Call it a nuclear clash of titans—but not the crude shouting-match between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It’s an “armed struggle” is between retired Pentagon bigwigs and current US war planners and weapons contractors.
While the Air Force lurches ahead with plans to design, produce and deploy a replacement for long-range, land-based nuclear-armed missiles, a string of retired military leaders have again called them useless, dangerous and exorbitantly expensive.
Reuters correspondent Scot Paltro reported Nov. 22, “Nuclear strategists call for bold move: scrap ICBM arsenal,” and cited former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and Leon Panetta, former missile launch officer Bruce Blair, former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis (although Mattis recently changed his mind and now supports the replacement plan).
Mr. Perry, the Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997, and retired US Marine Corps General James Cartwright, a Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, penned a commentary in the Washington Post Nov. 16, calling for the permanent elimination of our land-based missiles or ICBMs. (“Spending less on nuclear weapons could actually make us safer”)
The thought of slowing the weapons gravy train must have set off alarm bells in the executive suites at Boeing Corp. and Northrop Grumman, Inc. The two weapons profiteers are vying for the $130 billion “cost plus” contract to build a brand new land-based ICBM (to replace 450 Minuteman III missiles currently kept on hair-trigger alert in underground launch sites across the Great Plains).
Last summer, the Air Force awarded the two upstanding, public-spirited companies over $325 million each to put together counter proposals for the new so-called “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent”—today known as the nuclear-armed “Minuteman” rockets that can fly 13,000 miles. When the contractor’s competition was announced, company executives gave the Washington Examiner a manure spreader full of corporate smooth talk.
Wes Bush, Northrop’s chairman, CEO and president, said, “We look forward to the opportunity to provide the nation with a modern strategic deterrent system that is secure, resilient and affordable.” He and Boeing spokesperson Jerry Drelling—who said “We are honored to … provide an affordable, low-risk intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system solution”—must have anticipated the push back from the critics. They kept repeating the words “affordable,” “secure” and “low-risk.”
Mr. Perry and Gen. Cartwright focused on the reckless endangerment caused by land-based missiles. The weapons are easy stationary targets, they say, and historically are the most likely among nuclear weapons to cause accidents. Using alarmingly harsh language, the two wrote, “There are serious concerns about accidental war that are inherent to ICBMs, which certainly would be the first targets of any surprise attack and cannot be recalled should they be launched in response to what turns out to be a false alarm.”
Perry and Cartwright seemed to be joisting with Boeing’s Director of Strategic Deterrence Systems, Frank McCall, who reminded the Examiner that since 1961, the US Air Force “has relied on our technologies for a safe, secure and reliable ICBM.”
Not so, reported the retired military heavy-weights. “Today, the greatest danger is not a Russian bolt but a US blunder—that we might accidentally stumble into nuclear war,” wrote Perry and Cartwright. “As we make decisions about which weapons to buy, we should use this simple rule: If a nuclear weapon increases the risk of accidental war and is not needed to deter an intentional attack, we should not build it.”
Hitting back against the weapons contractors’ flippant references to “affordability,” Perry and Cartwright used language that could have been taken straight from the pages of Nuclear Heartland, Nukewatch’s 2015 book about the land-based missiles. They argue that the United States “should cancel plans to replace its ground-based ICBMs, which would save $149 billion.”
“Certain nuclear weapons,” the two concluded, “such as the cruise missile and the ICBM, carry higher risks of accidental war that, fortunately, we no longer need to bear. We are safer without these expensive weapons, and it would be foolish to replace them.”
P.S. This label “unsafe, foolish and expensive” applies to all the new nuclear weapons inside the Pentagon’s $1.7 trillion production chain rebuild now underway. Yet plans for a new nuclear-armed submarine, a new heavy bomber, and a new H-bomb for NATO in Europe are somehow embraced or ignored by Perry and Cartwright. It seems that nuclear madness doesn’t completely clear up upon retirement. —John LaForge
An enlarged copy of this Sept. 13, 1985 headline from the Mpls. “Star and Tribune” has been on my bulletin board for decades. Back then the scientists explained the consequences of a large-scale nuclear war between the former USSR and the United States. “…the primary mechanisms for human fatalities would likely not be from blast effects, not from thermal radiation burns, and not from ionizing radiation, but, rather, from mass starvation” the US National Academy of Sciences study said, resulting in nuclear winter and “the loss of one to four billion lives.”
Left out of those grim calculations was the effect of mass firestorms caused by nuclear weapons being detonated on urban areas. In her book Whole World on Fire (Cornell Univ. Press, 2004) Lynn Eden notes, “For more than 50 years, the US Government has seriously underestimated damage from nuclear attacks.”
“The failure to include damage from fire in nuclear war plans continues today,” Eden wrote. “Because fire damage has been ignored for the past half-century, high-level US decision makers have been poorly informed, if informed at all, about the extent of damage that nuclear weapons would actually cause. As a result, any US decision to use nuclear weapons almost certainly would be predicated on insufficient and misleading information. If nuclear weapons were used, the physical, social, and political effects could be far more destructive than anticipated.”
“For nuclear weapons of 100 kilotons or more, destruction from fire will be substantially greater than from blast. … Air temperatures in the burning areas after the attack would be well above the boiling point of water; winds, hurricane force,” Eden reported.
In a 1995 letter to Eden, Harold Brode of the Defense Nuclear Agency, which conducted research on nuclear weapons effects, wrote, “The fact is that fire tends to lead to complete destruction in this context…. Because of the enhanced likelihood of spread in the event of a nuclear explosion in an urban center, fire damage is very likely to far exceed blast damage.”
Today, with the US president threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea’s 25 million people, and with three US Navy aircraft carrier battle groups conducting large-scale exercises in the Asia-Pacific involving over 22,500 personnel, it’s worth recalling that fires from even a very “limited” use of a small number of modern nuclear weapons would create so much soot and ash that the consequent collapse of agriculture could cause the famine death of two billion people.
This was the conclusion in November 2013, of Ira Helfand, MD, who wrote “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” 2d Edition, for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
What nuclear war planners in the Navy and the Air Force, or sociopaths like Mr. Trump ignore or fail to grasp is this, from Whole World on Fire: “Within tens of minutes after the cataclysmic events associated with the [nuclear] detonation, a mass of buoyantly rising fire-heated air would signal the start of a second and distinctly different event — the development of a mass fire of gigantic scale and ferocity. This fire would quickly increase in intensity. In a fraction of an hour it would generate ground winds of hurricane force…”
In April 2014, a group of US atmospheric and environmental scientists published a corroborating paper titled, “Multi-decadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict.” Its co-authors Michael Mills, Owen Toon, Julia Lee-Taylor, and Alan Robock reported that, “A limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which each side detonates 50 15 [kiloton] weapons could produce about 5 Tg [teragrams] of black carbon” from mass fires. A teragram/Tg is 1 million metric tons.
These five metric tons of black carbon, the report notes, “would self-loft to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally, producing a sudden drop in surface temperatures and intense heating of the stratosphere. … The combined cooling and enhanced UV [ultra violet radiation] would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.” Of course, much of the black carbon would be radioactive as well causing long-lived contamination of water and food.
The authors conclude that with this understanding of the impacts of mere 100 “small” Hiroshima-sized nuclear detonations (actual US bombs are far more powerful), the world should be motivated to demand “the elimination of the more than 17,000 nuclear weapons that exist today.” — John LaForge
On October 6, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its successful effort to establish a global treaty that bans all aspects of nuclear weapons. Peace and disarmament groups around the world celebrated the Peace Prize announcement and congratulated ICAN for its landmark treaty accomplishment.
By employing grassroots organizing and ordinary citizen diplomacy, the ICAN coalition managed to permanently stigmatize and eventually eliminate the most destructive weapons ever made. Nukewatch, established in 1979, is proud to be one of ICAN’s 468 partner organizations from 100 countries. In a statement ICAN called the prize “a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth.”
The new Ban Treaty prohibits developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, possessing, stockpiling and deploying nuclear weapons, transferring or receiving them from others, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, allowing any stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons on national territories of signatories, and assisting, encouraging, or inducing any of these prohibited acts. The Treaty requires each signatory state to develop “legal, administrative and other measures, including the imposition of penal sanctions, to prevent and suppress” the prohibited activities.
The new treaty was concluded on July 7 when 122 United Nations states voted in favor of its adoption. Since Sept. 20, 53 individual heads of state have “signed” the treaty, the first step in a government’s process of ratification which is decided by individual national parliaments. It will enter in force 90 days after at least 50 countries have ratified it.
The United States, the most powerful opponent of the Ban, called the treaty negotiations “unrealistic” and led a boycott, even though the talks are among the explicit mandates within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, ratified by the United States in 1970.
US Fearmongering and Nuclear War Games Distract
Drawing attention away from the Treaty Ban and the abolitionist Nobel Prize announcement, the United States has for months been issuing wildly exaggerated claims about the threats posed by North Korea (which may have 20 nuclear warheads but no workable rockets for them) and Iran (which has no nuclear weapons).
At least the rest of the world is aware that US conventional weapons were sufficient to see the Pentagon take over two whole counties, nuclear weapons being superfluous. They are additionally and increasingly useless in US terror wars since nuclear weapons embody but never deter terrorism. A case in point: From October 16 to the 20th the United States and some NATO partners conducted what they called their Steadfast Noon nuclear strike exercises. The annual war “game” is a NATO practice of nuclear weapons use with jet fighter bombers and the B61 H-bombs the US deploys in Europe.
The Washington Post reported Oct. 16 that one NATO official said the war game involves a “fictional scenario,” and the paper noted that the US keeps about 150-180 B61 nuclear weapons at six bases in five European countries. As Joseph Trevithick wrote for TheDrive online, “The bombs are technically ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, though experts and advocates routinely debate the validity of this term and whether any nuclear weapon can be seen as a limited, tactical tool.” The B61 is an unguided gravity bomb that has an explosive force of 340 kilotons (27 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb that killed 170,000 people).
This month’s nuclear war practice took place at two locations: the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Büchel Air Base in Germany, both of which host about 20 of the B61s. Belgian and German pilots train to use these H-bombs in the event of a Presidential order to go nuclear.
The Peace Prize, which will be presented December 10 in Oslo, increases the stigmatization of nuclear weapons, NATO’s ghastly preparations for using them, and the nuclear-armed states’ archaic rationalizations. All three need to be publicized and acknowledged before another accident or miscalculation (think World War I) kills millions. — John LaForge
A living nightmare that haunts the country to this day
Fall Quarterly 2017
By Bruce Cumings
As they always do on the anniversary of the armistice, North Koreans celebrated their “victory” in the Korean War on 27 July. A few days later, President Donald Trump remarked that if the North Koreans made any more threats, they “will be met with fire and fury, and frankly, power the likes of which the world has never seen.”
No US president has uttered words like this since Harry Truman warned the Japanese, between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either to surrender or face “a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.” Trump’s nuclear bluster, made off-the-cuff between golf rounds, was widely condemned, but a few days later he doubled down on it.
As a White House staffer told the New York Times, the president “believes he has a better feel for Mr. Kim [Jong Un] than his advisers do. He thinks of Mr. Kim as someone pushing people around, and Mr. Trump thinks he needs to show that he cannot be pushed.”
Trump is surrounded by people who echo his fantasies of ultimate power. Sebastian Gorka, a strange figure advising Trump—said to be a Trump “favorite” and a dead ringer for a Bela Lugosi flunky in a Dracula movie—told Fox News that Trump’s “fire and fury” line meant “don’t test America and don’t test Donald J. Trump.”
We are not just a superpower, Gorka said, “we are now a hyper-power. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities.” This has been a truism since the Soviet Union collapsed, but it doesn’t explain how the US has failed to win four of the five major wars it has fought since 1945. One of those wars was in Korea, where rough peasant armies, North Korean and Chinese, fought the US to a standstill.
It was 64 years ago that North Koreans emerged from this war into a living nightmare, after three years of “rain and ruin” by the US Air Force. Pyongyang had been razed, with the Air Force stating in official documents that the North’s cities suffered greater damage than German and Japanese cities firebombed during World War II.
Just as the Japan scholar Richard Minear termed Truman’s atomic attacks “exterminationist,” the great French writer and film-maker Chris Marker wrote after a visit to the North in 1957: “Extermination crossed this land.” It was an indelible experience still drilled into the heads of every North Korean.
On my first visit to Pyongyang in 1981, a guide quickly brought up the bombing and said it had killed several of his family members. Wall posters depicted a wizened old woman in the midst of the bombing, declaring “American imperialists—wolves.”
The day after Trump’s bluster, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] stated: “The US once waged a tragic war that plunged this land into a sea of blood and fire, and has been leaving no stone unturned to obliterate the DPRK’s ideology and system century after century.”
There are 25 million human beings living in North Korea. They bleed like we do, they live and die like we do, they love their kin like we do. Trump’s callous and cavalier threat was perhaps the most irresponsible thing he has said since becoming president—which is really saying something—but most Americans will not know this because they know nothing about the carpet-bombing of North Korea.
What about the 50 million South Koreans, whose elders also suffered through this war? “Trump doesn’t seem to understand what an alliance is, and doesn’t seem to consider his ally when he says those things,” Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at an institute in Seoul, told the New York Times.
“No American president has mentioned a military option so easily, so offhandedly as he has.” But here Trump has a precedent: Bill Clinton also didn’t bother to consult the former South Korean president Kim Young Sam when drawing up plans for a pre-emptive strike in June 1994.
The next few weeks are critical to this deepening crisis, with annual “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian” war games set to start up on August 21, involving tens of thousands of US and South Korean troops.
North Korean generals have been preparing for moments like this for decades, gaming out war scenarios during several crises going back to January 1968 when they seized the US spy ship Pueblo and held the crew for 11 months.
Thus the North’s statements in the current crisis (unlike Trump’s) have a concrete, predictable nature: lots of bluster and bombast combined with quite specific plans, namely four medium-range missiles to be launched into waters near Guam on 15 August, if Kim Jong Un gives the go ahead.
Pyongyang always pursues tit-for-tat strategies: the US lifts B1-B nuclear-capable bombers from Guam for flyovers of South Korea—a constant not just under Trump but also during Obama’s tenure—and the North chooses a scenario that will call attention to the nuclear blackmail that the US has pursued going back to the Korean war, and particularly during the decades from 1958 to 1990, when the US stationed hundreds of nukes in South Korea with standard plans to use them in the early stages of a North Korean invasion. Pyongyang also likes to choose dates that have historical resonance: 15 August is the anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism in 1945.
Upon the news of his wife’s death, Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” He famously added: “signifying nothing”. Trump signified this: yet another American venture in extermination.
— Professor Bruce Cumings is chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Korean War: a History, Random House Modern Library, 2010. He wrote this commentary for The Guardian, August 13, 2017