November/December 2022Vol. XXXV No. 2

Avoiding Nuclear War

Editorial Board of the MIT Faculty Newsletter

Sixty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world close to nuclear war. At present, threats by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, former US President Donald Trump, and most recently by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to launch nuclear weapons have sharply increased fears that the world is headed once again toward such a disastrous path. In October, Ukrainian President Zelensky called for a NATO preemptive strike on Russia, and President Biden further ramped up the tension with talk of “nuclear Armageddon.”

Members of the MIT Faculty and administration have a long history of trying to educate colleagues and citizens of the dangers of nuclear war, and of the need to take diplomatic paths toward nuclear disarmament.

With the emergence of the Cold War after the end of World War II, leaders in both the Soviet Union and the US recognized that the accelerating nuclear arms race endangered their own nation’s security, and that claims of an effective defense against nuclear weapons attacks were groundless. Nonetheless, the US and the USSR proceeded to amass insane numbers of nuclear weapons on bombers, submarines, and in fixed silos, under the shibboleth of Mutually Assured Destruction. Luckily for all of us, Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev saw the light and pulled back from the brink of nuclear war; they negotiated a secret deal in which the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba if the US would promise not to invade that island and to remove its missiles from Turkey (on the Soviet border), a promise which it kept six months later. MIT President Jerome Wiesner was Kennedy’s Science Advisor and an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament.

In June 1963, JFK delivered an historic speech at American University calling for active steps toward nuclear disarmament, ushering in a period of détente in relations between the super powers. The US, UK, and USSR signed the limited test ban treaty in Moscow in August 1963: “A Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water.” Meanwhile, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which limited the deployment of missile defense systems in each nuclear country to its national capital and one ICBM site. The ground-breaking SALT I treaty was signed in 1972 by Richard Nixon, certainly no pacifist, and Leonid Brezhnev. The treaty restricted the number of nuclear missile silos and submarine-launched missile tubes for a five-year period.

President Reagan – with his denunciation of the USSR as the evil empire, proposals for Star Wars missile defense programs, and increased Pentagon spending – seemed intent on pulling out of these agreements. Influenced in part by the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, Reagan reversed course. Despite continuing Cold War conflicts, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Its implementation eliminated, by 1991, major portions of the two countries’ arsenals, including 2,692 ground-launched, mid-range nuclear missiles (with ranges from about 300 to 3,400 miles). It also included comprehensive verification measures.

Meanwhile, the development of nuclear weapons by additional states led to calls for an international framework to halt proliferation. Under the aegis of the United Nations, three countries – the USSR, UK and US – signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968, which limited the spread of nuclear weapons and committed the nuclear powers to pursue general disarmament. Today, 190 countries are party to the NPT, making it the most widely adhered-to arms control agreement. Only India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and South Sudan remain outside the treaty – the first four of which possess nuclear weapons.

President Obama called for a return of the US to leadership in nuclear disarmament. In April 2010, Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed a new strategic arms reduction agreement to replace the first START treaty, which expired in 2009. The so-called New START treaty called for a 30 percent reduction of deployed warheads and reduced caps on intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-based ballistic missile launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons. Both the US Senate and the Russian Parliament ratified New START, and it went into force in February 2011.

The US Reverses Course and Pulls Out of Active Treaties

Sadly, after a period in which the treaties did indeed reduce the world nuclear armaments, the US reversed course. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, effectively ending the agreement. More recently, then-President Trump withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Weapons (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies program. The INF treaty limited deployment of nuclear weapons, particularly in Europe, and was an important determinant of national security for Russia and its NATO-affiliated adversaries. The Open Skies policy allowed each nation to fly over the other’s territory to monitor large facilities and thereby increase confidence in treaty compliance.

Currently, nations throughout the world are pressing to reduce the danger of nuclear war by promoting the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The war in Ukraine has sharply raised the need for reining in, rather than intensifying, the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. As of the recent anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 91 nations had signed the Treaty and 68 had formally ratified with the United Nations. Sadly, the nations deploying nuclear weapons have not signed, but the international pressure is mounting.

Though little publicized within the US, there are five nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) throughout the world, regions in which member countries commit themselves not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons. Four of them span the entire Southern Hemisphere. The five regions currently covered under NWFZ agreements include: Latin America (the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific (the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok), Africa (the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba), and Central Asia (the 2006 Treaty of Semipalatinsk).

Who Benefits from the US Withdrawal from Nuclear Weapons Treaties?

Much of the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear weapons is carried out by a small number of private corporations. This is a unique and uniquely profitable business. The contracts cannot be outsourced to Chinese, Mexican, Indonesian, or other foreign corporations, and the market is guaranteed with no competition, since all the products will be purchased by the US government. The corporate leaders of the largest weapons contractors earn more than $20,000,000 annually, thanks to US taxpayers and Congressional appropriators.

In response to Obama’s call for pursuing nuclear disarmament, the defense industry and Pentagon advocates of continued nuclear weapon development put forward a program for upgrading and modernizing all three legs of the Nuclear Triad over the next 25 years – the fixed land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched missiles, and bombs and missiles carried on long-range aircraft. The overall budget is estimated to be in the range of two trillion dollars. The new weapons delivery system the Government is pursuing will result in contracts with price tags in the tens of billions of dollars. The initial contracts already approach $50 billion this year. This lucrative business depends on continuation of the nuclear arms race.           The ICBM force of 400 giant Minuteman III missiles is the most dangerous of the three legs of the Nuclear Triad. The missiles are in fixed known positions. If an attack is detected, they can’t be moved. US policy is to fire rather than lose them. Once launched, they can’t be reversed. They serve no national security purpose, but rather actively decrease national security.

The industry and its extensive lobbying apparatus actively support replacing them with a new generation of ICBMs, just as vulnerable, just as destabilizing. The Air Force has been awarding contracts which will total close to $100 billion for a new generation of land-based missiles. Many of these taxpayer-funded contracts will go to a few corporations, such as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, and other nuclear weapons contractors.

The Dangers of Upgrading Nuclear Weapons Systems

The upgraded nuclear weapons, whether fixed in silos, on submarines, or carried by bombers, are all described as more reliable, more accurate, and more lethal than their predecessors. From the point of view of potential adversaries such as Russia or China, they resemble weapons designed for a first strike – to eliminate the opponent’s deterrent force. One consequence is that adversaries then decide that their nuclear forces need upgrading too. A new nuclear arms race can only increase the chance of an inadvertent or intended nuclear exchange.

However, even if the weapons are never used, their $2 trillion price tag will undermine the civilian economy. The lives lost from inadequate health care and pandemic responses, from inadequate housing, from polluted water, will not be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) costs. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first pointed out, the bombs dropped abroad eventually take their toll at home. Thus, a few months ago, Congress tacked on $40 billion to the 2023 NDAA, bringing it up to well over $800 billion, more than 50% of the entire Congressional discretionary budget. But they couldn’t find $5 billion for ensuring universal vaccination and protection from Covid-19. In fact, the weapons budgets are a major factor in the growth of economic inequality in the US, since taxes from hundreds of millions of low- and middle-income Americans are transferred to contracts whose benefits are reaped by a tiny fraction of the population.

Given the implicit and explicit threats traded by world leaders about the possible use of nuclear weapons, readers might doubt the availability of a path to continued negotiation. In fact, the Biden administration has insisted they are open to talks on extending the New START treaty, and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said that such negotiations are long overdue (Boston Globe, August 3, 2022, p. A3).

As indicated at the beginning of this editorial, MIT Faculty members have a long and important history of working to reduce or eliminate the dangers of nuclear war. This remains a critical issue for all of us. This issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter includes an open letter from MIT faculty and others to Presidents Biden, Putin, and Zelensky calling on them to advance negotiations for a cease-fire in Ukraine, and to rejoin the INF and Open Skies treaties. We hope you will consider signing at: