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Key Issues Ethics Issues Question and Answer with General Lee Butler USAF

National Press Club Newsmakers Luncheon Question and Answer Session with General Lee Butler USAF, (ret.)
February 2, 1998

Doug Harbrecht (Moderator.  National Press Club president and Washington news editor of Business Week): (Brief audio break) - [Do you think the U.S. should consider using nuclear weapons in] Iraq or in response to any chemical or biological weapon threat?

Gen. Butler: At the risk of reiterating something I just said, I think it's worth reiterating perhaps in

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a slightly different context. I had the opportunity to go through this calculus. When I was the director of strategic plans and policy in the 1989 to '91 time frame, it was my direct responsibility to draw up the strategic objectives of our prospective war in the Persian Gulf, to imagine outcomes and to set war termination objectives.

At the very heart of that calculus was to imagine the prospect of using nuclear weapons. And I would point out to those of you here who might have read Colin Powell's memoirs that he goes through this himself in the latter stages of his book, because he was asked to imagine the kinds of targets in the Persian Gulf that might be struck with nuclear weapons. I share his reservations absolutely.

The first issue, of course, is the one that I posed in my remarks. If we rightfully abhor and condemn the resort to the use of a weapon of mass destruction, how is it we could possibly justify -- we, the United States, a democratic society -- ourselves steeping to such ends?

Number two, can you imagine the impact in a part of the world where we worked so assiduously for so many years to build our presence, to build support and credibility, of being the nation that used a nuclear weapon against Arab peoples? Only the second time in history that such a device had been used, and it would be the United States, and it would be in a part of the world where even today those actions raise powerful suspicions.

Secondly, what would -- thirdly, what would have happened to the coalition? How painstakingly we worked to put together a coalition of some 30 nations from very disparate points on the ideological and cultural compass in order to provide the proper underpinnings of the international community for that war. Can you imagine the impact on that coalition if we, the United States, had used a nuclear weapon, even in response to the use of a weapon of mass destruction by the Iraqis? It would have been devastating.

There's the question of targets. If you were the target planner for the use of a nuclear weapon in the Persian Gulf, what would be your choice? Surely it would not be the city of Baghdad. Would you hold hundreds of thousands of people accountable for the acts of their leader? Would it be an Iraqi division in the far western reaches of that nation? You might be interested to know the calculation of how many tactical nuclear weapons it requires to bring even one division to its knees when it's spread over such a vast expanse.

What would have happened to the fallout from the blast? If you want to do maximum damage, you use a (surface aspirant?). How is it that the fallout patterns would have arrayed themselves beyond the borders of Iraq, perhaps even to the south if the wind had been blowing in that direction?

The real point of the exercise is that the United States has put itself happily in a position where it has no need to resort to weapons of mass destruction to respond to such provocation. We brought Iraq to its knees conventionally. We could have decimated that country. We could have occupied it as we did Japan and Germany at the end of World War II. We chose not to do that, but it was within our capacity to do so. And if we could do that in 1991, when they had the fourth-strongest army in the world and a significant air force, can you imagine the task today when we've reduced all of that by at least two-thirds? It is wrong from every aspect. It is wrong politically. It makes no sense militarily. And morally, in my view, it is indefensible.

Mr. Harbrecht: General, what happens to an officer -- (applause). What happens to an officer who breaks, as you have, from the orthodoxy of our military? Is the military changing in this respect?

Gen. Butler: It is, of course, very difficult and probably presumptuous in the extreme to answer on behalf of something called the military. And so I won't pretend to do that. But I think that I can speak to it from this regard.

It has been very gratifying over the last two years to receive countless phone calls and letters from colleagues who were on active duty with me, now retired, or who continue to serve, who support the arguments that I have tried to make, who believe, as I do, that it was near-miraculous that we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust, and that our number one foreign policy and national security priority should be the normalization of relations with the former Soviet Union and to walk back from the abyss that we created by the amassing of nuclear weapons in the tens of thousands.

And, so, no, I would not pretend to speak for the military. And with regard to what happens, it's also gratifying to have the comfort and to experience the fact that we live in a country where people can express their views freely. And while some, many, might take exception to them, no one in my experience has yet but to do anything but to applaud the fact that we're trying to bring this issue back to the forefront of policy discourse in this country.

Mr. Harbrecht: Do you also believe that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary or counterproductive?

Gen. Butler: I don't know. I don't know. There are some historical eras into which I can put myself with some comfort; I've got the context right. But they're really only those eras in which I actively participated. I was in uniform as an officer for 33 years. I understand that era very, very well.

As an itinerant associate professor of political science, formerly with the Air Force Academy, and an historian, particularly a military historian, I have some understanding of the challenges that were faced by political leaders and military forces in early eras.

It's very difficult for me yet to recreate in my own mind the intensity of the period in which that decision was made by the president of the United States. And as I said in my speech, my purpose is not to accuse but to assess. It's to try to understand the lessons that might be drawn from that. It's to try and understand the consequences of having dropped atomic devices on Japan.

At the time and today, we still believe that we spared the lives of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million U.S. and allied soldiers. But at the same time, we took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. And now we have the opportunity, thank God, to step back, to pause and reflect on that in a different political, military and moral climate. And that's what I'm trying to do. So I can't make that judgment, but I certainly can try and draw my own observations.

Mr. Harbrecht: General, it's widely believed that Israel not only possesses nuclear weapons but would use them if its survival depended upon them. Is Israel's reliance on its nuclear weapons in the dangerous Middle East ill-advised?

Gen. Butler : I think that it is a perfect illustration of the short-sightedness that tends to surround this issue of whether or not nations should acquire nuclear capability. What was it that prompted Iraq to try and acquire weapons of mass destruction, a nuclear weapon arsenal of their own? Could it have in any way been tied to the fact that Israel acquired such capability? And what of Syria or Iran? What of Libya?

These things have causes and they have effects. They're related. The circumstances in which nuclear weapons capability is created and sustained aren't static. As a consequence, in my view, it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that that inspires other nations to do so. And, of course, that's not the only regional conflict where we see this perilous confrontation.

I will tell you what I do think. I cannot imagine any regional quarrel or conflict that is or will be made easier to resolve by the presence of the further introduction of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Harbrecht : What can be done to persuade an emerging superpower like China to give up nuclear weapons? Would such a decision have to wait for the emergence of democracy in China?

Gen. Butler : There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, but it's been in the literature for many years, as to why it was that the Chinese acquired nuclear weapons capability. The story goes that it was proposed to Mao and he said, "Why should I do this?" And he was told, "Well, other nations have them." And his answer purportedly was, "Well, I guess we should have some."

If you look at the Chinese nuclear arsenal, it is far from modern. Their forces are not on alert. They're struggling to bring up its safety and surity characteristics. China has avowed time and again that they are a no-first-use nation and that they are strongly on record in favor of nuclear abolition. I don't know what it would take to persuade China to abandon their nuclear arsenals, but I am comforted by what they say.

I believe that the keys to creating a climate in which the Chinas of the world -- Great Britain, France, the non-declared states -- are willing to join in a serious-minded, forthright and concrete series of commitments and steps to move steadfastly toward the abolition of nuclear weapons is for the United States and Russia to take the lead.

I believe that we are missing priceless opportunities in what is perhaps a perishable window of opportunity to move forward much more swiftly and boldly in getting our forces off alert, bringing tactical nuclear weapons home from Europe, declaring no-first-use policies, and most importantly, reaching out to our friends in Russia and making the decision that it is time to get on with concrete measures for much more severe cuts in nuclear stockpiles than we've been willing to acknowledge to date.

It is, in my view, a sad commentary on the current state of thinking on this issue that we are comfortable with a goal for reductions that would still have 3,500 operational nuclear weapons on alert 10 years from now. It is a dismal commentary on the current state of thinking that we still believe that distant nuclear arsenals that measure in the hundreds is a low number.

It is time for the United States to act much more boldly and with stronger leadership with respect to getting on with getting the nuclear era to a close.

Mr. Harbrecht : General, do you ever feel any guilt for having been so integral a part of building the nuclear machine? Shouldn't you have spoken up earlier?

Gen. Butler : Well, this isn't about guilt. This is about understanding. This is about reflection. I talked with Bob McNamara about this subject. He took a lot of heat when he published his recent book, "Vietnam." And Bob may, in fact, be here today. I told him forthrightly that as a veteran of Vietnam, I was anguished by some of what he said. I felt like that perhaps he hadn't shown enough guilt.

And he said to me, "Lee, we were who we were and we were where we were." He said, "I can't change any of that." He said, "But what I can do is to try and think through and make public and help others to understand the judgments and the pressures and the outcomes and how I see them now, not in order to assess blame, but in the hope that future generations of policymakers can read those lessons and not make the same mistakes." That's all. I'm trying to do here. (Applause.)