A few years ago I walked into a room where there were forty-two hydrogen bombs lying around on the floor, not even chained down, each of them ten times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. This experience was a sharp reminder of the precariousness of the human condition. It encouraged me to think hard about ways to improve the chances of survival of my grandchildren. Nuclear weapons remain, as George Kennan has said, the most serious danger to mankind and the most serious insult to God.

The disappearance of nuclear weapons from our thinking about the future is a historic change for which we must be profoundly grateful. Fifty years ago and for many years thereafter, nuclear weapons dominated the landscape of our fears. The nuclear arms race was the central ethical problem of our age. Discussion of the ethical dilemmas of scientists centered around bombs and long-range missiles. The evil face of science was personified by the nuclear bomb designer. Now, quietly and unexpectedly, the bombs have faded from our view. But they have not ceased to exist. The danger to humanity of huge stockpiles in the hands of unreliable people is as real as ever. Yet the bombs are not mentioned in our vision of the future. How could this have happened?

In the summer of 1995 I took part in a technical study of the future of the United States’ nuclear stockpile. The study was done by a group of academic scientists together with a group of professional bomb designers from the weapons laboratories. The purpose of the study was to answer a question. Would it be technically feasible to maintain forever a stockpile of reliable nuclear weapons of existing designs without further nuclear tests? The study did not address the underlying political questions, whether reliable nuclear weapons would always be needed and whether further nuclear tests would always be undesirable. Each of us had private opinions about the political questions, but politics was not the business of our study. We assumed as the ground rule for the study that the weapons in the permanent stockpile must be repaired and remanufactured without change in design as their components deteriorate and decay. We assumed that the new components would differ from the old ones when replacements were made, because the factories making the old components would no longer exist. We looked in detail at each type of weapon and checked that its functioning was sufficiently robust so that minor changes in the components would not cause it to fail. We concluded our study with a unanimous report, saying that a permanently reliable nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing is feasible. Unanimity was essential.

Unanimity was made possible by the objectivity and the personal integrity of the four weapons designers who worked side-by-side with us for seven weeks, John Richter and John Kammerdiener from Los Alamos, Seymour Sack from Livermore, and Robert Peurifoy from Sandia. They are impressive people, master craftsmen of a demanding technology. They have spent the best part of their lives planning and carrying out bomb tests. They remember every test, whether it succeeded or failed. They know why each test was done, and what was learned from its success or failure. Their presence was essential to our work, and their names on the report gave credibility to our conclusions. They are survivors of a vanishing culture. They lived through the heroic age of weapon-building. They will not and cannot be replaced. By working on this study, they unselfishly helped our country to move safely into a world in which people with the special qualities and talents of these four men will no longer be needed.

The conclusion of our study was a historical landmark, commemorating the fact that the nuclear arms race is finally over. The nuclear arms race raged with full fury for only twenty years, the 1940s and 1950s. Then it petered out slowly for the next thirty years, in three stages. The science race petered out in the 1960s, after the development of highly efficient hydrogen bombs. Nuclear weapons then ceased to be a scientific challenge. The military race petered out in the 1970s, after the development of reliable and invulnerable missiles and submarines. Nuclear weapons then ceased to give a military advantage to their owners in real-world conflicts. The political race petered out in the 1980s, after it became clear to all concerned that huge nuclear weapons industries were environmentally and economically disastrous. The size of the nuclear stockpile then ceased to be a political status symbol. Arms control treaties were concluded at each stage, to ratify with legal solemnity the gradual petering out of the race. The atmospheric test ban of 1963 ratified the end of the science race, the ABM and SALT treaties of the 1970s ratified the end of the military race, and the START treaties of the 1980s ratified the end of the political race.


How may we extrapolate from this history into the world of the 1990s and beyond? The security and the military strength of the United States now depend primarily on non-nuclear forces. Nuclear weapons are on balance a liability rather than an asset. The security of the United States will be enhanced if all deployments of nuclear weapons, including our own, are gradually reduced to zero. For the next fifty years we should attempt to drive the nuclear arms race in reverse gear, to persuade our allies and our enemies that nuclear weapons are more trouble than they are worth. The most effective moves in this direction are unilateral withdrawals of weapons. The move that signaled the historic shift of the arms race into reverse gear was the unilateral withdrawal of land-based and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons by President Bush in 1991. Chairman Gorbachev responded quickly with similarly extensive withdrawals of Soviet weapons. The testing moratorium of 1992 was another effective move in the same direction.

To drive the nuclear arms race further in reverse gear, we need to pursue three long-range objectives: worldwide withdrawal and destruction of weapons, complete cessation of nuclear testing, and an open world in which nuclear activities of all countries are to some extent transparent. In pursuing these objectives, unilateral moves are usually more persuasive than treaties. Unilateral moves tend to create trust, whereas negotiation of treaties often tends to create suspicion.

Our nuclear stockpile study fitted well into the context of the reverse-gear arms race. The purpose of the study was to achieve a technical stabilization of our stockpile, to clarify what needs to be done to maintain a limited variety of weapons indefinitely without testing. Stabilization is the essential prerequisite for allowing the weapons to disappear gracefully. Once a stable regime of stockpile maintenance has been established, the weapons will attract less attention both nationally and internationally. They will acquire the qualities that a stable nuclear deterrent force should have: awesomeness, remoteness, silence. Gradually, as the decades of the twenty-first century roll by, these weapons will become less and less relevant to the problems of international order in a hungry and turbulent world. The time may come when nuclear weapons are perceived as useless relics of a vanished era, like the horses of an aristocratic cavalry regiment, maintained only for ceremonial purposes. When nuclear weapons are generally regarded as absurd and irrelevant, the time may have come when it will be possible to get rid of them altogether.

The time when we can say goodbye to nuclear weapons is still far distant, too far to be clearly envisaged, perhaps a hundred years away. Until that time comes, we must live with our weapons as responsibly and as quietly as we can. That was the purpose of the stockpile study, to make sure that our weapons can be maintained with a maximum of professional competence and a minimum of fuss and excitement, until in the fullness of time theywill no longer be considered necessary. In the meantime, the ethical dilemmas concerned with non-nuclear weapons and non-nuclear warfare remain unresolved.

The abolition of war is an ultimate goal, more remote than the abolition of nuclear weapons. The idea espoused early in the nuclear age by Robert Oppenheimer, that the existence of nuclear weapons might lead to the abolition of war, turned out to be an illusion. The abolition of war is a prime example of an ethical problem that science is powerless to deal with. The weapons of non-nuclear war, guns and tanks and ships and airplanes, are available on the open market to anybody with money to pay for them. Science cannot cause these weapons to disappear. The most useful contribution that science can make to the abolition of war has nothing to do with technology. The international community of scientists may help to abolish war by setting an example to the world of practical cooperation extending across barriers of nationality, language, and culture.

Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

This Issue

March 6, 1997