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Monday, July 4, 2005

America's blase approach to doomsday


LOS ANGELES -- The policy of the United States, at the moment the world's only superpower, lacks an overall sense of urgency about the spread and possible use of nuclear weapons. In all probability, this lapse will someday lead to immense tragedy.

The world has been sitting on a ticking time bomb for six decades. It is an inexplicable miracle rather than superior national-security policy or international-control management that a nuclear weapon hasn't exploded on one or more population centers.

Don't, of course, run this superficial observation by the Japanese, who still have the painful memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is not for nothing that this technologically brilliant but overpopulated nation remains, despite recent militant uptick emotions, on the whole antinuclear and pacifist.

But Japan someday will go nuclear if North Korea establishes itself as a palpable nuclear power, as with Pakistan and India, a pair of competing nuclear powers (and someday -- dare I suggest it? -- Taiwan because of nuclear China).

Russia still has piles of nukes; the British and the French have not relinquished their stockpiles; Israel denies -- unconvincingly to many -- that it has the bomb; Iran denies -- equally unconvincingly to many -- any intention of developing a nuclear capability. And so it goes.

The U.S. takes the prize, though. It maintains (on 24-hour alert hair-trigger status, no less) more than 10 times (at least) as many nuclear warheads as there are nations in the world. This absurd and risky over-readiness has drawn new fire here from warriors old and new.

The late former President Ronald Reagan, though anything but a notable dove while in office, appears to have been a passionate nuclear abolitionist both behind the scenes and deep in his heart, at least in the view of author and academic Paul Lettow. His "Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons," a new book published by Random House, has been raising major eyebrows in liberal circles as well as conservative and has been helping generate a sense of national unease about the defects of our nonproliferation policy and the lack of a serious nuclear reduction/disarmament policy.

The newly aroused antinuclear campaign in America has been joined with octogenarian vehemence by Robert McNamara, now 89 no less. The former defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, in newspaper interviews and Op-Ed essays, has been a one-man band warning of the inherent (or, as he puts it, "insane") dangers of so many ready-to-blow nukes in so many countries.

As one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War, McNamara in office was no more of a leftist than Reagan. But his regrets about that war and his unmistakable intellect have added a touch of establishment credibility to the abolitionist position.

This has enhanced the credibility of enduring firebrands like Helen Caldicott, the near-legendary Australian physician who has all but dedicated her life to the antinuclear campaign, and of the many antiproliferation nonprofits that populate the globe.

Take a look, for illustration, at the astoundingly energetic Web site of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org ), with whom Caldicott and many others are allied. This nonprofit organization, located in otherwise laid-back Santa Barbara, California, one of the most gorgeous and otherwise untroubled places on planet earth, has emerged as a kind of 24/7 center of the antinuclear movement. In August, for instance, a national youth conference on nuclear issues ("Think Outside the Bomb") will take place on the sun-slashed campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, thanks to the foundation.

There's a feeling in the air, at least on the U.S. West Coast, that the antinuclear movement is gaining traction. The war in Iraq is obviously going badly and the hawks and "neocons" in Washington, if not exactly in retreat, seem not to be pounding their chests with such prideful arrogance these days.

The recent endless United Nations summit retreat on advancing the venerable Nuclear Proliferation Treaty was a colossal and embarrassing failure. The U.S. -- which has brutally tabled the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and even raised the probability of funding further nuclear-weapons research -- refuses to conform to the NPT's call for drawing down existing nuclear arsenals.

As Alyn Ware of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy has put it, "It is impossible to prevent nuclear proliferation while the nuclear-weapons states insist on maintaining large stockpiles of weapons themselves. It's like a parent telling a child to not smoke while smoking a pack of cigarettes in their face. It's not going to work."

The smoking gun in Washington is the North Korean dilemma. We have invaded a country that possessed no weapons of mass destruction at the cost of more than 1,700 U.S. lives, unknown U.S. treasure and countless Iraqi lives, while fumbling big-time as Pyongyang played hard-ball on the nuclear issue.

We have obviously got our national security-policy priorities upside down. Thus we desperately need those fearless nongovernmental organizations like the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation -- not to mention old warriors like McNamara and Caldicott to continue to campaign tirelessly if we are not to realize the kind of nuclear calamity that, present trends unchecked, seems increasingly predictable.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran U.S. journalist, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and director of the UCLA Media Center. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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