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Key Issues Ethics Issues Remarks to the State of the World Forum, General Lee Butler

Remarks to the State of the World Forum
General Lee Butler, USAF (Ret.)

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I must say at the outset that this is a singular moment in my life after 37 years in uniform. I am honored to join you, to share the stage with such a distinguished group, and most particularly to stand next to the gentleman on my left (President Gorbachev). At the same time, I must say in all candor that this represents a very conscious departure from a decision I made upon retiring, not to speak publicly on national security matters.

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When I became a private citizen and a businessman two and one-half years ago, it was my intention to close the journal of my military career and never to reopen it. I amend that resolution with considerable reluctance. My decision to step back into public life is prompted by an inner voice I cannot still, a concern I cannot quiet. I am compelled by a growing alarm, born of my former responsibilities, and a deepening dismay as a citizen of this planet, with respect to the course of events governing the role of nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Cold War.

I am well aware from my discussions with Alan Cranston that many of you share this concern. However, having served as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command, with planning and operational responsibilities for all of America's strategic nuclear forces, I bring a perspective to this issue not normally heard at gatherings such at yours. Over the last 27 years of my military career, I was embroiled in every aspect of American nuclear policy making and force posturing, from the councils of government to military command centers, from cramped bomber cockpits to the confines of ballistic missile submarines. I have certified hundreds of crews for their nuclear mission and approved thousands of targets for potential nuclear destruction. I have investigated a troubling array of accidents and incidents involving strategic weapons and forces. I have read a Bookstore of books and intelligence reports on the former Soviet Union and what were believed to be its capabilities and intentions. . .and seen an army of "experts" proved wrong. As an advisor to the President on the employment of nuclear weapons, I have anguished over the imponderable complexities, the profound moral dilemmas, and the mind-numbing consequences of decisions which would invoke the very survival of our planet.

Seen from this perspective, it should not be surprising that no one could have been more relieved than was I by the dramatic end to the Cold War. The reshaping of Central Europe, the democratization of Russia, and the rapid acceleration of arms control agreements were miraculous events -- events that I never imagined would happen in my lifetime. Even more gratifying was the opportunity as the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy for the United States' military forces, and then as commander of its strategic nuclear forces, to be intimately involved in recasting our defense posture, shrinking our arsenals, and scaling back huge impending Cold War driven expenditures. Most importantly, I could see for the first time the prospect of restoring a world free of the apocalyptic threat of nuclear weapons.

Over time, that shimmering hope gave way to a judgment which has now become a deeply held conviction: that a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons is necessarily a world devoid of nuclear weapons. The concern which leads me to this Forum, which compels me to speak frankly and openly in the company of serious-minded opinion leaders, is that the sense of profound satisfaction with which I departed my military career has been steadily eroded in the ensuing months and years. The astonishing turn of events which brought a wondrous closure to my three and one-half decades of service, and far more importantly to four decades of perilous ideological confrontation, presented historic opportunities to advance the human condition. But now time and human nature are wearing away the sense of wonder and closing the window of opportunity. Options are being lost as urgent questions are marginalized, as outmoded routines perpetuate Cold War habits and thinking; and as a new generation of nuclear actors and aspirants lurch backward into the dark world we so narrowly escaped without a thermonuclear holocaust.

What, then, does the future hold? How do we proceed? Can a consensus be forged that nuclear weapons have no defensible role; that the political and human consequences of their employment transcends any asserted military utility; that as weapons of mass destruction, the case for their elimination is a thousand-fold stronger and more urgent than for deadly chemicals and viruses already widely declared illegitimate, subject to destruction and prohibited from any future production?

I believe that such a consensus is not only possible, it is imperative, and is in fact growing daily. I see it in the reports issuing from highly respected institutions and authors; I feel it in the convictions of my colleagues on the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons; it finds eloquent voice in the Nobel Prize awarded to Joseph Rotblat and Pugwash; and a strident frustration in the vehement protests against the recent round of nuclear tests conducted by France.

Notwithstanding the perils of transition in Russia, enmities in the Middle East, or the delicate balance of power in South and East Asia, I believe that a swelling chorus of reason and resentment will eventually turn the tide. As the family of mankind develops a capacity for collective outrage, so soon will it find avenues for collective action. The terror-filled anesthesia which suspended rational thought, made nuclear war thinkable and grossly excessive arsenals possible during the Cold War is gradually wearing off. A renewed appreciation for the obscene power of a single nuclear weapon is taking a new hold on our consciousness, as we confront the nightmarish prospect of nuclear terror at the micro level.

Where do we begin? What steps can governments take, responsibly, recognizing that policy makers must always balance a host of competing priorities and interests?

First and foremost is for the declared nuclear states to accept that the Cold War is in fact over, to break free of the attitudes, habits and practices that perpetuate enormous inventories, forces standing alert and targeting plans encompassing thousands of aimpoints.

Second, for the undeclared states to embrace the harsh lessons of the Cold War: that nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous, hugely expensive, militarily inefficient and morally indefensible; that implacable hostility and alienation will almost certainly over time lead to a nuclear crisis; that the strength of deterrence is inversely proportional to the stress of confrontation; and that nuclear war is a raging, insatiable beast whose instincts and appetites we pretend to understand but cannot possibly control.

Third, with respect to present and prospective arms control agreements, given its crucial leadership role, it is imperative for the United States to undertake now a sweeping review, led by the President, of nuclear policies and strategies. The Clinton administration's 1993 Nuclear Posture Review was an essential but far from sufficient step toward rethinking the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world. While clearing the decks of some pressing force structure questions, the Review purposefully avoided the larger policy issues. However, the Review's justification for maintaining robust nuclear forces as a hedge against the resurgence of a hostile Russia is, in my view, regrettable from several respects. It sends an overt message of distrust in an era when building a positive security relationship with Russia is arguably the United States' most important foreign policy concern. It codifies force levels and postures completely out of keeping with the profound transformation we have witnessed in world affairs. And, it perpetuates attitudes which inhibit a willingness to proceed immediately toward negotiation of greatly reduced levels of strategic arms.

Finally, to the responsibility of this Forum, I want to record my strong conclusion that the risks entailed by nuclear weapons are far too great to leave the prospects of their elimination solely within the province of governments. Highly influential opinion leaders like yourselves can make a powerful difference in swelling the tide of global sentiment that the nuclear era must end. I urge you to read the one page statement from the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Better still, read the Commission Report in full, reflect on its recommendations, communicate with influential colleagues and with the Canberra Commissioners. Take an active role in debating and supporting the practical steps we set forth in our Report, such as taking nuclear weapons off of hair trigger alert and placing the associated warheads in secure storage.

These are steps which can be taken now, which will reduce needless risks and terminate Cold War practices which serve only as a chilling reminder of a world in which the principal antagonists could find no better solution to their entangled security fears than Mutual Assured Destruction.

Such a world was and is intolerable. We are not condemned to repeat the lessons of forty years at the nuclear brink. We can do better than condone a world in which nuclear weapons are enshrined as the ultimate arbiter of conflict. The price already paid is too dear, the risks run too great. The nuclear beast must be chained, its soul expunged, its lair laid waste. The task is daunting but we cannot shrink from it.

The opportunity may not come again. 

Thursday, October 3, 1996
San Francisco, California