A world free of nuclear arms Weapons: For decades the United States gave lip service to eradication of nuclear arms while building up its "overkill" capacity. Even now, few military leaders can agree on how many warheads are enough.

SUN JOURNAL

November 16, 1997|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At a manic moment in his 1968 campaign for the presidency, George Wallace called a news conference to introduce Gen. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping former commander of the Strategic Air Command, as his vice presidential running mate.

Seven minutes later, about the time needed for a high-alert scramble at SAC headquarters, the Wallace campaign was a disaster-in-progress and LeMay was trying to assure the American people that he was not "a drooling idiot whose only solution to any problem is to drop atomic bombs all over the world."

Yet in a monologue that the frantic Wallace vainly tried to interrupt, LeMay established his credentials for political idiocy.

"I don't believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon," he said.

Describing the scene at Bikini atoll after 20 nuclear tests, he noted that "the fish are all back in the lagoons, the coconut trees are growing coconuts, the guava bushes have fruit on them, the birds are back."

"As a matter of fact, everything is about the same except the land crabs. They . . . were a little bit 'hot.'"

After this outburst, Wallace made it plain that LeMay was too hot to answer questions. But if his career was in fade-out, his spirit was not.

The next two decades witnessed an ever-more-menacing nuclear arms race. At its peak, the two superpowers had amassed an overkill arsenal of 37,500 warheads.

The total had been whittled down by about 10,000 warheads when an Air Force general, George Lee Butler, moved into LeMay's old slot as SAC commander in 1991 -- two years after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

Butler had spent much of his military career serving what he called "the ends of nuclear deterrence," and he wanted to believe that his mission had helped prevent World War III and helped cause the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But on this, he was ambivalent: "I do not and cannot know that."

As far as the nuclear mission is concerned, he emerged last December as the ultimate military convert, a passionate exponent for the elimination of all nuclear weapons: "We have won, through Herculean courage and sacrifice, the opportunity to reset mankind's moral compass, to renew belief in a world free from fear and deprivation, to win global affirmation for the sanctity of life, the right of liberty and the opportunity to lead a joyous existence."

Nuclear abolition has been the rhetorical posture of this nation since the early days after Hiroshima. But its actual posture has been the pursuit of unquestioned nuclear superiority.

Butler's apostasy would be nothing spectacular in civilian ranks. But because he occupied LeMay's old chair and since his retirement has joined 61 admirals and generals from around the world in seeking nuclear abolition, he has emerged as a compelling military figure in the nuclear debate -- this despite the public's preference for second-echelon matters such as gays in uniform, women in combat, a few thousand personnel in Bosnia.

Butler has a compelling ally: the former CIA chief, Adm. Stansfield Turner. In a new book, "Caging the Nuclear Genie" (Westview Press, $21), Turner has used his inside knowledge of the nuclear calculus to reach conclusions every bit as dramatic and even more specific than Butler's.

While Butler is in favor of reducing nuclear arsenals "to the lowest verifiable levels," Turner favors a limit of 250 warheads each for the United States and Russia -- in contrast to the 3,500-warhead limit embodied in START II and the 2,000-warhead limit envisioned for START III.

In a recent visit to SAC headquarters outside Omaha, Neb., Turner was curious to discover where commanders stood between the "new thinking" of Butler and the "old thinking" of LeMay.

The answer came quickly. Those currently in charge of U.S. strategic force considered 3,500 warheads a "bare minimum" that was tolerable only if we held a reserve to build back up toward many thousands more.

"I left [Omaha]," Turner said, "feeling that despite all the changes that had taken place since Curtis LeMay left SAC in 1957, his influence on StratCom was much stronger than was Lee Butler's."

Perhaps this mind-set should have come as no surprise to Turner. Many officers now in uniform are dismissive of Butler, Turner and another ally to their cause, former NATO commander Gen. Andrew Goodpaster.

Maybe this was predictable. As long ago as 1989, RAND specialist Carl H. Builder wrote that to end the quest for bigger and better intercontinental ballistic missiles would strike at the personal self-image of those who had devoted their professional lives to these machines.

"And for their sense of personal worth," Builder wrote, "people will fight long and hard."

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