By Mohammad Mazhari

There is greater risk of nuclear war now than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis: historian 

March 6, 2022 - 12:15
‘The sane response is to eliminate ALL nuclear weapons’

TEHRAN – A professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University warns that the globe is at risk of nuclear war.

“The world is in a very precarious situation at the moment and there is a greater risk of nuclear war now than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost sixty years ago,” Peter Kuznick tells the Tehran Times.

“Putin is in control of the largest and most modern nuclear arsenal in the world. He controls approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons—enough to end life on this planet several times over.”
Vladimir Putin declared on February 27 that he was putting his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” - a heightened alert status reminiscent of some of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.

“We don’t know if he is simply copying Richard Nixon’s madman thesis or he has actually gone mad. But no one wants to test him to find out,” Kuznick notes.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Given the ongoing escalation between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, how can we read nuclear deterrence theory? 

A: The world is in a very precarious situation at the moment and there is a greater risk of nuclear war now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost sixty years ago. Putin is in control of the largest and most modern nuclear arsenal in the world. He controls approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons—enough to end life on this planet several times over. He has been brandishing nuclear threats since the invasion began. Even before the invasion, he staged a demonstration of Russian nuclear missiles in Belarus. He has now put his nuclear forces on high alert. We don’t know if he is simply copying Richard Nixon’s madman thesis or he has actually gone mad. But no one wants to test him to find out. So Biden has been acted responsibly to avert a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. He has repeated over and over again that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight in Ukraine. He has made clear that the U.S. will impose sanctions on Russia and send weapons and supplies to the Ukrainians, but he seeks no military confrontations. He even canceled the upcoming planned missile test so as not to raise tensions. The thing about nuclear deterrence is that it works well until the one time it doesn’t work and then there will be no one left to tell the warmongers they were wrong. Averting nuclear war must be the highest priority. Ending the current war comes in a close second.

Q: What does history, especially the history of Cold War, say about such escalations? Eventually, would we see a diplomatic solution or what? For example, what can we learn from the Cuban missile crisis?

A: In some ways, the Cuban Missile Crisis is as different from today’s crisis as it is similar. In 1962, the U.S. had between a 10:1 and a 20:1 superiority in the number of nuclear bombs, bombers, and ICBMs that it possessed. Given the enormous disparity in strength, Khrushchev was forced to back down, but he did so on the best possible terms he could secure. This time Russia has all the military advantages in Ukraine and many former Soviet states. After the 1962 crisis, Russia resolved not to again be forced to capitulate from weakness and quickly proceeded to gain nuclear parity. Russia’s nuclear modernization has really been going on since the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. By 2018, Putin, in his State of the Nation address, announced that Russia now had five new nuclear weapons, all of which could circumvent U.S. missile defense. He said you didn’t listen to us, “listen to us now!” But the West was deaf. In 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev both did everything they could to avoid nuclear war. They both hated the thought. Khrushchev said that in 1953 when he was first briefed on nuclear weapons, he couldn’t sleep for days. After the 1962 crisis ended, he told journalist Norman Cousins, “Peace is the most important goal in the world. If we don’t have peace and the nuclear bombs start to fall, what difference will it make whether we are Communists or Catholics or capitalists or Chinese or Russians or Americans? Who could tell us apart? Who will be left to tell us apart?” But Kennedy and Khrushchev both understood that they had lost control over the situation and it was moving inexorably to war despite their efforts. They realized that in such crises, it is almost impossible to maintain control. We would later learn that a Russian submarine commander had given orders to fire his nuclear torpedo and that if another commander named Vasili Arkhipov had not talked him down, perhaps none of us would be alive today.

Trusting in nuclear power is a fool’s errand. The crisis ended not with public diplomacy but with a backroom secret last-minute deal between Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that was not made public for years. This is the kind of diplomacy that was missing in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Khrushchev, whose reckless and shortsighted behavior had precipitated the crisis, deserves much of the credit for ending it short of a disaster. After it was resolved, he wrote a remarkable letter to President Kennedy, who had often been the only one in the room on the U.S. side who opposed the invasion of Cuba, saying, “Evil has brought some good. The good is that now people have felt more tangibly the breathing of the burning flames of thermonuclear war and have a more clear realization of the threat looming over them if the arms race is not stopped.” In light of this, he made a series of bold proposals for eliminating “everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis,” including “disbanding all military blocs.” Over the next year, Kennedy and Khrushchev took major steps to ease tensions and create a more peaceful world despite their differences. But those hopes were dashed when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Khrushchev was ousted by Kremlin hardliners the following year. Where are the leaders today who can look beyond narrow nationalism and speak for the peaceful interests of all humanity? Where are the leaders who can understand how the world looks through the eyes of their adversaries? 

Q: How do you see the spread of nuclear power in the world? While Israel possesses nuclear arms, there is a media hype over peaceful nuclear programs. 

A: Nuclear apartheid is certainly not a fair policy, but nuclear anarchy would be even worse. The more nations that have nuclear weapons, the more likely they will be used. Iran’s leaders have repudiated the development of nuclear weapons. That is very wise. I think the leaders of all nine nuclear powers should do the same and eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The world agrees as indicated by the adoption of the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But, unfortunately, the nuclear powers are going in the other direction." All nine nuclear powers are spending billions or trillions of dollars to modernize their arsenals, making them more efficient and more lethal. This is insane. Years ago, IAEA head El-Baradei warned that at least 40 countries have the technological capability of developing nuclear weapons. Iran is high on that list. Gorbachev and Reagan came very close to eliminating nuclear weapons in 1986. That’s what is needed now. Desperately. If this current crisis has taught us anything, it is that no flawed human being should have the power to kill millions of people by ordering the use of nuclear weapons and that neither Biden nor Putin should have veto power over the future existence of life on this planet as they both now do. But, to make matters worse, Britain is expanding its nuclear arsenal by 40 percent. China is also expanding its arsenal. This must be halted.

The only ones who benefit from war are the weapons manufacturers, most properly labeled the “merchants of death.” Q: Do you think nuclear power can bring immunity to a political system? The USSR collapsed despite its huge nuclear arsenal. What can America learn from that?

A: Trusting in nuclear power is a fool’s errand. The use of nuclear weapons is, in reality, committing suicide. One might argue that having nuclear weapons saves a country from being invaded. North Korea issued a statement in 2003 that Saddam Hussein’s big mistake was not having nuclear weapons. If Iraq had nuclear weapons, the U.S. would not have invaded. Similarly, if the U.S. knew that Cuba had nuclear weapons on missiles and battlefield nuclear weapons in place in 1962, the U.S. would not have invaded. So in that sense, they can serve as a deterrent. But that is no excuse for allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate. The sane response is to eliminate ALL nuclear weapons.

Q: Does America have moral eligibility to determine nuclear policy for other countries, given its record in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 

A: I’ve written a lot about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and visited those cities (usually with students) some thirty times. The atomic bombing of Japan was militarily unjustifiable and morally reprehensible. Eight of America’s nine five-star officers in 1945 are on record as saying the bombs were either unnecessary or reprehensible or both. The atomic bombings were a blight on America’s moral reputation and historical legacy that can never be erased. But when the U.S. sincerely tries to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, it is on the right side of history. However, it is on the wrong side by not following through on its commitment under the NPT to eliminate its nuclear weapons. It has been on the wrong side in trying to sabotage the passage of the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty. It has been on the wrong side in turning a blind eye as certain allies have built a nuclear weapon. It has been on the wrong side in repeatedly threatening other countries with nuclear annihilation if they didn’t accede to America’s demands. As we’ve seen again this past week, we live in a world not of peace and justice but a world in which might make right. That is our challenge. We must make a new world committed to living and not dying. When I look at all the money that is wasted on weapons procurement, I’m appalled. The only ones who benefit from war are the weapons manufacturers, most properly labeled the “merchants of death.” Some of their business cronies also profit. They all need to be stopped. The profit needs to be eliminated from war. A different kind of world with different priorities is possible. We must seize that opportunity—now more than ever.


 

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