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Wars that “Must Never be Fought”—Nuclear Disarmament in the Wake of the Cold War

From the words of President Reagan to the fears of people all over the world, unease over world-ending technology being at the fingertips of two belligerent powers defined the latter half of the twentieth century. Even today, with the potential for nuclear arms to fall into terrorist hands and resurgent tensions between Russia and the West, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament remain crucial international issues.

Inspection of Pershing II Missiles (14 January 1989) MSGT Jose Lopez Jr.| Defense Imagery
Inspection of Pershing II Missiles (14 January 1989) MSGT Jose Lopez Jr.| Defense Imagery

As the freeze of the Cold War began to thaw, however, leaders from both the United States and Russia began talks to limit their nuclear arsenals.

The first resulting treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which sought to limit the number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems each country could deploy, was signed in July of 1991 and entered into force in December of 1994. It remained active throughout the tumultuous negotiations and failed implementations of two other similar iterations until 2009. Other arms limitation treaties—namely the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), in place from 2003 until 2011—complemented START I until they were superseded by New START.

Signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8th, 2010 and entered into force on February 5th, 2011, New START represented an even more progressive stance towards nuclear disarmament. On top of requiring each country to reduce their number of active delivery systems by 50 percent, New START implemented reciprocal monitoring mechanisms, which included both remote and on-site inspections of nuclear facilities. While Russian leadership has vocalized a willingness to negotiate a new treaty, New START is due to expire in 2021.

As hinted by the failed START II and III treaties, the negotiation of nuclear disarmament treaties is no easy feat—a fact that many Foreign Service officers and ambassadors can attest to. Read on to learn more about their personal experiences, which are now preserved in ADST oral histories.

ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.

Dean Rust’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 6, 2006
James Goodby’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 10, 1990
William Brooks’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 20, 2005

Dean Rust
Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA)—Non-Proliferation Policy Bureau, Deputy Director (1976-1997)
Read Dean Rust’s full oral history HERE.

James Goodby
US Disarmament Commission (1959-1963)
Read James Goodby’s full oral history HERE.

William Brooks
State Department—Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) (2001-2003)
Read William Brooks’ full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on nuclear disarmament, click HERE.

Drafted by Aaron Derner

Excerpts:

“Nobody could ever say for sure that a weapon was not stolen during this period, but there has never been solid evidence to that effect. Apparently, we dodged a bullet, but only history will tell.”

The Dangers of Dissolution:
RUST: . . . I would say the dominant issues during Bush I were the breakup of the Soviet Union and the first gulf war. Both had major consequences for the nonproliferation business. Let’s talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union first. We were confronted with the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union, many of whom had nuclear weapons deployed in their territories including tactical nuclear weapons. So as the assemblage of republics began to break up, we were faced with a potential proliferation calamity in which all or some of the new republics would try to take possession of the nuclear weapons for bargaining or security reasons. Well, of course most of the new republics had little interest or capacity to deal with nuclear weapons. And the weapons had always been under the control of the central government out of Moscow, and so it was not that difficult for the Soviet armed forces, who generally stayed loyal to Moscow during the breakup, to retain control of the weapons and ultimately return them to Russia. Nobody could ever say for sure that a weapon was not stolen during this period, but there has never been solid evidence to that effect. Apparently, we dodged a bullet, but only history will tell.

Of course, the most difficult cases were those states where long range Soviet missile forces were deployed, i.e. land based intercontinental ballistic missiles with warheads on the top of the missile. That was primarily Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and of course, Russia. It took some very skillful diplomacy by the Bush I administration to persuade them, in the first instance, to become party to the broader U.S.- Soviet arms control treaty (START) that had been signed in July 1991—a few months before the Soviet breakup. So the original bilateral START Treaty ultimately became a Treaty with five parties—U.S., Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. START did not enter into force until 1994, the second year of the Clinton Administration. It took that much time to persuade Ukraine, in particular, to give up these nuclear missiles and to join the NPT as a nonnuclear weapon state. It happened only after the Ukrainians were offered certain security and economic guarantees. The EU-U.S. and Japan all made clear there would be no integration into Western institutions unless they gave up the nukes. In retrospect, it all sort of fell into place but only after a great deal of international pressure to conform the Soviet breakup to the principles of the NPT, i.e. no new nuclear weapon states beyond those identified in the NPT should emerge. Russia inherited the former Soviet Union’s designation as a nuclear weapon state under the NPT and all other former Soviet republics became non-nuclear states and joined the NPT as such. Without the NPT, there would have been no established norm or principle behind which to rally the international community to prevent further proliferation.

“You could reduce nuclear warheads and, if a nuclear war took place, the average citizen wouldn’t notice a difference…cutting by a third or fifty percent really wouldn’t make that much difference in terms of damage to civilians”

The Limits of Reduction:

President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the START Treaty (31 July 1991) United States Department of State
President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the START Treaty (31 July 1991) United States Department of State

GOODBY: Well, the one thing that Reagan had said during the campaign that was our basic guidance was that he considered the SALT II Treaty not only flawed in certain respects, but also basically a license for buildup.

And, in that, he had a good point, because the limits on warheads were practically nonexistent, and you could easily foresee that there was going to be a continuing of the MIRVing (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), a buildup in that MIRV capability on both sides so that you would wind up with somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand in strategic nuclear warheads without any particular controls over them except that that was imposed by the limits on launchers of these ballistic missiles that had been arranged during the Carter administration with the Soviets.

And so the guidance we had was that we ought to try to go for reductions.

Well, the interesting thing to me at that point was that, as we talked with the experts and the people that had much greater knowledge of strategic matters than I did at that time, it wasn’t clear what could be accomplished by reductions. Reductions for what purpose? You could reduce nuclear warheads and, if a nuclear war took place, the average citizen wouldn’t notice a difference, because we had such a large number of these nuclear warheads that even cutting by a third or fifty percent really wouldn’t make that much difference in terms of damage to civilians, in effect.

So what we did was devise a rationale that had to do with strategic stability, namely you want to reduce those systems that are potentially first-strike weapons, weapons that have a very short flight time and that could be used, in effect, for a surprise attack.

It was a logical rationale, all right, but when you did that, it had an impact on the Soviet strategic forces that was much greater than the impact on American strategic forces. Because that type of short-flight-time weapon is clearly the ICBM, and the Soviets had put something over seventy percent of their strategic forces into that category. Whereas we had a much more diversified strategic force structure, including a lot of bombers, which had slow flight times and were therefore not a very good first-strike weapon, and submarines, which could ride out an attack and therefore did not need to be considered a first-strike weapon, and which, in fact, at that time didn’t have first-strike capabilities anyway because of lack of accuracy.

We recognized that this would impact the Soviets more than it would on us, but we thought that was a pretty reasonable approach, so we developed it.

“If they’re going to destroy a missile or a bomber or something like that, they do it out in the open, they cut it up into sections, and once again we observe from above that they’ve done that.”

Observing Up Close and From a Distance:
BROOKS: The Nuclear Risk Reduction Center? It was set up after the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as a place where we would exchange information on various aspects of treaty compliance. Every time a B-52 flies from a base in North Dakota to California or wherever it’s going, we notify the Russians that a B-52 is on the move. Every time we do a missile test, we notify them. They notify us. Every once in a while we tell them, “Bring your missiles out of storage and put them out in the open so that we can see them, count them.” And they do that.

Q: With satellites.

BROOKS: Yes. If they’re going to destroy a missile or a bomber or something like that, they do it out in the open, they cut it up into sections, and once again we observe from above that they’ve done that. So messages go back and forth on a daily basis on various things that are going on. The Russians send their messages in Russian and the people on the NRRC [Nuclear Risk Reduction Center], as we call it, have to translate them and then distribute them to DOD and other people in the government.

Q: The Russians have people in the United States and we have people in Russia, don’t we, who observe some of the chopping up of missiles and things like this?

BROOKS: We do have a small team in; there’s only one place that I can think for sure now where there’s a team that is there year-round. We do inspection tours, as well, where we’re putting together a group, and we go over and inspect various facilities. They come here and some of those messages are about those inspection teams’ arrival and things like that.

Q: What was your impression of how well this operation was working?

BROOKS: It seemed to work very well. I think everybody was pretty happy. It worked well enough on the START treaty that as other arms control treaties came into effect in subsequent years, the two sides said, “well, we got this NRRC and it seems to be working. We’ve just signed a treaty on conventional arms in Europe, let’s assign the same kind of functions to the NRRC” — and they did that. The Treaty on Open Skies, again, was assigned to the NRRC. So basically, when I was there, there were two sides: There were the Russian speakers who handled the START side and the functions that the NRRC was initially set up for, and then there was the other side that had French, Spanish, and German speakers who did the conventional forces in Europe and Open Skies.

Wars that “Must Never be Fou…

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