in the pursuit of power.
Yet it wasn't until Schultz became secretary of State that he focused on the nuclear issue. President Reagan also came to feel that "mutually assured destruction" was folly. But the idea of a nuclear-free world at the time seemed incredible, "really shocking," Schultz says.
After the Reykjavik summit, which nearly eliminated US-Soviet stockpiles, Schultz came back to Washington and was "beaten up" by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the British ambassador's residence.
"She said," Schultz remembers, " 'How could you sit there and allow the president to do away with nuclear weapons?... You are supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground.' "
" 'But, Margaret, I agreed with him,' " Schultz answered. "Her reaction was typical – this was a horrible idea."
(Reagan later told Congress the US would seek "the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.")