Is Our Hand in the Nuclear Cookie Jar?

Years ago, when one of my daughters was three years old, she had her hand in the cookie jar just before dinner. When I asked her to wait until after dinner, she countered: “But I wasn’t taking a cookie.” And she probably believed that. She wanted so much not to be breaking the rules that she convinced herself she wasn’t. At three and with cookie jars fooling ourselves is of minor importance. Sixty-five years into the nuclear age, we do so at our peril.

One of the best examples of “I didn’t have my hand in the nuclear cookie jar” occurred during the 1980’s debate over President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as SDI or “Star Wars.”

Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, describes the problem in his 1995 book Turmoil & Triumph, in the chapter “What Really Happened at Reykjavik.” This refers, of course, to the 1986 Reykjavik summit during which Reagan and Gorbachev briefly contemplated eliminating all ballistic missiles and all nuclear weapons from their arsenals. This grand bargain fell apart over different perspectives about SDI. Shultz writes:

Gorbachev was highly irritated by the president’s presentation. “You will take the arms race into space,” he said, “and could be tempted to launch a first strike from space.”

“That’s why I propose to eliminate ballistic missiles and share SDI with you,” replied President Reagan.

Gorbachev said regretfully that he did not believe that the United States would share SDI with the USSR. “If you will not share oil-drilling equipment or even milk-processing factories, I do not believe that you will share SDI,” he scoffed.

This problem of promising to share SDI while simultaneously limiting much less sensitive exports to the Soviet Union was obvious even before the Reykjavik summit. Several months earlier I had written an Op-Ed entitled “Will the Real Star Wars Please Stand Up,” that proposed a simple solution:

If we really plan to share the technology with the Soviets, let us answer their mistrust by sharing the technology with them now, not at some indefinite point in the far future. Or, if we have no real intention of ever sharing with them, let us be honest and say so. We will not have fooled the Soviets, and the American public would then assess SDI in a very different light.

Recently, I came across an even earlier version of the same proposal by one of the deans of the American defense and arms control communities, Dr. Richard Garwin. In a 1983 symposium at Los Alamos, he said of SDI:

I think we ought to work on these military technologies ONLY openly and jointly. [emphasis in original] And I go farther than Edward [Teller], … because I think we shouldn’t work on them unless we are willing that the Soviet Union have them as well. … If it is truly stabilizing … they ought to get it when we do.

Unfortunately, this “hand in the cookie jar” approach to missile defense is still at work and still extremely dangerous. In a little known July 2008 incident, our Eastern European missile defense system came perilously close to initiating a second Cuban crisis that could have rivaled 1962’s. At that point in time, our missile interceptors were to be based in Poland and the Polish government had sold the system to its electorate partly on the basis that it would provide protection against Russia. Yet, American defense officials repeatedly countered Russian objections by stating that the system was only directed against Iran. Such explanations did not change the Russian perception since, among other things, they listen to what’s being said in Poland. But they do tend to mute concerns of the American public.

The saga continues to this day. While Obama has delayed deployment of most of our Polish missiles, as my last post noted, we are in the process of deploying Patriot missiles within Poland. Much as we would react to Russia installing similar missiles near our border with Canada or Mexico, Russia criticized this move as diminishing security and trust. In addition to increasing the risk of a direct Russian-American confrontation, such moves also increase other nuclear risks by making it harder to obtain Russian cooperation on countering nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

I will end this post with a ray of hope by elaborating on a point briefly mentioned in my last post. This past March, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed the theme of Garwin, myself and probably others when he stated:

I believe that by working together on missile defense, NATO and Russia can provide a security roof for the entire Euro-Atlantic area. … We need an approach to missile defense that includes not just all countries of NATO, but Russia too. If we build a security roof together, people from Vancouver to Vladivostok will know that they are part of one community, sharing real security, meeting a real threat, using real technology. … I firmly believe that when those steps are accomplished we can create a missile defense system that not only defends the Euro-Atlantic community, but also brings it together.

If enough of us will demand that our government become honest when its hand is in the nuclear cookie jar, a real shift in international relations would occur and the risk of a nuclear disaster would be reduced significantly. If you agree, please share this post with friends, encourage them to do the same, and demand that our elected officials be honest about our intentions. We haven’t fooled the Russians or other nations and it’s extremely dangerous to fool ourselves when our hand is in the nuclear cookie jar.

Martin Hellman
Member National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains:
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