The Doomsday Dilemma

By Barry, John; Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Doomsday Dilemma


Barry, John, Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


Byline: John Barry and Evan Thomas

This Spring, Barack Obama will push toward his goal of a nuclear-free world. But the stiffest resistance may be at home.

For many years, America's master plan for nuclear war with the Soviet Union was called the SIOP--the Single Integrated Operational Plan. Beginning in 1962, the U.S. president was given some options to mull in the few minutes he had to decide before Soviet missiles bore down on Washington. He could, for instance, choose to spare the Soviet satellites, the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. Or he could opt for, say, the "urban--industrial" strike option--1,500 or so warheads dropped on 300 Russian cities. After a briefing on the SIOP on Sept. 14, 1962, President John F. Kennedy turned to his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and remarked, "And they call us human beings."

Ever since the dawn of the atomic age at Hiroshima in August 1945, American presidents have been trying to figure out how to climb off the nuclear treadmill. The urgency may have faded in the post-Cold War era, but the weapons are still there. By 2002, President George W. Bush was signing off on a document containing his administration's Nuclear Posture Review, an -analysis of how America's nuclear arms might be used. Bush scribbled on the cover, "But why do we still have to have so many?" According to a knowledgeable source who would not be identified discussing sensitive national-security matters, President Obama wasn't briefed on the U.S. nUclear-strike plan against Russia and China until some months after he had taken office. "He thought it was insane," says the source. (The reason for the delay is unclear; the White House did not respond to repeated inquiries.)

During his presidential campaign, Obama embraced a dream first articulated by President Reagan: the abolition of nuclear weapons. The idea is no longer all that radical. In January 2007, an op-ed piece calling for a nuclear-weapons-free world appeared in The Wall Street Journal, signed by Reagan's secretary of state George Shultz; Nixon's and Ford's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger; Clinton's secretary of defense Bill Perry; and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and longtime wise man of the defense establishment. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," as they were quickly dubbed, had gotten together to give cover to politicians. "We wanted the candidates of both parties to feel they could debate the issue freely," said Nunn.

So when Obama joined the cry for a world without nukes in his campaign, he wasn't taking a big political chance. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, did not seem to disagree. And yet, accomplishing this goal--or even taking some meaningful steps toward it--makes health-care reform look easy. As president, Obama the idealist has had to become Obama the realist: working for a nuclear-free world tomorrow, but at the same time, and at great cost, keeping up America's nuclear forces today.

In a speech in Prague last spring, Obama noted that "in a strange turn of history, the threat of global war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He warned that with more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, or wishing to, the scary but oddly stable reign of "mutual assured destruction" was giving way to a new disorder. "As more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold." Obama stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But, he added, "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly--perhaps not in my lifetime." And he threw in an important caveat: "Make no mistake. As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."

Nuclear policy will be front and center for Obama this spring, but in a way that may reveal more about limits than possibilities.

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