The death of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, still unfairly blamed even in his obituaries for Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam, ironically removes from the current national dialogue on President Obama's nuclear weapons policy a champion of John F. Kennedy's original dream of a nuclear weapons-free world.
Let us "bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations," said Kennedy in his Inaugural Address in January 1961. "Weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us," he told the United Nations General Assembly later that year. "...No longer is the quest for disarmament a sign of weakness, (nor) the destruction of arms a dream -- it is a practical matter of life or death. The risks inherent in disarmament pale in comparison to the risks inherent in an unlimited arms race."
McNamara supported President Kennedy's decision not to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis or on any other occasion; and JFK's success in ending those crises without initiating a nuclear exchange or even firing a shot convinced all of us who served with him never to rely on nuclear weapons in the future, never, as he put it, "to risk a nuclear war in which the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth."
The old Eisenhower-Dulles policy of threatening massive retaliation, he told Congress in January 1963, reflecting upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, "may not deter piecemeal aggression; but a line of destroyers in a quarantine (like that around Cuba) or a division of well-equipped men on a border (like that around West Berlin) may be more useful to our real security than the multiplication of awesome weapons beyond all rational need."
In the single best speech of his presidency, delivered at American University's 1963 Commencement, he declared that "the acquisition of idle stockpiles which can only destroy and never create is not the most efficient means of assuring peace."
President Barack Obama made clear in his Prague speech in April of this year that he too has a "commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons... as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it." Decades earlier, Obama had specified this same goal in a college student essay. He was not talking at Prague, nor was Kennedy at American University, about unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament, but about an enforceable global nuclear pact, covering Russia as well as China, Israel as well as Iran, both India and Pakistan, and all other present and potential nuclear powers. Achievable not quickly, easily or automatically, but achievable, this pact would depend on comprehensive, invasive and effective inspections, backed by the credible threat of swift, multilateral enforcement.
The same kind of "mad bombers" critical of what they called Kennedy's "no-win policy," who believed that a nuclear exchange in which millions of American dead totaling less than tens of millions of enemy dead would be a proud victory for the United States, are still with us. Richard Perle and Senator Jon Kyl, in a June 30 Wall Street Journal article, urged the United States to keep a nuclear arsenal "for the foreseeable future." President George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to build even more powerful nuclear "bunker buster" and outer space weapons, contrary to Obama's view and Kennedy's vow. The same crowd opposes ratification of a global treaty to ban nuclear testing, which would be a crucial first step toward realizing the goal of global nuclear disarmament. Even a universal ban, these pessimists and skeptics argue, would be dangerous to U.S. national security, if some day some hostile nation sought an advantage by suddenly secretly testing and preparing for a surprise launch and treaty repudiation. But no nation, large or small, as JFK pointed out, would want to violate and thus terminate a treaty essential to the security of all; and the United States has even greater ability now to detect such tests and preparations. Nor would a potential violator fail to realize that any temporary advantage it might gain by such secret tests or preparations would clearly be far outweighed by the global sanctions, obloquy and isolation it would suffer for such illegal misconduct.
As for America's own military strategy, Kennedy -- a World War II hero, no pacifist -- declared that we have "deliberately chosen to concentrate on more mobile and efficient weapons with lower but entirely sufficient yield," and thus "(our) security would not be diminished by a reduction of our nuclear stockpile."
All Americans gratefully respect the nuclear laboratories and production plants that have contributed so much to our security for so long; but their concern about their future funding must not be allowed to override the long-held convictions of their best scientists that all nations of the world, including our own, would be safer when all nations of the world cease the testing, production and possession of all weapons of mass destruction; and while this is being achieved, a fully adequate U.S. deterrent could be maintained with a sharply reduced number of nuclear weapons in the stockpiles of both the United States and Russia. That step in turn would facilitate the initial items on Obama's nuclear agenda: (a) to safeguard and secure all vulnerable nuclear weapons and material anywhere in the world from falling into the hands of terrorists or failed states; (b) speed the termination of the North Korea and Iran nuclear weapons programs; and (c) enhance and encourage the long-neglected enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as the proposed new ban on making fuel for nuclear arms; all this while the United States ratifies and works to bring into force the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Such a reduced U.S. arsenal would also be easier and cheaper for us to maintain, to modernize and to make certain of its security and stability.
The critics of the Kennedy-Obama goal of a nuclear weapons-free world like to cite Ronald Reagan. But not his 1984 State of the Union message in which he spoke directly to the people of the Soviet Union: "A nuclear war cannot be won... it must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?" His wife said he "had many hopes...to create a world free of nuclear weapons." Those critics should also be careful about citing Reagan's last two Chiefs of Staff, Howard Baker and Ken Duberstein, his Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, his Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, his National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, his Secretary of State George Schultz and his Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead, all of whom joined in a statement this year by the bipartisan Partnership For a Secure America calling for a "verifiable, irreversible and non-discriminatory fissile material cut-off treaty, a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, and a reduction of all nuclear arsenals, including our own, to the minimum achievable level."
Other steps on the Obama nuclear agenda include increased U.S. support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency at the Treaty Review Conference next year; and the elimination of unnecessary irritants between the United States and Russia to facilitate the aforementioned mutual reduction of their respective nuclear stockpiles.
This is a formidable number of steps facing Obama to reach the Kennedy dream, involving a host of controversial issues. But the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons is not only a diplomatic issue, although it will require masterful diplomacy; not only a military security issue, although we must keep our conventional weapons ready; and not only a political issue (although the nay-sayers will try to make political hay out of it). It is a moral issue -- indeed, a moral imperative.