This September is the sixtieth anniversary of U.S. and Soviet ratification of the world’s first significant nuclear arms control agreement, the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Thus, it’s an appropriate time to examine that treaty, as well as to consider what might be done to end the danger of nuclear annihilation.
The Rise of Public Pressure
Although the use, in 1945, of atomic bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed a wave of public concern about human survival in the nuclear age, it declined with the emergence of the Cold War. But another, even larger wave developed during the 1950s and early 1960s as the nuclear arms race surged forward. At the time, the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain engaged in testing a new nuclear device, the H-bomb, with a thousand times the power of the atomic bomb.
Many people found this situation alarming. Not only did the advent of H-bombs point toward universal doom in a future war, but the testing of the weapons sent vast clouds of radioactive “fallout” into the atmosphere, where it drifted around the planet until it descended upon the populace below. In 1957, Professor Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, predicted that, thanks to the nuclear tests already conducted, a million people would die early, and 200,000 children would be born with serious mental deficiency or physical defects.
In reaction to this growing menace, millions of people around the world began to resist nuclear weapons. They formed new, activist organizations, including the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) and Women Strike for Peace (in the United States), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), the Japan Council Against A & H Bombs and the Japan Congress Against A & H Bombs (in Japan), and the Struggle Against Atomic Death (in West Germany). Even in the Soviet bloc, concerned scientists pressed for an end to the nuclear arms race.
Governments Reluctantly Begin to Alter Public Policy
Government officials in nuclear-armed nations, troubled by the rising agitation, as well as by opinion polls showing widespread popular distaste for nuclear testing, nuclear weapons, and nuclear war, gradually began to adapt their policies to the demands of the public. Meeting with top scientists in the U.S. nuclear weapons program, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower told them that the U.S. government was “up against an extremely difficult world opinion situation” and that the country “could not permit itself to be ‘crucified on a cross of atoms.’” If U.S. nuclear testing continued, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned the president, “the slight military gains” would be “outweighed by the political losses.”
Accordingly, in 1958, the Soviet, American, and British governments halted nuclear testing while beginning negotiations for a test ban treaty. Failing to secure an agreement, they resumed nuclear tests in 1961, which led to nuclear testing remaining a very hot political issue for people and governments alike.
Into this controversy stepped Norman Cousins, the editor of a widely-read public affairs magazine, the Saturday Review and, also, ardent world federalist and founder and co-chair of SANE. During a lengthy meeting at the White House with President John F. Kennedy in November 1962, Cousins inquired if the president would like him to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to try to smooth the diplomatic path toward a nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy responded affirmatively and, in the following months, Cousins shuttled back and forth between the two world leaders. Ultimately, Cousins overcame Khrushchev’s suspicions of Kennedy and, then, convinced Kennedy to deliver a major speech with “a breathtaking new approach” to Soviet-American relations.
This American University address, partially written by Cousins, proved an immediate success with Khrushchev. Test ban negotiations commenced in Moscow during July 1963, resulting in the Partial Test Ban Treaty―banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.
The Significance of the Treaty and Its Successors
From the standpoint of ending the nuclear arms race, the treaty had its limitations. Because the treaty left unaddressed the issue of nuclear testing underground, the nuclear powers and aspiring nuclear powers simply shifted nuclear tests to this new locale. Furthermore, with nuclear fallout no longer a major public concern, popular pressure to halt nuclear testing―and, thereby, choke off the arms race―declined.
Nevertheless, the Partial Test Ban Treaty proved a turning point in world history. Together with the nuclear disarmament campaign that produced the treaty, it reduced Cold War hostility and ushered in a period of détente between the U.S. and Soviet governments. Furthermore, widespread nuclear proliferation, which seemed imminent at the time, failed to materialize. Even today, sixty years later, there are only nine nuclear powers.
Most important, the treaty demonstrated that nuclear arms control and disarmament were feasible. And so a host of treaties followed that substantially reduced nuclear dangers. These included the Nonproliferation Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Through these treaties, as well as through unilateral action―both spurred on by popular pressure―the number of nuclear weapons in the world dropped sharply, from 70,000 to roughly 12,500. Meanwhile, nuclear war became increasingly unthinkable.
Nuclear Revival and Resistance
Of course, in recent years, with the decline of popular pressure against nuclear weapons, the prospect of nuclear annihilation has revived. Disarmament treaties have been scrapped, a new nuclear arms race has begun, and reckless leaders of nuclear nations have publicly threatened nuclear war. Although a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in 2021, the nine nuclear powers have resisted signing it.
Even so, it remains possible to get nations back on track toward international security. Citizens for Global Solutions has signed on to a joint statement for the forthcoming Nonproliferation Treaty conference that calls for a Common Security framework approach as an alternative to nuclear deterrence. The statement was presented at the recent NPT preparatory conference by the chair of the World Federalist Movement and has been endorsed by 170 organizations. In a few weeks, CGS will also co-host a parliamentary delegation from Japan and the Republic of Korea that will be welcomed by U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), one of the staunchest congressional advocates of nuclear disarmament.
Furthermore, the treaty process provides a useful route toward a nuclear-free world. As the Partial Test Ban Treaty and its successors show us, arms control and disarmament treaties have helped to curb the nuclear arms race and prevent nuclear war. The revived march toward nuclear catastrophe can be halted and reversed by a treaty finally banning nuclear weapons―if people will demand it.
One of the most wonderful qualities about Daniel Ellsberg, (1931-2023), is that unlike too many of us he got better and better as he grew older. Maybe we all hope we will — even if we fail to fully meet that goal — but he is a genuine hero in American history who truly got wiser and wiser throughout his long life.
For many years during my working life in Washington, D.C. when I was running an idea salon and representing philanthropist Stewart Mott in a historic building just behind the Capitol between the Supreme Court and the Senate Office buildings, Dan Ellsberg was a frequent visitor to 122 Maryland Avenue. During the 1970’s and ’80’s I would encounter him walking the halls on the first, second and third floors, meeting with Morton Halperin, Admirals Gene laRocque and Gene Carroll and others who were running Fund for Peace Projects which were our tenants in this four-story 1820 building. He was intense, focused and friendly. Everybody around here was engaged in peace efforts, military reform, national security and foreign policy rethinking. It was a veritable hotbed of good ideas for policies to make our country more open, honest, accountable as well as instrumental in getting us to a better world. The US Pentagon’s first famous cost overruns whistleblower, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, another frequent visitor liked to joke that this was the House of Un-American Activities — but it was in fact exactly the opposite.
Dan Ellsberg had not always been an anti-nuclear analyst and advocate. After Harvard (summa cum laude in economics), a stint at Cambridge University in England and a PhD from Harvard, he worked for the US State Department as a nuclear war planner, and went to South Vietnam and then to the RAND Corporation, contributing to a 47-volume study of classified documents on the conduct of the Vietnam War that was completed in 1968.
I was privileged to know two of his associates who influenced his later life. Anthony (Tony) Russo who was also employed by RAND when he worked with Ellsberg to make multiple copies of the Pentagon Papers as that huge 1968 study had come to be known. Randy Kehler, also a member of Citizens for Global Solutions National Advisory Council (CGS NAC), first influenced Ellsberg at a conference in 1969 when he said he was going to prison for draft resistance against the Vietnam War. He said it was the right thing to do. And Ellsberg wrote later that ‘if I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy (the Pentagon Papers).’ Later that year the deed was done. But it was made public by The New York Times in 1971.
Among his several books, his most recent, The Doomsday Machine was first published in 2017. Dan Ellsberg asked me to read it and see what I thought in 2019. A wonderful read! We had a number of deep conversations and that was when I thought he would be a great member of the CGS NAC. He readily agreed. In this last book he discusses the intolerable dangers to the survival of a civilization that nuclear weapons pose if used. In all the years since the end of the Cold War, Ellsberg points out that we still have these Doomsday systems in place. He quotes Martin Luther King observing that ‘There is no such a thing as being too late.’ He also offers a lead quotation from Albert Einstein in 1946 (another former NAC member), ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’
Ellsberg was awarded the Ron Ridenhour Inaugural Courage Prize in 2004, among numerous other honors. We were fortunate to have him with us on our CGS National Advisory Council in his last years as he symbolizes a big, influential thinker for our time and our future.
Photo credit: Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The July 21, 2023 theatrical release of the film Oppenheimer, focused on the life of a prominent American nuclear physicist, should help to remind us of how badly the development of modern weapons has played out for individuals and for all of humanity.
Oppenheimer’s Rise and Fall
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus, written by Kai Bird and the late Martin Sherwin, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of young J. Robert Oppenheimer, recruited by the U.S. government during World War II to direct the construction and testing of the world’s first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His success in these ventures was followed shortly thereafter by President Truman’s ordering the use of nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During the immediate postwar years, Oppenheimer, widely lauded as “the father of the atomic bomb,” attained extraordinary power for a scientist within U.S. government ranks, including as chair of the General Advisory Committee of the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
But his influence ebbed as his ambivalence about nuclear weapons grew. In the fall of 1945, during a meeting at the White House with Truman, Oppenheimer said: “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Incensed, Truman later told Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Oppenheimer had become “a crybaby” and that he didn’t want “to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”
Oppenheimer was also disturbed by the emerging nuclear arms race and, like many atomic scientists, championed the international control of atomic energy. Indeed, in late 1949, the entire General Advisory Committee of the AEC came out in opposition to the U.S. development of the H-bomb―although the president, ignoring this recommendation, approved developing the new weapon and adding it to the rapidly growing U.S. nuclear arsenal.
In these circumstances, figures with considerably less ambivalence about nuclear weapons took action to purge Oppenheimer from power. In December 1953, shortly after becoming chair of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, a fervent champion of a U.S. nuclear buildup, ordered Oppenheimer’s security clearance suspended. Anxious to counter implications of disloyalty, Oppenheimer appealed the decision and, in subsequent hearings before the AEC’s Personnel Security Board, faced grueling questioning not only about his criticism of nuclear weapons, but about his relationships decades before with individuals who had been Communist Party members.
Ultimately, the AEC ruled that Oppenheimer was a security risk, an official determination that added to his public humiliation, completed his removal from government service, and delivered a shattering blow to his meteoric career.
The Threat to Human Survival
Of course, the development of nuclear weapons had far broader consequences than the downfall of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In addition to killing more than 200,000 people and injuring many more in Japan, the advent of nuclear weaponry led nations around the world to enter a fierce nuclear arms race. By the 1980s, spurred on by conflicts among the major powers, 70,000 nuclear weapons had come into existence, with the potential to destroy virtually all life on earth.
Fortunately, a massive grassroots citizens campaign emerged to counter this drive toward a nuclear apocalypse. And it succeeded in pressuring reluctant governments into an array of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, as well as unilateral actions, to reduce nuclear dangers. As a result, by 2023 the number of nuclear weapons had declined to roughly 12,500.
Nevertheless, in recent years, thanks to a sharp decrease in citizen activism and increase in international conflict, the potential for nuclear war has dramatically revived. All nine nuclear powers (Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) are currently engaged in upgrading their nuclear arsenals with new production facilities and new, improved nuclear weapons. During 2022, these governments poured nearly $83 billion into this nuclear buildup. Public threats to initiate nuclear war, including those by Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin, have become more common. The hands of the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established in 1946, now stand at 90 seconds to midnight―the most dangerous setting in its history.
Not surprisingly, the nuclear powers display little interest in further action for nuclear arms control and disarmament. The two nations possessing some 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons―Russia (with the most) and the United States (not far behind)―have pulled out of nearly all such agreements with one another. Although the U.S. government has proposed extending the New Start Treaty (which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons) with Russia, Putin reportedly responded this June that Russia would not engage in any nuclear disarmament talks with the West, commenting: “We possess more weaponry of such sort than the NATO countries. They know that and are always trying to persuade us to start negotiations on reduction. Nuts to them . . . as our people say.” The Chinese government―whose nuclear arsenal, while growing substantially, still ranks a distant third in numbers―has stated that it sees no reason for China to engage in any nuclear arms control talks.
The Demand for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World
To head off a looming nuclear catastrophe, non-nuclear nations have been championing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Adopted by an overwhelming vote of nations at a UN conference in July 2017, the TPNW bans developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, and threatening to use nuclear weapons. The treaty went into force in January 2021 and―though opposed by all the nuclear powers―it has thus far been signed by 92 nations and ratified by 68 of them. Brazil and Indonesia are likely to ratify it in the near future. Polls have found that the TPNW has substantial support in numerous countries, including the United States and other NATO nations.
Numerous organizations are working to create a nuclear weapons-free world, including Citizens for Global Solutions, Peace Action, and Physicians for Social Responsibility in the United States and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the International Peace Bureau, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND), and Parliamentarians for Global Action on the international level.
There does remain some hope, then, that the nuclear tragedy that engulfed J. Robert Oppenheimer and has long threatened the survival of world civilization can still be averted.
It should come as no surprise that the world is currently facing an existential nuclear danger. In fact, it has been caught up in that danger since 1945, when atomic bombs were used to annihilate the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Situation Today
Today, however, the danger of a nuclear holocaust is probably greater than in the past. There are now nine nuclear powers―the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea―and they are currently engaged in a new nuclear arms race, building ever more efficient weapons of mass destruction. The latest entry in their nuclear scramble, the hypersonic missile, travels at more than five times the speed of sound and is adept at evading missile defense systems.
Furthermore, these nuclear-armed powers engage in military confrontations with one another―Russia with the United States, Britain, and France over the fate of Ukraine, India with Pakistan over territorial disputes, and China with the United States over control of Taiwan and the South China Sea―and on occasion issue public threats of nuclear war against nuclear nations. In recent years, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-Un have also publicly threatened non-nuclear nations with nuclear destruction.
Little wonder that, in January 2023, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the hands of their famous “Doomsday Clock” at 90 seconds before midnight, the most dangerous setting since its creation in 1946.
A Reprieve, But Only a Temporary One
Until fairly recently, this march to Armageddon was disrupted, for people around the world found nuclear war a very unappealing prospect. A massive nuclear disarmament campaign developed in many countries and, gradually, began to force governments to temper their nuclear ambitions. The result was banning nuclear testing, curbing nuclear proliferation, limiting development of some kinds of nuclear weapons, and fostering substantial nuclear disarmament. From the 1980s to today, the number of nuclear weapons in the world sharply decreased, from 70,000 to roughly 13,000. And with nuclear weapons stigmatized, nuclear war was averted.
But successes in rolling back the nuclear menace undermined the popular struggle against it, while proponents of nuclear weapons seized the opportunity to reassert their priorities. Consequently, a new nuclear arms race gradually got underway.
And What of the Future?
Even so, creating a nuclear-free world remains possible. Although an inflamed nationalism and the excessive power of military contractors are likely to continue bolstering the drive to acquire, brandish, and use nuclear weapons, there is a route out of the world’s nuclear nightmare.
We can begin uncovering this route to a safer, saner world when we recognize that a great many people and governments cling to nuclear weapons because of their desire for national security. After all, it has been and remains a dangerous world, and for thousands of years nations (and before the existence of nations, rival territories) have protected themselves from aggression by wielding military might.
The United Nations, of course, was created in the aftermath of the vast devastation of World War II in the hope of providing national security. But, as history has demonstrated, it is not strong enough to do the job―largely because the “great powers,” fearing that significant power in the hands of the international organization would diminish their own influence in world affairs, have deliberately kept the world organization weak. Thus, for example, the UN Security Council, which is officially in charge of maintaining international security, is frequently blocked from taking action by a veto cast by one its five powerful, permanent members.
But what if global governance were strengthened to the extent that it could provide national security? What if the United Nations were transformed from a loose confederation of nations into a genuine federation of nations, enabled thereby to create binding international law, prevent international aggression, and guarantee treaty commitments, including commitments for nuclear disarmament?
How a Federation of Nations Could End the Nuclear Menace
Nuclear weapons, like other weapons of mass destruction, have emerged in the context of unrestrained international conflict. But with national security guaranteed, many policymakers and most people around the world would conclude that nuclear weapons, which they already knew were immensely dangerous, had also become unnecessary.
Aside from undermining the national security rationale for building and maintaining nuclear weapons, a stronger United Nations would have the legitimacy and power to ensure their abolition. No longer would nations be able to disregard international agreements they didn’t like. Instead, nuclear disarmament legislation, once adopted by the federation’s legislature, would be enforced by the federation. Under this legislation, the federation would presumably have the authority to inspect nuclear facilities, block the development of new nuclear weapons, and reduce and eliminate nuclear stockpiles.
The relative weakness of the current United Nations in enforcing nuclear disarmament is illustrated by the status of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Voted for by 122 nations at a UN conference in 2017, the treaty bans producing, testing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, and using or threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Although the treaty officially went into force in 2021, it is only binding on nations that have decided to become parties to it. Thus far, that does not include any of the nuclear armed nations. As a result, the treaty currently has more moral than practical effect in securing nuclear disarmament.
If comparable legislation were adopted by a world federation, however, participating in a disarmament process would no longer be voluntary, for the legislation would be binding on all nations. Furthermore, the law’s universal applicability would not only lead to worldwide disarmament, but offset fears that nations complying with its provisions would one day be attacked by nations that refused to abide by it.
In this fashion, enhanced global governance could finally end the menace of worldwide nuclear annihilation that has haunted humanity since 1945. What remains to be determined is: Are nations ready to unite in the interest of human survival?
The development and the deployment of nuclear weapons are usually based on the assumption that they enhance national security. But, in fact, as this powerful study of nuclear policy convincingly demonstrates, nuclear weapons move nations toward the brink of destruction.
The basis for this conclusion is the post-World War II nuclear arms race and, especially, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. At the height of the crisis, top officials from the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union narrowly avoided annihilating a substantial portion of the human race by what former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, an important participant in the events, called “plain dumb luck.”
The author of this cautionary account, Martin Sherwin, who died shortly after its publication, was certainly well-qualified to tell this chilling story. A professor of history at George Mason University, Sherwin was the author of the influential A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies and the co-author, with Kai Bird, of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which, in 2006, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Perhaps the key factor in generating these three scholarly works was Sherwin’s service as a U.S. Navy junior intelligence officer who was ordered to present top secret war plans to his commander during the Cuban missile crisis.
The Rise of Nuclear Weapons in International Affairs
In Gambling with Armageddon, Sherwin shows deftly how nuclear weapons gradually became a key part of international relations. Although Harry Truman favored some limitations on the integration of these weapons into U.S. national security strategy, his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, significantly expanded their role. According to the Eisenhower administration’s NSC 162/2, the U.S. government would henceforth “consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions.” At Eisenhower’s direction, Sherwin notes, “nuclear weapons were no longer an element of American military power; they were its primary instrument.”
Sherwin adds that, although the major purpose of the new U.S. “massive retaliation” strategy “was to frighten Soviet leaders and stymie their ambitions,” its “principal result . . . was to establish a blueprint for Nikita Khrushchev to create his own ‘nuclear brinkmanship.’” John F. Kennedy’s early approach to U.S. national security policy―supplementing U.S. nuclear superiority with additional conventional military forces and sponsoring a CIA-directed invasion of Cuba―merely bolstered Khrushchev’s determination to contest U.S. power in world affairs. Consequently, resumption of Soviet nuclear weapons testing and a Soviet-American crisis over Berlin followed.
A Crisis Emerges Over Cuba
Indeed, dismayed by U.S. nuclear superiority and feeling disrespected by the U.S. government, Khrushchev decided to secretly deploy medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. As Sherwin observes, the Soviet leader sought thereby “to protect Cuba, to even the balance of nuclear weapons and nuclear fear, and to reinforce his leverage to resolve the West Berlin problem.” Assuming that the missiles would not be noticed until their deployment was completed, Khrushchev thought that the Kennedy administration, faced with a fait accompli, would have no choice but to accept them. Khrushchev was certainly not expecting a nuclear war.
But that is what nearly occurred. In the aftermath of the U.S. government’s discovery of the missile deployment in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs of Staff demanded the bombing and invasion of the island and were supported by most members of ExComm, an ad hoc group of Kennedy’s top advisors during the crisis. At the time, they did not realize that the Soviet government had already succeeded in delivering 164 nuclear warheads to Cuba and, therefore, that a substantial number of the ballistic missiles on the island were already operational. Also, the 42,000 Soviet troops in Cuba were armed with tactical nuclear weapons and had been given authorization to use them to repel an invasion. As Fidel Castro later remarked: “It goes without saying that in the event of an invasion, we would have had nuclear war.”
Initially, among all of Kennedy’s advisors, only Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, suggested employing a political means―rather than a military one―to secure the removal of the missiles. Although Kennedy personally disliked Stevenson, he recognized the wisdom of his UN ambassador’s approach and gradually began to adopt his ideas. “The question really is,” the president told his hawkish advisors, “what action we take which lessens the chance of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure.” Therefore, Kennedy tempered his initial impulse to order rapid military action and, instead, adopted a plan for a naval blockade (“quarantine”) of Cuba, thereby halting the arrival of additional Soviet missiles and creating time for negotiations with Khrushchev for removal of the missiles already deployed.
U.S. military leaders, among other ostensible “wise men,” were appalled by what they considered the weakness of the blockade plan, though partially appeased by Kennedy’s assurances that, if it failed to secure the desired results within a seven-day period, a massive U.S. military attack on the island would follow. Indeed, as Sherwin reveals, at the beginning of October, before the discovery of the missiles, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were already planning for an invasion of Cuba and looking for an excuse to justify it.
Sliding Toward Disaster
Even though Khrushchev, like Kennedy, regarded the blockade as a useful opportunity to negotiate key issues, they quickly lost control of the volatile situation.
For example, U.S. military officers took the U.S.-Soviet confrontation to new heights. Acting on his own initiative, General Thomas Power, the head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, advanced its nuclear forces to DEFCON 2, just one step short of nuclear war―the only occasion when that level of nuclear alert was ever instituted. He also broadcast the U.S. alert level “in the clear,” ensuring that the Russians would intercept it. They did, and promptly raised their nuclear alert level to the same status.
In addition, few participants in the crisis seemed to know exactly what should be done if a Soviet ship did not respect the U.S. blockade of Cuba. Should the U.S. Navy demand to board it? Fire upon it? Furthermore, at Castro’s orders, a Soviet surface-to-air battery in Cuba shot down an American U-2 surveillance flight, killing the pilot. Khrushchev was apoplectic at the provocative action, while the Kennedy administration faced the quandary of how to respond to it.
A particularly dangerous incident occurred in the Sargasso Sea, near Cuba. To bolster the Soviet defense of Cuba, four Soviet submarines, each armed with a torpedo housing a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead, had been dispatched to the island. After a long, harrowing trip through unusually stormy seas, these vessels were badly battered when they arrived off Cuba. Cut off from communication with Moscow, their crews had no idea whether the United States and the Soviet Union were already at war.
All they did know was that a fleet of U.S. naval warships and warplanes was apparently attacking one of the stricken Soviet submarines, using the unorthodox (and unauthorized) tactic of forcing it to surface by flinging hand grenades into its vicinity. One of the Soviet crew members recalled that “it felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel while somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.” Given the depletion of the submarine’s batteries and the tropical waters, temperatures ranged in the submarine between 113 and 149 degrees Fahrenheit. The air was foul, fresh water was in short supply, and crew members were reportedly “dropping like dominoes.” Unhinged by the insufferable conditions below deck and convinced that his submarine was under attack, the vessel’s captain ordered his weapons officer to assemble the nuclear torpedo for action. “We’re gonna blast them now!” he screamed. We will die, but we will sink them all―we will not become the shame of the fleet.”
At this point, though, Captain Vasily Arkhipov, a young Soviet brigade chief of staff who had been randomly assigned to the submarine, intervened. Calming the distraught captain, he eventually convinced him that the apparent military attack, plus subsequent machine gun fire from U.S. Navy aircraft, probably constituted no more than a demand to surface. And so they did. Arkhipov’s action, Sherwin notes, saved not only the lives of the submarine crew, “but also the lives of thousands of U.S. sailors and millions of innocent civilians who would have been killed in the nuclear exchanges that certainly would have followed from the destruction” that the “nuclear torpedo would have wreaked upon those U.S. Navy vessels.”
Although the Crisis is Resolved Peacefully, the Lesson is Lost
Meanwhile, recognizing that the situation was fast slipping out of their hands, Kennedy and Khrushchev did some tense but serious bargaining. Ultimately, they agreed that Khrushchev would remove the missiles, while Kennedy would issue a public pledge not to invade Cuba. Moreover, Kennedy would remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey―reciprocal action that made sense to both men, although, for political reasons, Kennedy insisted on keeping the missile swap a secret. Thus, the missile crisis ended with a diplomatic solution.
Ironically, continued secrecy about the Cuba-Turkey missile swap, combined with illusions of smooth Kennedy administration calibrations of power spun by ExComm participants and the mass communications media, led to a long-term, comforting, and triumphalist picture of the missile crisis. Consequently, most Americans ended up with the impression that Kennedy stood firm in his demands, while Khrushchev “blinked.” It was a hawkish “lesson”―and a false one. As Sherwin points out, “the real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis . . . is that nuclear armaments create the perils they are deployed to prevent, but are of little use in resolving them.”
Although numerous books have been written about the Cuban missile crisis, Gambling with Armageddon ranks as the best of them. Factually detailed, clearly and dramatically written, and grounded in massive research, it is a work of enormous power and erudition. As such, it represents an outstanding achievement by one of the pre-eminent U.S. historians.
Like Sherwin’s other works, Gambling with Armageddon also grapples with one of the world’s major problems: the prospect of nuclear annihilation. At the least, it reveals that, while nuclear weapons exist, the world remains in peril. On a deeper level, it suggests the need to move beyond considerations of national security to international security, including the abolition of nuclear weapons and the peaceful resolution of conflict among nations.
Securing these goals might necessitate a long journey, but Sherwin’s writings remind us that, to safeguard human survival, there’s really no alternative to pressing forward with it.
Russia’s war upon Ukraine should remind us that violent international conflicts not only persist, but constitute a plague upon the world.
Over thousands of years, wars have brought immense suffering to people around the globe. In addition to the widespread annihilation of human life, wars have produced vast material losses, including the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, entire cities, the environment, and much of what people value as civilization. They have also channeled enormous financial resources into military buildups that, even if not employed in battle, deprive other public and private programs of adequate attention and funding. Also, since World War II, when nuclear weapons were first developed and used with terrible effect, the means of waging war have entered a new dimension, giving it the power to destroy virtually all life on earth.
Although, in recent centuries, many people have lamented war’s squandering of blood and treasure, as well as the suicidal nature of modern war, they have not yet found an effective way to stop it.
Public Efforts to Avoid War
One popular response to war is isolationism, which is designed to keep one’s nation out of the conflict. But this policy (labeled “America First” in the United States) ignores the suffering of other people and, of course, does nothing to stop a war elsewhere. In addition, it is often accompanied by a military buildup of one’s own nation, a policy that has a poor track record when it comes to preventing war.
Pacifism is on a higher ethical plane, for it deplores the horrors produced by militarism and war. Furthermore, if most people around the world accepted the absolute pacifist position (which rejects military force in all circumstances), pacifists might be able to prevent wars from occurring or continuing. But this is not the case and, given widespread public support for “just wars” (including defense against invasion), seems unlikely to become so. Nonviolent resistance, a form of radical pacifism, has greater potentiality as an alternative to war or surrender, although its full promise has yet to be realized in coping with international war.
Effective Governance and Violent Behavior
By contrast, within nations there are alternatives to violent behavior that, although not always totally effective, do reduce it substantially. Legislative bodies enact laws, while police and judicial institutions enforce these laws. Unfortunately, on the global level, these institutions are so rudimentary and limited in power that they fail to produce an effective check upon violence. Thus, on the national level, governments can restrain violence by individuals, mobs, or insurrectionists. But, on the international level, things proceed much as they did in the American Wild West of yesteryear. In this state of international anarchy, strong nations all too often threaten or wage war upon the weak, and nations often feel insecure unless they maintain a substantial capacity for war.
In short, while nations have established useful governance at the national level, the world lacks effective governance at the international level. As a result, when nations have an international conflict, they are tempted, in the absence of the force of law, to invoke the law of force.
Strengthening Global Governance
Even so, the nations of the world could unite in the interest of their common security and bolster institutions of global governance. To strengthen the UN Security Council, they could abolish the veto and substitute a rotating membership for the permanent membership of Russia, China, the United States, Britain, and France. To strengthen the General Assembly, they could give it additional legislative power, including the power to fund the United Nations through taxation. To enhance the democratic nature of the United Nations, they could establish a world parliament, with representatives elected by the public rather than selected by national governments. Additional power could also be granted to the International Criminal Court and to the International Court of Justice to conduct investigations, deliver judgments, and enforce their rulings.
These kinds of reform measures have been advocated for years by the World Federalist Movement/Institute for Global Policy and by its U.S. member organization, Citizens for Global Solutions. Strengthened governmental authority on the global level is also supported by world public opinion.
A stronger array of international institutions is not a cure-all for international war. But, like the enforcement of gun control within nations, it would significantly reduce the number of violent incidents. It would help prevent international aggression. And it would save the world from nuclear war by enforcing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. After thousands of years of blood and plunder, topped off in recent decades by the looming danger of a nuclear holocaust, isn’t it time to give strengthened global governance a try?
Nations of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your wars.