It is time to give up the bomb

December 23, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The firearm arrived in Japan in 1543, brought by Europeans. The Japanese quickly adopted it and put it to use in their clan wars.

In 1607 the gunsmiths of Japan were assembled by imperial order. They were told they could henceforth produce firearms only on government authorization. Two years later they were given an annual subsidy not to make firearms. By the early 18th century the entire national small-arms production consisted of 35 large matchlocks and 250 small ones, ordered by the government in alternate years.

The firearm, for practical purposes, had been abandoned. It continued to have a ceremonial military role, but swords, spears and bows again became Japan's principal weapons of war. The last battle in which firearms had a significant part was in 1637, a year after the country was closed to all but a few European traders.

The next 200 years were nonetheless a period of great technological and social progress in Japan. The capacity to manufacture firearms remained, and when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to force open Japanese markets in the mid-19th century, and the Japanese recognized that they needed firearms to defend themselves against foreign domination, they rapidly created an arms industry as advanced as the West's.

During the preceding 200 years they had simply reasoned that firearms were unsuited to the society in which they wished to live. Noel Perrin tells this entrancing story in an elegant book published in 1979, called ''Giving Up the Gun.''

This is not the only case of arms limitation imposed by common sense. Chemical and biological weapons have been effectively banned in modern warfare, together with some forms of munitions, even though governments can still manufacture them, and some, such as Iraq, have even used them. The lesson is that others do not automatically imitate what a ''rogue nation'' does, nor does rogue behavior really change the balance of military power.

Nuclear disarmament

Gen. George Lee Butler of the U.S. Air Force, head of the Strategic Air Command until 1994, and 60 other retired officers recently issued a call for total nuclear disarmament. Among this group is Alexander Lebed, the Russian general who is a potential candidate for Russia's presidency.

The generals' statement says nuclear weapons are militarily inefficient and morally unacceptable. There are constant operational risks even in their peacetime deployment. Their actual use in war would do harm that is absurdly disproportionate to rational political objectives.

We have known this all along, but believed ourselves trapped in our Cold War with a nuclear Russia. The late Herman Kahn admitted that the intellectual exercise of imagining ''acceptable levels of destruction,'' ''manageable nuclear wars,'' and doomsday machines had as its real virtue that it forced government officials to actually think about what they were doing.

These weapons are inherently useless. They are not really useful even to small countries that believe themselves vulnerable to large ones. The threshold to their use is so high, and their use so grave in its implications, as to be self-deterring. Even if they are used, what is accomplished? What would come after?

We are near the end of the seventh year since the Cold War ended. The century is closing, one of industrialized and genocidal totalitarian warfare. Yet its sufficient horrors would have been nothing by comparison with the horror produced if the United States and Russia had actually executed the nuclear attacks each spent 40 years preparing.

We have an opportunity to eliminate these weapons. All the acknowledged nuclear powers are at peace with one another. We need to negotiate the total, reciprocal, supervised elimination of nuclear weapons.

If not everyone will go along, so what? The last 40 years have taught that the only value these weapons possess is strictly negative and reciprocal. Modern guided conventional munitions can perform with discrimination, economy and accuracy any militarily useful task a nuclear weapon could do -- do inaccurately, indiscriminately and wastefully.

The great quality of Ronald Reagan was his simplicity. He was capable of seeing simple things that others insisted on complicating. He saw that the Cold War was over, and trusted Mikhail Gorbachev. He saw that nuclear weapons were an evil. If he were president today, he would, I think, see that it is time to give up the bomb, and that if we do not seize this opportunity we will eventually be very sorry. I think he would invite General Butler to the White House, to draft an offer the United States can put before the international community.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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