It's Time to Get Rid of Nukes
Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate concentration of power in the hands of government. But they are no longer needed, and should be dismantled.
The Founding Fathers of the American republic were concerned about the illegal exercise of government power. In their day, the power that concerned them was that of the British Empire, then the world’s sole superpower.
England controlled the seas with what at the time was the world’s most powerful weaponry, the swift frigates and mighty ships-of-the-line of the Royal Navy. These, combined with the bravery and skill of her sailors, allowed a relatively tiny nation off the coast of Europe to exercise power around the world, including in America.
There, the colonists, who considered themselves Englishmen with all the rights of their brethren across the Atlantic, grew ever more uneasy as London’s increasingly “muscular” foreign and trade policies undermined freedom in America. Most obviously, it was the tyrannical exercise of British military power that was the last straw for the Colonies. The Redcoats garrisoned Boston in 1768, increasing tensions with the Americans, and ultimately leading to Lexington, Concord and open rebellion against the Crown.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed several British military policies as justifications for American rebellion against England. The King, Jefferson noted, “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” The King also, “affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.” The British were also guilty of “Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,” of plundering the seas and ravaging the coasts, and of “transporting large Armies of foreign mercenaries” to the Colonies “to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with the circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized nation.”
Thus did Jefferson, and those “representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled,” conclude that, among other things, military power was a danger to the lives and liberties of the American colonists.
With this in mind, how would the Founders view America’s current nuclear arsenal?
To answer this, it is necessary to put the Founder’s views in context. Clearly, they did not view a military capacity as an evil in and of itself. The Founders had been informed by their experience with the British military prior to events of the American Revolution. Some had served with British regulars, as George Washington had in the French and Indian War. Later, they raised armies of militia and regulars to fight against the British.
So the Founders were not simply pacifists who opposed military power in general. They clearly viewed a military organization as a potentially legitimate tool when created and utilized under certain circumstances.
One of those was identified by Jefferson in the Declaration. The British troops had been made “independent of and superior to the Civil power,” Jefferson noted. The implication was that legitimate military power should serve the civil power and be controlled by it. Second, it should be proportional to need. The colonists complained that a standing army had been “kept among us, in times of peace.” This, the colonists found, was intimidating, costly, and potentially (and actually) dangerous, as the Boston Massacre amply demonstrated when British troops, encountering a growing crowd of angry civilians, panicked and fired into the crowd.
From this, two principles emerge. First, military power should be commanded by civilian power, and second, military power should be proportional to need. Excess military potential creates the possibility, and increases the probability, of both mistakes and abuses.
Our current nuclear capability satisfies only one of these criteria. America’s nuclear deterrent is controlled directly by top civilian authority in the person of the President of the United States.
The second criteria, however, is no longer met. Originally, the United States developed nuclear weapons technology within the context of the Second World War, at a time when it was legitimately a point of concern that German scientists, then the world’s most advanced in fields as diverse as chemistry and rocketry, would split the atom first.
Following the war, which ended when the U.S. used two nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Japan, continued development and build-up of the nuclear arsenal came as a defensive measure intended to deter the Soviet Union from using its substantial and battle-hardened land forces to expand the Communist empire.
At the height of the Cold War in 1967, according to the Federation of American Scientists, there were more than 32,000 warheads in the arsenal, a truly staggering amount. Today, that number has been dramatically reduced, and only about 2,000 nuclear warheads remain in the “active stockpile.”
This is still a vast number, given the destructive power of each warhead. But today, the justification for this stockpile is lacking. It has been more than twenty years since the United States faced a hypothetically aggressive empire bent on world domination that was similarly armed with an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Today, instead of facing the Soviet Union and its ideology of world communist revolution, the U.S. faces a Russia that appears to be concerned with affairs in its own backyard, places like Ukraine where it has a historically based relationship and interest and where the United States has no national interest whatsoever, despite our evident meddling there.
The Russians, nonetheless, also maintain a nuclear arsenal. Yet they do so primarily because the United States maintains its arsenal. But, there is no particular need for enmity between the U.S. and Russia today, and therefore no need for nuclear weapons as deterrents. The Russians have no ability to invade North America and so there is no need to use nuclear weapons to stave off their fleets. And while Russian forces may have the hypothetical capacity to send troops into Europe, one wonders why they would bother. Instead, it seems more reasonable to expect that Putin’s interests lie with strengthening and building a Eurasian bloc, led by China and an economically resurgent Russia.
To this, the American answer should be: “Good Luck!” Secondarily, this answer should be accompanied by the proposal that both the Russians and the US should give up their respective remaining nuclear arsenals. Neither nation needs them, and the money spent on their upkeep would be better used elsewhere.
For instance, the U.S. taxpayer could sure use a break. Over the next ten years, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that America’s nuclear forces will cost taxpayers approximately $355 billion. That’s a large amount of money. How about giving taxpayers some relief instead of spending it on nukes?
And if Congress just has to spend this money, why not on something else? How about science? Currently, NASA can’t even get Americans into space. We have to rely on Russia for that. If we weren’t spending $355 billion on nuclear weaponry for the next ten years, Congress could use that money to double NASA’s budget. It would, of course, be far better to shutter NASA and return that money as well to taxpayers, since NASA really is an unconstitutional extravagance. But, better to put the money into exploration of space than into nuclear weapons that could kill billions.
On the other hand, if defense of the nation really matters, then Congress could spend that money on the Navy. As a nation that depends on international trade, the Navy is by far the most important military institution. Yet the Navy has seen its fleets dramatically cut since the 1980s. $355 billion buys a lot of Virginia-class subs and Ford-class carriers.
Maintaining nuclear weapons is wasteful, dangerous, and unnecessary. Should anyone interested in reducing the power of government really want any president to have nuclear weapons at his or her disposal? Are conservatives satisfied that the current President should have this power? And how about liberals? Should they be satisfied with a conservative president having this power?
The entire Constitutional system is predicated on limiting the power of government, and with putting checks and balances in place to prevent its abuse. Those checks and balances have been severely eroded in recent decades. Significantly, Congress no longer seems to have the courage to use its Constitutional authority over war powers to control Presidential military ambition. Having any president with control over an arsenal of nuclear weapons is a policy strategy of increasingly dubious wisdom.
With the Cold War long over, it’s time to consign nuclear weapons to the history books.