WELL MEANING friends have counseled me that by championing elimination of nuclear weapons I risk setting the bar too high, providing an easy target for the cynical and diverting attention from the more immediately achievable.
The harsh truth is that six years after the end of the Cold War we are still prisoner to its psychology of distrust, still enmeshed in the vocabulary of "mutual assured destruction," still in the thrall of the nuclear era. Worse, strategists persist in conjuring worlds that spiral toward chaos, and concocting threats that they assert can only be discouraged or expunged by the existence or employment of nuclear weapons.
No one is more conscious than I am that realistic prospects for the elimination of nuclear weapons will evolve over many years. Yet we fall too readily into the intellectual trap of judging the goal of elimination against current political conditions. We forget too quickly how seemingly intractable conflicts can suddenly yield under the weight of reason or with a change of leadership. We have lost sight too soon of the fact that in the blink of a historical eye the world we knew for a traumatic half-century has been utterly transformed.
How, then, to proceed? Not with a call for greater reductions, but rather for immediate, multilateral negotiations toward ending the most regrettable and risk-laden operational practice of the Cold War era -- land- and sea-based ballistic missiles on standing nuclear alert. What possibly can justify this continuing exposure to the associated operational and logistical risks? What could be more corrosive to building and sustaining security relationships built on trust?
Russia, with its history of authoritarian rule and a staggering burden of social transformation, is ill equipped to lead on this issue. It falls unavoidably to us to work painfully back through the tangled moral web of this frightful 50-year gantlet.
The effect of deterrence
I spent much of my military career serving the ends of nuclear deterrence, as did millions of others. I want very much to believe that in the end it was the nuclear force that I and others commanded and operated that prevented World War III and created the conditions leading to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
But, in truth, I do not and I cannot know that. It will be decades before the hideously complex era of the Cold War is adequately understood, with its bewildering interactions of human fears and inhuman technology.
Nor would it much matter that informed assessments are still well beyond our intellectual reach -- except for the crucial and alarming fact that, forgetting the desperate circumstances that gave it birth, and long after their miraculous resolution, we continue to espouse deterrence as if it were now an infallible panacea. And worse, others are listening, have converted to our theology, are building their arsenals, are poised to rekindle the nuclear-arms race -- and to reawaken the specter of nuclear war.
This cannot be the moral legacy of the Cold War. And it is our responsibility to ensure that it will not be. We have won, through Herculean courage and sacrifice, the opportunity to reset mankind's moral compass, to renew belief in a world free from fear and deprivation, to win global affirmation for the sanctity of life, the right of liberty and the opportunity to pursue a joyous existence.
Gen. George Lee Butler (USAF Ret.) served as commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command and the U.S. Strategic Command. This article was adapted from a speech he gave January 8 at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
Pub Date: 2/04/97