Originally published in the Cape Breton Observer
I did not weep, I turned to stone inside … Dante, Inferno
I rarely cry, but on the evening of 8 December 1987, glued to radio coverage of the signing of a nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Soviet Union, I wept with a relief I had never felt before, an ecstatic conviction that the Cold War, and with it the nuclear arms race, was ending.
It wasn’t so much the number of warheads the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, would scrap: over 2,500, tens of thousands of Hiroshimas but a small fraction of the Superpower’s gargantuan arsenals.
It wasn’t even that, for the first time in nuclear arms control history, an entire class of weapon would be banned – land-based missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers, capable of hitting their targets (cities) in minutes, and thus the cause of a major war scare in Europe since their deployment, first by Moscow, in the late 1970s.
It was more the doors the Treaty opened to further cuts, so deep and wide the goal set by the United Nations in its first-ever resolution in 1946 would finally seem within reach: Global Zero, a nuclear-weapon-free world.
In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev had stated bluntly that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” In 1986, Gorbachev unveiled a plan of phased multilateral reductions, counting down to ‘Zero’ by the year 2000. With the signing of the INF Treaty, his proposal – technically viable, demonstrably verifiable – became politically realistic: a “sapling,” as he said, had been planted “which may one day grow into a mighty tree of peace”:
//May December 8, 1987, become a date that will be inscribed in the history books, a date that will mark the watershed separating the era of a mounting risk of nuclear war from the era of a demilitarisation of human life.//
As I listened, I cried, in part because I had spent much of the previous year following the negotiations for my undergraduate dissertation at the only Peace Studies Department (University of Bradford) in the United Kingdom, a nuclear-weapon state which ‘boasted’ its own ‘independent deterrent’ (missiles leased from America) and which had – inviting its own self-destruction – hosted US INF weapons at Greenham Common, site of a truly heroic, routinely reviled Women’s Peace Camp, backed by millions of supporters in an antinuclear ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement spanning Western Europe and North America.
Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982 At noon on December 12th 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 mile perimeter fence of the former USAF base, in protest against the UK government’s decision to site American cruise missiles here. The installation went ahead but so did the protest – for 19 years women maintained their presence at the Greenham Common peace camp.
Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982: At noon on 12 December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6-mile perimeter fence of the former USAF base, in protest against the UK government’s decision to site American cruise missiles here. The installation went ahead but so did the protest – for 19 years women maintained their presence at the Greenham Common peace camp.
And I cried, too, listening to the chat and music of the students in the University residence – most of whom had not been part of that movement and would never know what ‘INF’ stood for – for the dramatically saner, less menaced and more humane future they could now enjoy and explore.
I have more than once subjected Spectator readers to dense analysis of the post-Cold War decline of nuclear arms control in general, and the INF Treaty in particular.
In sum, with the fall of the Soviet Union the ‘Countdown’ Plan was consigned to oblivion by a NATO Alliance – suddenly the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance – determined not to disarm but expand, deep into former Warsaw Pact and Soviet territory, triggering a predictably nationalistic, we-love-our-nukes response in Moscow.
In 2002, US President Bush, to the delight of influential State Department official John Bolton, withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, radically limiting missile defenses to remove any temptation to ‘win’ a nuclear war by striking first and shooting down most of whatever missiles the obliterated enemy could still unleash. Not only, Russia believed, could American missile defenses in eastern Europe be used to intercept second-strike weapons, they could themselves be converted to offensive, first-strike weapons – with a range of, well, between 500-5,500 kilometers.
Bush’s move, allied to his illegal regime-change invasion of Iraq, eroded Russia’s faith in the INF Treaty, while both Moscow and Washington expressed alarm at a build-up of Chinese nuclear forces in the INF range. President Obama, while still trying to save the Treaty, accused Russia of at least flirting with non-compliance by researching and developing, if not deploying, new medium-range systems. President Trump, determined – at the urging of National Security Adviser Bolton – to scrap the Treaty, claimed the ‘red line’ of deployment had been crossed, giving Russia a deadline of August 2 this year to return to compliance. Compliance, that is, as adjudged by a US administration now itching for a justification to research, develop and deploy some of the new medium-range weapons lustfully eyed by Defense Secretary Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis in his hair-raising 2018 ‘Nuclear Posture Review.’
Just how dangerous this ‘new nuclear age’ now is was revealed by the brief, inadvertent posting (!) by the Pentagon this summer of its updated ‘Nuclear Operations’ manual (still available on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, thanks to the quick thinking of researcher Steven Aftergood ) which states confidently that:
“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”
Wow, talk about an invitation to proliferate: who wouldn’t want such a magic wand? Indeed, given this impressive up-side to ‘going nuclear,’ it’s hardly surprising, to quote Obama’s Under Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, that “sadly, no US official today is able to repeat” the Reagan-Gorbachev ‘must never fight, can never win’ formula.
And so, on August 2, the INF Treaty was formally pronounced dead, leaving just one bilateral US-Russia arms control agreement still standing: the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty, limiting long-range warheads to 1,550 each side. Due to expire in 2021, New START could be extended to 2026 by mutual consent. Bolton, though, has told Trump New START – an Obama achievement, after all, like the Iran nuclear deal – is old hat, tired thinking, tying America’s hands, etc. And even though Trump recently said of Bolton that “if it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time,” the President agrees.
No Treaty, of course, can really ‘die’. But the demise of the INF Treaty is sure to impact the lives, even help seal the fate, of millions of people. Including, perhaps, the children of the students I listened to that unforgettable night, 32 years ago, as the ‘sapling’ was planted.
But this time, I couldn’t cry.
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton.