Nowadays it is hard for anyone much under the age of 50 to imagine, but once upon a time the threat of nuclear war and the prospect of planetary extinction were things people actually worried about. Backyard bomb shelters, duck and cover in the classroom, LBJ’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, apocalyptic books and films like On the Beach, The Day After and Dr. Strangelove both reflected and fed genuine fears that a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, whether deliberate or accidental, would mean at least “the end of civilization as we know it” and maybe the end of all life on Earth.
The leaders of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. took that fear seriously. No matter how sharp the rhetoric between the two rivals both sides took care that things would not get out of hand. Proxy wars in the Third World, subversion, espionage, propaganda and the other props of Cold War thrillers were balanced by a mutual sense of the “rules of the road” that both sides were loath to violate: Avoid direct confrontation of U.S. and Soviet troops, no assassinations of top leaders, maintain lines of communication symbolized by the famous hotline initiated in the wake of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. In subsequent years, a number of arms control agreements sought to limit prospects of nuclear hostilities, accidental ones at any rate.
While in the Soviet Union there was little outlet for public opinion under the Communist Party’s monopoly, in the U.S. and other Western countries there were vigorous antiwar and anti-nuclear movements. Conservatives often regarded these “pinko peaceniks” as little more than Communist fronts (as some but not all were), and much of the Left may have been motivated by socialist sympathies.
As it turned out the biggest “peacenik” of them all was the notoriously belligerent Ronald Reagan, who declared in his 1984 State of the Union: “A nuclear war cannot be won and 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?” While Reagan’s wish of a nuclear-free world did not come to pass, he did oversee agreements with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that eliminated intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe and set in motion significant reductions in strategic weapons arsenals under START treaty.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact hopes were high that the nuclear sword of Damocles would finally be gone and a new era of trust and cooperation would finally dawn. The Russians were ready for this and their trust in American intentions was so great that under the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act co-authored by Sens. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, and the late Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, formerly secret military facilities were opened up to American experts for the express purpose of destroying Russian weapons and their infrastructure.
Alas, the euphoric expectations of early 1990s turned out to be a false hope. For reasons too detailed to be reviewed here but summarized by Senator Nunn and former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the nuclear danger is back and is not being taken seriously.
Messrs. Nunn and Moniz warn that the “United States and Russia are now in a state of strategic instability” in which “an accident or mishap could set off a cataclysm. Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a US-Russia confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today. Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”
They also propose concrete steps that can be taken to restore stability. But is anyone listening?
In 1980s, Democrats derided Reagan as a reckless cowboy risking nuclear war to extinguish the Communist “evil empire.” Today, they besmirch Donald Trump who believes that getting along with non-Communist but nuclear superpower Russia “is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
In such a poisonous atmosphere, when Russia and Vladimir Putin are blamed for almost all the U.S. and world’s problems, it’s hard to see how even a beginning can be made on implementing the wise counsel of Messrs. Nunn, Moniz and a few others from left to right who are smart enough to realize that we are sleepwalking into nuclear disaster.
However, an opportunity may have been provided with the news that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman will soon be leaving. Whom President Trump names as his replacement is extremely important and there is no better choice than Sam Nunn.
I don’t know if Mr. Nunn is interested in this job or even accepts it if offered, but he understands the problem and since ambassador’s position provides wide access to the top decision makers in Washington and Moscow maybe he’d agree to take part in search for solution.
Mr. Nunn’s distinguished record and his knowledge of how the Washington game is played – including the obligatory usage in the above-mentioned article of all standard anti-Russia rhetoric – makes his Senate confirmation assured, leaving Mr. Trump to call the final shot.
• Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow.
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