Foiled Again: The Defeat of the Latest Bush Administration Plan for New Nuclear Weapons

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Advocates of a U.S. nuclear weapons buildup received a significant setback on December 16, when Congressional negotiators agreed on an omnibus spending bill that omitted funding for development of a new nuclear weapon championed by the Bush administration: the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). Coming on the heels of Congressional action in recent years that stymied administration schemes for the nuclear "bunker buster" and the "mini-nuke," it was the third — and perhaps final — defeat of George W. Bush and his hawkish allies in their attempt to upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

The administration’s case for building the RRW — a newly-designed hydrogen bomb — pivoted around the contention that the current U.S. nuclear stockpile is deteriorating and needs to be replaced by new weaponry.

But studies by scientific experts revealed that this stockpile would remain reliable for at least another fifty years. In addition, critics of the RRW scheme pointed to the fact that building new nuclear weapons violates the U.S. commitment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue nuclear disarmament and that such a violation would encourage other nations to flout their NPT commitments.

Naturally, peace and disarmament organizations were among the fiercest opponents of the RRW, arguing that it was both unnecessary and provocative. Groups like the Council for a Livable World, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, and Physicians for Social Responsibility published critiques of the administration plan, mobilized their members against it, and lobbied in Congress to secure its defeat. Activists staged anti-RRW demonstrations and, despite the nation’s focus on the war in Iraq, managed to draw headlines with protests at the University of California and elsewhere.

Members of Congress also were skeptical of the value of the RRW, particularly its utility in safeguarding U.S. security in today’s world, where the Soviet Union — once the major nuclear competitor to the United States — no longer exists. "Moving forward on a new nuclear weapon is not something this nation should do without great consideration," noted U.S. Representative Peter Visclosky (D-IN), chair of the House subcommittee handling nuclear weapons appropriations. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism, the U.S. government needed "a revised stockpile plan to guide the transformation and downsizing of the [nuclear weapons] complex . . . to reflect the new realities of the world."

But is the defeat of the RRW a momentous victory for nuclear disarmers? After all, the U.S. government still possesses some 10,000 nuclear weapons, with thousands of them on launch-ready alert. Moreover, the Bush administration is promoting a plan to rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Called Complex 2030 and intended to provide for U.S. nuclear arsenals well into the future, this administration scheme is supposed to cost $150 billion, although the Government Accountability Office maintains that this figure is a significant underestimate.

Also, the RRW development plan might be revived in the future. Brooding over the Congressional decision to block funding for the new nuclear weapon, U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) — a keen supporter of the venture — remarked hopefully that he expected the RRW or something like it to re-emerge "sooner rather than later."

This situation, of course, falls short of the 1968 pledge by the United States and other nuclear powers, under article VI of the NPT, "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to . . . nuclear disarmament." It falls even farther short of their subsequent pledge, made at the NPT review conference of 2000, to "an unequivocal undertaking . . . to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."

Thus, this December’s Congressional decision to zero out funding for the RRW is only a small, symbolic step in the direction of honoring U.S. commitments and fostering nuclear sanity. If the United States and other nations are serious about confronting the menace of nuclear annihilation that has hung over the planet since 1945, it will require not only the scrapping of plans for new nuclear weapons, but the abolition of the 27,000 nuclear weapons that already exist in government arsenals, ready to destroy the world. Until that action occurs, we will continue to default on past promises and to live on the brink of catastrophe.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany and co-editor of the new book, Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future.

This article originally appeared in the History News Network.

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