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Dear moderators of the US Presidential debates: How about raising the issue of how to avert nuclear war?

July 29, 2019

You mass media folks lead busy lives, I’m sure.  But you must have heard something about nuclear weapons―those supremely destructive devices that, along with climate change, threaten the continued existence of the human race.

Yes, thanks to popular protest and carefully-crafted arms control and disarmament agreements, there has been some progress in limiting the number of these weapons and averting a nuclear holocaust.  Even so, that progress has been rapidly unraveling in recent months, leading to a new nuclear arms race and revived talk of nuclear war.

Do I exaggerate? Consider the following.

In May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the laboriously-constructed Iran nuclear agreement that had closed off the possibility of that nation developing nuclear weapons.  This U.S. treaty pullout was followed by the imposition of heavy US economic sanctions on Iran, as well as by thinly-veiled threats by Trump to use nuclear weapons to destroy that country.  Irate at these moves, the Iranian government recently retaliated by exceeding the limits set by the shattered agreement on its uranium stockpile and uranium enrichment.

At the beginning of February 2019, the Trump administration announced that, in August, the US government will withdraw from the Reagan era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty―the historic agreement that had banned US and Russian ground-launched cruise missiles―and would proceed to develop such weapons.  On the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that, in response, his government was suspending its observance of the treaty and would build the kinds of nuclear missiles that the INF treaty had outlawed.

The next nuclear disarmament agreement on the chopping block appears to be the 2010 New START Treaty, which reduces US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, limits U.S. and Russian nuclear delivery vehicles, and provides for extensive inspection.  According to John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, this fundamentally flawed treaty, scheduled to expire in February 2021, is “unlikely” to be extended.  To preserve such an agreement, he argued, would amount to “malpractice.” If the treaty is allowed to expire, it would be the first time since 1972 that there would be no nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.

One other key international agreement, which President Clinton signed―but, thanks to Republican opposition, the US Senate has never ratified―is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  Adopted with great fanfare in 1996 and backed by nearly all the world’s nations, the CTBT bans nuclear weapons testing, a practice which has long served as a prerequisite for developing or upgrading nuclear arsenals.  Today, Bolton is reportedly pressing for the treaty to be removed from Senate consideration and “unsigned,” as a possible prelude to US resumption of nuclear testing.

Nor, dear moderators, does it seem likely that any new agreements will replace the old ones. The US State Department’s Office of Strategic Stability and Deterrence Affairs, which handles US arms control ventures, has been whittled down during the Trump years from 14 staff members to four.  As a result, a former staffer reported, the State Department is no longer “equipped” to pursue arms control negotiations.  Coincidentally, the US and Russian governments, which possess approximately 93 percent of the world’s nearly 14,000 nuclear warheads, have abandoned negotiations over controlling or eliminating them for the first time since the 1950s.

Instead of honoring the commitment, under Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to pursue negotiations for “cessation of the nuclear arms race” and for “nuclear disarmament,” all nine nuclear powers are today modernizing their nuclear weapons production facilities and adding new, improved types of nuclear weapons to their arsenals.  Over the next 30 years, this nuclear buildup will cost the United States alone an estimated $1,700,000,000,000―at least if it is not obliterated first in a nuclear holocaust.

Will the United States and other nations survive these escalating preparations for nuclear war? That question might seem overwrought, dear moderators, but, in fact, the US government and others are increasing the role that nuclear weapons play in their “national security” policies.  Trump’s glib threats of nuclear war against North Korea and Iran are paralleled by new administration plans to develop a low-yield ballistic missile, which arms control advocates fear will lower the threshold for nuclear war.

Confirming the new interest in nuclear warfare, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June 2019, posted a planning document on the Pentagon’s website with a more upbeat appraisal of nuclear war-fighting than seen for many years.  Declaring that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” the document approvingly quoted Herman Kahn, the Cold War nuclear theorist who had argued for “winnable” nuclear wars and had provided an inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film, Dr. Strangelove.

Of course, most Americans are not pining for this kind of approach to nuclear weapons.  Indeed, a May 2019 opinion poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that two-thirds of U.S. respondents favored remaining within the INF Treaty, 80 percent wanted to extend the New START Treaty, about 60 percent supported “phasing out” US intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 75 percent backed legislation requiring congressional approval before the president could order a nuclear attack.

Therefore, when it comes to presidential debates, dear moderators, don’t you―as stand-ins for the American people―think it might be worthwhile to ask the candidates some questions about US preparations for nuclear war and how best to avert a global catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude?

I think these issues are important.  Don’t you?

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb(Stanford University Press).

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