Yogi Berra famously observed that events sometimes seem to repeat themselves — “It’s deja vu all over again!” So, this history of the criticism of the Bush administration’s nuclear and proliferation policies has major echoes of the criticisms today of the current administration. The negative narrative of what I term the “nuclear termites” as they undermine America’s deterrent capability never changes despite a major reduction in nuclear warheads from the 6,000 level of deployed weapons in 2001 to 1550 today — a 75% cut. This short history of the 2009-2016 period of the Bush administration illustrates this phenomenon — identical criticism from that period then disappeared between 2001-16 but then re-emerged in 2017, despite extraordinary reductions in our strategic nuclear arsenals and those of Russia as well.
The quest for nuclear disarmament has been with humankind since the dawn of the atomic age. Early proposals to place nuclear materials and technology under international controls were turned aside by Soviet commissars but still there remained an urge to eliminate these weapons. The Eisenhower administration deployed a relatively small number of nuclear weapons to defend against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe under the rubric of a policy known as massive retaliation.
The Kennedy and Johnson administrations made critical changes in this policy, increasing US deployed warheads to over 2000 and laying the foundation for a policy of flexible response. The idea that the US would have one response to Soviet aggression inaugurate Armageddon-seemed incredible to policy makers, so they developed a capability to respond to Soviet aggression with a response aimed at the remaining Soviet armed forces-missiles, bomber bases, submarine pens, key industrial facilities which became known as a “counterforce” deterrent policy. During the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, the number of US nuclear warheads and those in the Soviet arsenal as well climbed quite dramatically.
The first arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow was the SALT treaty of 1972, or the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. It allowed for the still dramatic growth is US and Soviet nuclear weapons. Moscow took full advantage of this, increasing its deployed warheads toward the end of the decade to some 8-10,000, the vast majority of those on land-based ICBMs that had an alert rate approaching 100%, especially the SS-18 which were capable of carrying at least 10 warheads per every missile. On the other hand, US deployed forces were 2500 warheads on slightly more than 1000 land-based missiles, with the remaining missile warheads were deployed on Polaris and Poseidon submarines, of which about one-third were at sea at any one time.
The Ford administration had begun work on a SALT II treaty which would have again codified a rather steep build-up to weapons levels approaching 10-12,000 warheads, in a sense ratifying the already planned warhead levels in the arsenals of Moscow and Washington. During the 1976 campaign, challenger Ronald Reagan opposed the SALT II treaty ideas, instead calling for major reductions in nuclear weapons but at levels which were at parity between the US and the Soviet Union, not only with respect to numbers but modernized status. Early in the Carter administration, the then Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, did propose to the Soviets a possible reduction in nuclear weapons, but he said if the Soviets rejected such a proposal, the Carter administration would go forward with a SALT II treaty nonetheless. The Soviets, recognizing pre-emptive surrender when they saw it went with the latter, knowing it would give them arms control to push forward to fully modernize their nuclear arsenal even as the US was failing to do the same.
During the 1970s, the democratically controlled Senate repeatedly cut back on the development progress of the new Ohio-class submarine-based deterrent, the Trident C-4 missiles, while at the same time the United States could not decide how to base the new land-based ICBM, the Missile Experimental or MX as it was known. The missile carried ten warheads and because of its size and weight was extremely difficult to make mobile. On the other hand, the Minuteman III missiles, using 1960’s technology, would soon be at the end of their service life and deploying such missiles with many thousands of nuclear warheads would be very expensive. SALT I had put a premium on putting more and more warheads on each missile because the only limits contained in the treaty were launchers, or missiles. As Senator Wallop, then of the Senate Armed Services Committee told me, it is very difficult to make an elephant a rabbit or a rabbit an elephant.
Thus, at the end of the Carter administration, with SALT II having been withdrawn from the Senate following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States was without an approved modernization program for its strategic nuclear forces, while the Soviets were marching ahead with their own modernization. This was true not only of the sea and land-based legs of the US triad but also of our bomber leg. The B-2 bomber was only in RDT&E, while the B-1 was continually defeated in votes in Congress, and the B-52 remained the mainstay of the air-breathing leg of the triad even as it was approaching 30 years old. The perilous nature of the US strategic deterrent was becoming increasing apparent even as US based critics condemned the US for leading an arms race and ignoring Soviet deployments. As Carter’s Secretary of Defense would say of the nuclear landscape, “we build, they build, we stop, and they build.”
With the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980, critics of US nuclear weapons policy moved into high gear with the inauguration of the nuclear freeze movement. If adopted by the United States, we would be freezing in stone for some time very large arsenals of nuclear weapons-above 10,000 deployed nuclear weapons in both the Soviet Union and the US, but with a critical important difference-the US strategic forces were all approaching the end of their useful lives.
The Minuteman technology along with the Polaris and Poseidon had first been deployed in the 1950’s, as had the B52. A freeze would eventually leave the US without a credible nuclear deterrent. The Soviet Union knew this and that is why they were enthusiastic backers of the plan as were such organizations as the Union of Concerned Scientists, and their larger affiliated organization SANEFREEZE, and such notable scientists as Panofsky, Garwin and Bethe, all previously involved in the original development of nuclear weapons.
The freeze was an elegant fraud to be sure. It claimed the Reagan administration was going to initiate nuclear war, even though the modernization program for nuclear weapons-the Peacekeeper, the Trident and its associated GA and D-5 missiles, and the B1 and B2 bomber programs, had all laid on the drawing boards of the Carter administration, whose ineptitude resulted in a failure to move them forward.
At the same time, the Soviets were deploying an additional number of SS-20 nuclear warhead tipped missiles in Europe and Asia, numbering close to 2000. The missiles known as Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, were designed to intimidate NATO and thus de-couple the US nuclear umbrella from that of her NATO and European-based allies and thus split NATO asunder. So also, was Moscow trying use its Asian based missiles to intimidate Japan in giving up its reliance upon the nuclear umbrella or extended deterrence of the United States.
Facing such a formidable Soviet threat, President Reagan proposed, and Congress approved, a defense force modernization program which included deploying new Peacekeeper missiles, the Trident submarines and its missiles and the Bl and B2 bombers. The President also pushed for the deployment of a counter to the Soviet SS-20 missiles, the US Pershing and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles, GLCMs, in the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.
The Soviets poured some $300 million into a propaganda campaign to stop the deployment of these missiles, utilizing such umbrella groups as Sane Freeze as shells behind which to hide their involvement. Massive demonstrations accrued throughout Europe. The elite classes in the US media, the arts and academy were outraged at Reagan’s proposals, and roundly condemned the US administration, without of course once mentioning the Soviet deployments which started the whole effort to begin with.
Once again, Reagan was cleaning up after the Carter administration. While then-President Carter and the German chancellor Schmidt had agreed to deploy these INF missiles, they delayed their deployment to see whether negotiations could forestall the on-going Soviet deployments. In fact, the Carter administration didn’t even ask for funds in the US defense budget for the production of the INF missiles, which could have been used for leverage to get the Soviets-at the very least-to at least come to the table. But again, the Soviets knowing pre-emptive surrender when they saw it, pocketed Carter’s appeasement and went forward with their massive deployments of SS-20 missiles in any case.
The nuclear freeze proponents, nevertheless, continued their assault on the US strategic modernization programs. They continually fought to stop the production of the Peacekeeper missile, requiring that Congress approve 16 consecutive votes for deployment of the Peacekeeper in the spring of 1985, in the midst of negotiations on nuclear weapons with the Soviets. They also continually fought to kill the Trident submarine production, votes which they would lose some 375-60 due in large part to the patriotic and skillful work of Congressman Norm Dicks of Washington State. Votes also occurred on stopping the deployment of the INF missiles, with some 80-90% of the Democratic Party voting against such deployments despite a previous Democratic administration proposing to build such missiles-at least rhetorically.
And in an irony not lost on those of us supporting the modernization effort, the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus in the House vehemently opposed even the newly proposed small ICBM, or Midgetman, which was designed to be deployed on mobile launchers on US missile bases once arm control agreements eliminated mirved land-based missiles, which had been the central feature of the massive Soviet buildup in nuclear weapons. So blinded were Democratic partisans in their hatred for Ronald Reagan, that one top US Senator, Edward Kennedy, sent emissaries to the Soviet Union to plead with then Soviet dictator Brezhnev to recalibrate his public affairs campaign to better defeat the US nuclear modernization program.
During this period, President Reagan proposed two key arms control treaties-START I and the INF Treaty. The START proposals were to cut ballistic missile warheads in the US and Soviet arsenals roughly in-half to about 5000.
This would have a major stabilizing effect on the strategic balance especially on Soviet efforts to change the correlation of forces which they saw as increasingly moving in their direction after the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the Democratic Congress’s abandonment of our South Vietnam allies in the face of a massive North Vietnamese invasion with tank armies.
We now know that Reagan’s coerced the Soviets through a major program of economic, political and military warfare against its key weaknesses, including eliminating billions from its foreign exchange earnings, stretching its military through challenges in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola and elsewhere, providing its military with sabotaged military hardware, pushing for its adoption of elements of the Helsinki accords which would compel it to give freedom to its people, and especially aiding the Polish labor union Solidarity which became the linchpin of the end of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Untold is the story that Andropov knew as early as 1977 that the Soviet economy was failing. He thought the US had given them a reprieve because of its appeasement during the 1970s especially that of the Carter administration, as nation after nation fell into the Soviet orbit. He also knew he had to con the US into believing the Soviet Union really did believe in peaceful coexistence and detente. Prior to his death, he knew he had to engage in a major “peace initiative”, and the role of the US media would be critical.
Gorbachev came onto the scene to play the role of salesman for this fakery, as the Soviets sought to engage the US and the west to gain access to US and western military technology, credits and markets. Thus, was reborn perestroika and glasnost. Yes, reborn as Lenin had previously used the same strategies, under the same Russian bumper stickers, to gain respite for the Soviet economy.
Having loosened the restraints that had held the Soviet system together, its contradictions and fissures expanded and with it the realization the Soviets could not keep up with the Americans, whether in military modernization, in missile defense, in critical communications or in space.
But Reagan and his allies saw this coming. And so, we secured the Saudi’s agreement to pump millions of additional oil, driving the price down and taking billions out of the Kremlin’s pockets. The natural gas deals with Europe were limited. The country of Grenada was seized, taking real estate back from the Soviets-for the first time since the dawn of the Cold War.
The guerrillas in EI Salvador were defeated by an increasingly confident and successful government-and military and the Democratic resistance in Nicaragua defeated the Sandinistas and their Hollywood puppets in a fair election which stunned the US media so invested in the Ortega and Castro brothers. Soviet military equipment failed repeatedly as key suppliers of such equipment (illegally) were directed to sell defective technology by the Reagan administration once we had learned such sales were going on.
Not only did the START treaty break the back of the Soviet effort to intimidate the US, the INF treaty was firm evidence that President Reagan knew more about the Soviets and how to negotiate with them then the nuanced academic pooh-bahs on the masthead of the arms control organizations so invested in US defeat. The original INF proposals-that each side move to zero such missiles-was met with derision and laughter in the television studies of the drive-by media and the newsrooms of the elite fancy pants print journals. The proposals were considered window dressing only, not real, impossible to accomplish, and not serious. But nonetheless Reagan got it done and over 2000 Soviet nuclear warheads along with the US and allied deployed INF missiles were eliminated from the face of the earth, the first such treaty in the history of the world. Shortly after the end of the decade, the Soviet system did end-up on the ash-heap of history, as Reagan
had predicted. Millions gained their freedom. Prisoners from the gulag said yes, we heard when Reagan said the Soviets were an evil empire, and it inspired us. And yes, people around the world heard Reagan call for the wall in Berlin to be tom down.
Now why this long history of the Cold War and particularly the nuclear arms policies of the Reagan administration as the Cold War was won and came to an end? It is not only because the issue of nuclear weapons policies is again at the forefront of US policy makers concerns. And not only because the threat of terror groups and their state sponsors achieving the ability to clandestinely deliver a nuclear device onto US soil.
The history was necessary to lay out the actions of a committed minority to then undermine US security and to adopt a policy-especially a nuclear freeze-that would have handed the Soviets a major strategic victory and may very well have ended any possibility of a near-term end to the Cold War.
There appears to be a new push toward nuclear disarmament by such distinguished Americans as Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Ambassador Max Kampelman, and others, but with the caveat such disarmament is not practical.
Should we do all we can to secure nuclear material, reduce nuclear weapons to practical but limited levels, and seek to strengthen international, multilateral and national efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their use, God forbid, by our enemies and adversaries? Of course, as few have any quarrel with the policies in principle.
But along with this effort, there is a companion effort by others, a mean-spirited attempt to portray the Bush administration as a group of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals bent upon nuclear Armageddon. Under this narrative, the Bush administration is described as oblivious to the necessity of preventing further nuclear proliferation and not up to doing everything possible to reverse current nuclear weapons levels and move to a safer world.
The first effort in this negative narrative has been to portray current US nuclear weapons levels to be deployed under the terms of the Treaty of Moscow as seeking “nuclear primacy”. This has an associated argument that US force levels are such that when combined with missile defenses would give the US a pre-emptive strike capability against Russia that would all but disarm that country, to say nothing of a capability in spades to do just that against the PRC.
This effort has also included a Congressional push to transform US nuclear deterrent policy into a bluff, at best, as well as leave the US with a nuclear weapons stockpile incapable of long term deterrent capability. This includes criticism and condemnation of the RRW, or Reliable Replacement Warhead, and of efforts to develop an RNEP, a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, as well as warheads of less yield than those in the US Cold War Arsenal.
In addition, the criticisms of the Bush administration have been noteworthy for the complete absence of any assessment of the previous eight years of the Clinton administration. Nuclear deterrence was ignored, the START II treaty languished in Moscow, and nuclear proliferation worsened. The world became a more dangerous place and additional nuclear powers emerged during those eight years compared to the past six plus years of the Bush administration.
There is also an effort to belittle the accomplishment of the US and its allies, especially under the Nunn Lugar program, the threat reduction efforts, the work of homeland security in detection and interdiction of nuclear material, the international cooperative efforts to secure nuclear material outside of the former Soviet Union, and the current efforts to eliminate the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Finally, these same critics appear almost oblivious to the nature of the threat from North Korea and Iran. They do appear oblivious to the serious limits of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Administration and other multilateral measures to deal with what R. James Woolsey, the former Director of Central Intelligence Agency describes as “genocidal maniacs” in Tehran and what former NDU President and USAF General Mike Dunn has called the “mad Soprano” family in Pyongyang.
Especially unsettling is the attempt to place full blame for many of the current nuclear ills on the United States and the administration of President Bush, without a word about Russia, Chinese, Pakistani, Iranian, North Korean and other elements far more culpable and far less engaged to help make the world safer for our children.