Governator Nukes Idiots

Imagine the Terminator, reincarnated as the Republican governor of California, calling four Republican Senators “idiots” for opposing the New START Treaty. Well it happened.

On returning from a visit to Moscow with Silicon Valley executives, Schwarzenegger declared support for the treaty in no uncertain terms: “There are those in America that are trying to flex their muscles and pretend they’re ballsy by saying, ‘we’ve got to keep those nuclear weapons.’ … it’s an idiot that says that. It’s stupid to say that.” While not directly naming John Barrasso, James Risch, Roger Wicker, and James Inhofe, those four Republican Senators recently voted against New START in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The treaty did make it out of committee on a 14-4 vote, but faces an uphill battle given that ratification requires a two-thirds approval in the full Senate.

The treaty would reduce both the US and Russian nuclear stockpiles from 2,200 deployed warheads to 1,550 – a modest reduction, but a step in the right direction. Even that reduced number is far more than needed as noted in a statement I authored and that has been endorsed by former NSA Director (and one-time nominee for Secretary of Defense) Adm. Bobby R. Inman, among others: “Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one. Either side could therefore reduce its nuclear arsenal with little to no loss in national security, even if the other side did not immediately reciprocate. In light of the growing specter of nuclear terrorism, a reduced nuclear arsenal could even enhance national security by lessening the chance for theft or illicit sale of a weapon.”

While ratifying the treaty would reduce the risk of a nuclear disaster, there is a surprising down side: Defying normal logic, nuclear deterrence depends on rationality prevailing (so that the weapons will not be used and destroy civilization), while appearing irrational (so that adversaries will think we are insane enough to use them). The latter requirement was spelled out in black and white in a now declassified 1995 USSTRATCOM report:

… the fact that some elements [within the US hierarchy] may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.

President Nixon took this approach in an attempt to end the Viet Nam war. The memoirs of his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, quote Nixon as follows:

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button” — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

As explained in a paper by Stanford Prof. Scott Sagan, Nixon’s act did not go off as smoothly as he believed it would. Not only did it not end the Viet Nam war but, due to errors and miscalculations, it also added significant risk that World War III would occur during the crisis Nixon created to implement his theory.

So there is a downside to ratifying the New START Treaty: By showing that we are becoming more rational, it would decrease our ability to use nuclear threats as frequently as we have in the past. But, when balanced against the increased probability of destroying civilization, the tradeoff becomes clear. Let’s stop pretending we’re more irrational than we are. Or, if it isn’t pretend, let’s become more clear headed about the risks involved in threatening to destroy civilization over relatively minor issues.

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, since 1982, 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, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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1 Response to Governator Nukes Idiots

  1. Wesley Parish says:

    Well, one thing it would do would be to ease the pressure to proliferate. Garthoff in his monumental contribution to Cold War studies, “Detente and Confrontation”, mentions the not-so-hidden US threat of the use of carrier-borne nuclear weapons during the war of Bangladesh’s Independence, as a major reason for India deciding to join the nuclear club.

    I’ve also read that the USSR threatened Israel with nuclear weapons at one stage, thereby provoking the nuclear proliferation response – I haven’t got the Israeli proliferation details at hand, but the information’s apparently relatively widespread.

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