A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Desirable? Feasible?
Editors’ note: The following review was written by Lord Zuckerman shortly before he died on April 1. It was prepared for publication with the help of the physicist Richard Garwin.
The agreement reached by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987 to relegate socalled intermediate-range missiles to the scrapheap not only marked the end of the era of East-West nuclear confrontation. It was also, even if unpredictably, the catalyst for the political, nationalist, and economic upheavals that have since engulfed both the old USSR and what used to be called Mittel Europa. The underlying causes of the turmoil and bloodshed that are now everyday news were, of course, always there. They had simply been suppressed by the rigid Communist system to which Gorbachev administered the coup de grâce when he and Reagan gave top-level recognition to the fact that neither military superiority nor national security can be measured by the numbers and types of nuclear warheads that a country possesses.
Previous attempts to dissipate the atomic shadow that Hiroshima had cast over the world, and to prevent an East-West nuclear arms race, had proved a dismal failure. The first resolution passed at the inaugural United Nations General Assembly in January 1946 had called for setting up an international Atomic Energy Commission to formulate measures that would ensure that nuclear weapons would never form part of national arsenals. The commission failed in its task, basically because the USSR was unprepared to allow the US to be the only power that knew how to make, and that already possessed, nuclear weapons.
The discussions that followed in the mid-Fifties to try to prevent a nuclear build-up by way of an agreement to prohibit the testing of atomic weapons were also a failure, ending as they did in 1963 with a Partial Test Ban Treaty which, while it stopped radioactive pollution of the air and seas, did not disallow the underground testing of nuclear devices. Subsequently the US and the Soviet Union conducted some 1,100 underground tests. In recent years US and Soviet underground testing was kept below a threshold of 150 kilotons. By last autumn, the US, Russia, and France had adopted a moratorium on further testing, to last until July 1993.
Within a period of forty years the two sides had built up arsenals which together contained more than 60,000 nuclear warheads. The Soviet warheads numbered some 45,000 at their peak in 1986. Only when a countercurrent was initiated by the 1987 INf agreement—in which both sides agreed to eliminate land-based, intermediate range missiles—did talk about nuclear disarmament start to become meaningful. The strategic arms reduction talks that had been grinding on fruitlessly since the early 1980s were abruptly ended when Bush and Gorbachev on July 31, 1991, signed a START I agreement which specified that—following a seven-year implementation period—the maximum number of intercontinental delivery vehicles on either side should be 1,600, and that they should carry no more than 6,000 “accountable” warheads …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.