the run-up to the Iraq war, the threats posed by weapons of mass
destruction (WMDs) were exhaustively discussed by the politicians
and the pundits. But, in the aftermath of that conflict, when no
WMDs were to be found, they became an embarrassment to the war enthusiasts,
who conveniently forgot about them. Certainly, the mass media, only
recently filled with alarms about nuclear attacks, have said remarkably
little about nuclear weapons over the past year.
is unfortunate. Despite the nuclear arms control and disarmament
treaties of the past, 30,000 nuclear weapons remain in existence,
with the potential for annihilating civilization. Furthermore, a
number of nations appear to be in the process of building them.
And, finally, the two major party candidates for president –
George W. Bush and John Kerry – have taken positions on nuclear
weapons that diverge markedly.
becoming president, Bush has unilaterally withdrawn the United States
from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, refused to support
ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ratified
at this point by 115 nations), and has developed guidelines that
expand the possibilities for using nuclear weapons in a variety
of situations, including "surprising military developments."
despite the Bush administration’s criticism of other nations for
developing nuclear weapons, it has flouted U.S. commitments under
the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. In that treaty and
in its periodic updates, the nuclear powers, including the United
States, pledged to work toward divesting themselves of nuclear weapons.
But there has been no move along these lines during the Bush administration.
The only nuclear arms control measure negotiated by the president
is the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, signed with Russia
in May 2002. Although, ostensibly, this measure will reduce the
number of strategic nuclear warheads that are deployed on U.S. and
Russian missiles, there is no deadline for the reduction, the deactivated
warheads will simply be kept in storage, and the treaty will terminate
in 2012, after which its provisions can be ignored or forgotten.
than eliminate nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has chosen
to build new ones. In the president’s 2005 budget, he requested
$36.6 million for research on new nuclear weapons, including "mini-nukes"
and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (the so-called "bunker
buster"). An uneasy Congress is still grappling with this proposal.
this same budget, the president requested another $30 million to
reduce the time necessary to resume U.S. nuclear testing. If new
nuclear weapons are to be built, such testing is necessary. And
the resumption of testing would also have some other important consequences.
It would bring an end to the great power moratorium on nuclear testing
that has been observed by Russia, China, Britain, and France since
1996. Some or all of these nations would then resume nuclear testing
themselves, building new nuclear weapons and adding to the vast
nuclear stockpiles that they (and terrorists) can draw upon.
surprisingly, the official web site of the Bush re-election campaign
says nothing about nuclear arms control and disarmament, but lauds
the administration’s leadership in building new kinds of weapons
– without, by the way, mentioning that a number of these new
weapons are nuclear.
Kerry has taken a stand that is much more in line with the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty, as well as with the arms control and disarmament
policies of past presidents, both Democratic and Republican. He
has criticized the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the ABM
Treaty and lauded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). "The
failure of the United States to ratify the CTBT," he declared,
"will seriously undercut our ability to continue our critical
leadership role in the global nuclear non-proliferation regime."
has also attacked the building of new U.S. nuclear weapons, stating:
"What kind of message does it send when we’re asking other
countries not to develop nuclear weapons but developing new ones
ourselves?" Speaking in June 2003, he stated: "It is absurd
to think the United States will start development on a new generation
of nuclear weapons at the same moment we seek the world’s support
in an effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and technology."
official Kerry campaign website declares that the Democratic presidential
candidate will work to "end production of new fissile material
for nuclear weapons by negotiating a global ban on production of
new material." On this site, Kerry also promises to strive
to "reduce existing stocks of nuclear weapons and materials
by ending development of the new generation of nuclear weapons"
and by "accelerating reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear
most presidential campaign coverage in the mass media ignores these
significant differences between the two candidates on nuclear weapons
issues. But the differences are real. Voters should recognize that,
in November 2004, they have an important choice to make when it
comes to the future of nuclear weapons – and perhaps their
own future, as well.
S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared on the History News
Network. Reprinted with permission of the author.