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from issue no. 10 - 2005


Nuclear weapons are immoral

«The current nuclear politics of the United States is immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary and dreadfully dangerous». In North Korea and in Iran they fear a regime change imposed from outside, «so we must engage in bi-lateral negotiations to remove this fear». Interview with the former US Secretary of Defense, who in the ’sixties invented the American nuclear defense system

Interwiew whith Robert McNamara by Giovanni Cubeddu

Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara was the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. His hawk-like positions in the Vietnam war gained him notoriety, but his clear cut view did not lack that dose of realism whereby he made Lyndon Johnson understand that the United States (which at a certain point did not exclude the use of the atomic bomb) would perhaps never win that war. From 1968 to 1981 McNamara was president of the World Bank and, as he himself tells us, once his period of institutional roles ended, he began to make public in a militant manner that conviction that had matured within him over the years: to reduce armaments, beginning with nuclear ones. At a time in which this far sighted politics of disarmament does not find many followers, it was a comfort recently to hear again the voice of McNamara (in Foreign Policy in May) pointing out the dangers of nuclear proliferation and of a deterrence that makes an alibi of rearmament.
Today the number of nuclear warheads produced is less than in the past, the risk of an atomic clash between the two great Cold War powers is limited, and the West is more preoccupied by the “average nuclear powers”, open to the nuclear hypothesis of resolving regional controversies or of using this last card before succumbing definitively in the face of the threat of a regime change, imposed from without to “export democracy”…
But today there is great hypocrisy underlying the debate about who can and cannot have nuclear technology, which one clearly gathers from McNamara’s words.
Vatican Council II, in Gaudium et spes, expressed in a crystalline manner the judgment of the Catholic Church: «While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world… Therefore, it must be said again, the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree. It is much to be feared that if this race persists, it will eventually spawn all the lethal ruin whose path it is now making ready».
Meanwhile, not even at the last summit of the Chiefs of State and of Government for the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations was it possible to mention in the final text a committment, even generic, to non proliferation. It is from this sad impasse that the discussion with McNamara begins.

ROBERT McNAMARA: We pledged to work in good faith toward the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals when we negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. In May, diplomats from more than 180 nations met in New York City to review the NPT and assess whether members were living up to the agreement. The United States was focused, for understandable reasons, on persuading North Korea to rejoin the treaty and on negotiating deeper constraints on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But the attention of many nations, including some potential new nuclear weapons states, was also focused on the United States. Keeping such large numbers of weapons, and maintaining them on hair-trigger alert, are potent signs that the United States is not seriously working toward the elimination of its arsenal and raises troubling questions as to why any other state should restrain its own nuclear ambitions.
Indeed the failure of the last NPT review conference has been sad and evident. What are the reasons? Is the NPT a Cold War relic?
ROBERT McNAMARA: Well this is very fundamental. The non-proliferation treaty was in the nature of a bargain. The five declared nuclear states stated that if nations that did not possess nuclear weapons agreed not to acquire them, the five declared nuclear states would give up theirs. This is so called article 6 of the Treaty. And of course the five declared nuclear states have not moved to give up theirs. And other nations are reluctant therefore to be told that they should do so – they have strong opponents confronting them militarily, as perhaps declared nuclear powers do – but the declared nuclear powers with strong conventional forces nonetheless say that they need nuclear forces to safeguard their nations, but that the nations without nuclear forces are not to be allowed to get them. That violates the basic agreement that underlay the non-proliferation treaty.
But according to the State Department, notwithstanding the substantial failure of the Conference, the NPT is still alive.
McNAMARA: I don’t see any evidence of that. Well, look, you have Iran and North Korea for example, clearly moving against the NPT and you have a former Secretary of Defense, William Perry – who was a very wise Secretary, not an alarmist, he is a scientist, he’s head of Stanford University Security Program – and he stated here in Washington last August, that there was a greater than 50% probability of a nuclear detonation on US soil within the decade and that certainly indicates that non-proliferation is not succeeding.
You said recently that “It is time—well past time—for the United States to cease its Cold War-style reliance on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool”.
McNAMARA: At the risk of appearing simplistic and provocative, I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high. Far from reducing these risks, this administration is committed to keeping the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a mainstay of its military power—a commitment that is simultaneously eroding the international norms that have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials for 50 years.
A picture of the opening of negotiations in Peking on the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, September 2005

A picture of the opening of negotiations in Peking on the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, September 2005

It’s surprising to hear a former U.S. Secretary of Defense making such an assessment.
MCNAMARA: Let me just say one thing. The Geneva Conventions have represented an agreement by nations that the application of military force will conform to principles, it will be proportional, that is to say, if a nation applies military force against another nation, it will not be exceeding the relation in regard to what that opponent has applied or intends to apply. And it will be discriminatory, meaning that it will exclude civilians from the application of military force. Clearly nuclear weapons initiated by a nuclear power cannot meet either one of those conditions, and therefore it’s both immoral and I say illegal. As a matter of fact, the majority of the judges in an international court that considered the legality of nuclear weapons stated that it was illegal. –
About the recent 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Time magazine said that that act of war crossed “the moral threshold”: the US targeted civilians as legitimate instruments of warfare
MC NAMARA: Indeed I think it was immoral and I also think it was illegal.
I don’t believe that the US in using nuclear weapons intended to target civilians, but certainly the US should have anticipated that civilians would be killed in large numbers. So whether you call it targeting civilians or not, it’s clear that in advance the US should have anticipated the death of large numbers of civilians.
By the time the nuclear bomb was used of course, the killing of civilians by bombing in World War II had been undertaken by all of the major powers, the British attack on Dresden, for example. I’m not justifying the use of the nuclear bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, don’t misunderstand me, I’m simply saying that in that sense civilian deaths had already resulted from bombing campaigns in World War II.
I was assigned to the B29 units, and I was on the island of Guam, in March 1945, when General LeMay, commander of the B29s there, initiated the fire bomb raids, taking the B29s from high altitude bombing to low altitude bombing, using fire bombs instead of explosive bombs. And in the first attack on Tokyo – I was there that night in March ’45 – I think about 80,000 civilians were killed. And that was the first of 66 attacks, – obviously not 80, 90 or a 100 thousand civilians killed each time, but very, very large numbers were.
As a matter of fact what could raise a very important question is whether it was militarily necessary to use the nuclear bombs to prevent the necessity of US land invasion of Japan’s major islands, in view of the fact that so much of Japan had already been destroyed by the fire bomb raids.
How big is the nuclear danger, today?
MCNAMARA: Today, the United States deploys approximately 4,500 strategic, offensive nuclear warheads. Russia has roughly 3,800. The strategic forces of Britain, France, and China are considerably smaller, with 200 to 400 nuclear weapons in each State’s arsenal. The new nuclear States of Pakistan and India have fewer than 100 weapons each. North Korea now claims to have developed nuclear weapons, and U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Pyongyang has enough fissile material for 2–8 bombs.
How destructive are these weapons? The “average” U.S. warhead has a destructive power up to 20 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Of the 8,000 active or operational U.S. warheads, 2,000 are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched on 15 minutes’ warning. How are these weapons to be used? The United States has never endorsed the policy of “no first use,” not during my seven years as Secretary or since. We have been, and remain, prepared to initiate the use of nuclear weapons—on the decision of one person, the President—against either a nuclear or non-nuclear enemy whenever we believe it is in our interest to do so. For decades, U.S. nuclear forces have been sufficiently strong to absorb a first strike and then inflict “unacceptable” damage on an opponent. This has been and (as long as we face a nuclear-armed, potential adversary) must continue to be the foundation of our nuclear deterrent.
What is shocking is that today, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the basic U.S. nuclear policy is unchanged. It has not adapted to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plans and procedures have not been revised to make the United States or other countries less likely to push the button. At a minimum, we should remove all strategic nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger” alert, as others have recommended, including Gen. George Lee Butler, the last commander of the Strategic Air Command. That simple change would greatly reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear launch. It would also signal to other States that the United States is taking steps to end its reliance on nuclear weapons.
The American Ambassador Llewellin E. Thompson and the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, Moscow, 1 July 1968

The American Ambassador Llewellin E. Thompson and the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, Moscow, 1 July 1968

During the Cold War there has been a sort of “theological anticommunism” and some people, not only in the U.S. administration, were eager to use the nuclear leverage to solve international disputes. You wrote recently about the possibility of an “Apocalypse soon”. Did you mean that perhaps religion has got something to do with politics on this subject?
McNAMARA: I didn’t use the term ‘apocalypse’ because it has a certain religious connotation. I don’t like this kind of religious misinterpretation. I used it because of a rather common usage applying to terrible events.
There is a great danger today of inadvertent or accidental use of nuclear weapons and this would be an apocalyptic event in my terms, without any religious connotations.
By the way, there are however, I think, religious factors that should be considered here. The Catholic bishops of the US, you are probably aware of this, published a report, I don’t remember exactly, in the late 1980s. It was a report whose preparation was directed by Brian Hare, a Catholic priest from Massachusetts, still alive, and it’s the best statement by civilians that I’ve ever read on the moral and human problems associated with nuclear forces, and the report states that for the first time since Genesis the human race has the capability of destroying itself. We must avoid that and I strongly agree that that’s where we should begin thinking about, talking about, proliferation; it’s absolutely contrary to all moral principles.
You wrote that you never saw “a piece of paper that outlined a plan, for the U.S. or NATO, to initiate a nuclear war with any benefit for the U.S. or NATO”. Is this today a message to whoever sponsors a “limited use” of nuclear weapons, against the so called ‘Rogue States’, for example?
MCNAMARA: What I mean to say there is that there is no military utility for nuclear weapons today by any nation other than to deter one’s opponents from their use, and if one’s opponent does not have nuclear weapons there’s no military utility whatsoever. That’s the first point; the second point is that even if one’s opponent has nuclear weapons, there’s no possible justification for initiating their use against a nuclear State; it would be suicidal. And there’s no possible justification for using them against a non-nuclear State, it would be morally reprehensible and politically indefensible. So the nuclear powers have to think through their justification for their nuclear weapons completely. If they were to do so, I think they would arrive at the same conclusion as I have, that we should eliminate, or nearly eliminate, all nuclear weapons. That’s the bottom line of my decision.
I repeat: to launch weapons against a nuclear-equipped opponent would be suicidal. To do so against a non-nuclear enemy would be militarily unnecessary, morally repugnant, and politically indefensible.
I reached these conclusions very soon after becoming Secretary of Defense. Although I believe Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson shared my view, it was impossible for any of us to make such statements publicly because they were totally contrary to established NATO policy.
After my retirement from public service I decided to go public with some information that I knew would be controversial, but that I felt was needed to inject reality into these increasingly unreal discussions about the military utility of nuclear weapons. In articles and speeches, I criticized the fundamentally flawed assumption that nuclear weapons could be used in some limited way. There is no way to effectively contain a nuclear strike—to keep it from inflicting enormous destruction on civilian life and property, and there is no guarantee against unlimited escalation once the first nuclear strike occurs.
According to the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review the U.S. government is authorized to do more research, more nuclear experiments, to make more warheads. Does this mean the beginning of a new American nuclear proliferation?
McNAMARA: This is absolutely correct, and the Posture Review in my opinion is absolutely wrong in its conclusions and judgments.
It promotes the possibility of a spread of nuclear weapons, more deployable, more simple to use.
McNAMARA: I think they proposed at least two new nuclear weapons, one a deep penetrating weapon and the other a new tactical nuclear weapon. I think that would be a wrong judgment, wrong to go ahead with it, and I’m very hopeful that Congress will not authorize it.
Is it correct to say that one of the results of Sept. 11th has also been this Review of the U.S. Nuclear Posture? Is there a link?
McNAMARA: There’s no link at all, no reality to this whatsoever … The attacks on September 11 don’t affect judgments about “whether” the United States needs nuclear weapons at all. As a matter of fact, I think one can take the reverse position, that the attacks of September 11 in a sense established a new potential terrorist opponent, and one of the weapons that terrorists would wish to use are nuclear weapons or the fissile material, and we ought therefore to be doing everything we can to constrain the further development of nuclear weapons and fissile materials. We’re not doing nearly enough to stop it.
You wrote that Castro taught the US a lesson…
McNAMARA: The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that the United States and the Soviet Union—and indeed the rest of the world—came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear disaster in October 1962.
At the height of the crisis, Soviet forces in Cuba possessed 162 nuclear warheads, including at least 90 tactical warheads. The lesson, if it had not been clear before, was made so at a conference on the crisis held in Havana in 1992, when we first began to learn from former Soviet officials about their preparations for nuclear war in the event of a U.S. invasion. Near the end of that meeting, I asked Castro whether he would have recommended that Khrushchev use the weapons in the face of a U.S. invasion, and if so, how he thought the United States would respond. “We started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt,” Castro replied. “We were certain of that…. [We] would be forced to pay the price that we would disappear.” He continued, “Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons.” And he added, “If Mr. McNamara or Mr. Kennedy had been in our place, and had their country been invaded, or their country was going to be occupied … I believe they would have used tactical nuclear weapons.”
If the United States continues its current nuclear stance, over time, substantial proliferation of nuclear weapons will almost certainly follow. Some, or all, of such nations as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Taiwan will very likely initiate nuclear weapons programs
Having this in mind, what are your feelings today?
McNAMARA: I hope that President Kennedy and I would not have behaved as Castro suggested we would have. His decision would have destroyed his country. Had we responded in a similar way the damage to the United States would have been unthinkable. But human beings are fallible. In conventional war, mistakes cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. However, if mistakes were to affect decisions relating to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no “learning curve” and entire nations would be destroyed.
And Castro’s lesson?
McNAMARA: There is no way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, other than to first eliminate the hair-trigger alert policy and later to eliminate or nearly eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States should move immediately to institute these actions, in cooperation with Russia.
The last annual Report of the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of last July deals with the Iranian and the North Korean position on uranium enrichment, condemning Pyongyang, but giving a more temperered assessment about the behavior of Teheran…
McNAMARA: I think both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are very, very dangerous. But we don’t have any military solution. For the US to attack North Korea would be disastrous because North Koreans could wipe out Seoul and large numbers of US troops there, and similarly for the US to attack Iran today under these circumstances, – we don’t have enough troops in Iraq, – is absurd. So we must depend on diplomacy to resolve those two situations and that diplomacy so far has been relatively ineffective. But diplomacy must address the problems which have led North Korea and Iran to move toward the development of nuclear weapons and one of those problems is their fear that the US will move toward regime change. They heard President Bush link Iraq, North Korea and Iran together as “evil”, as missions of an evil axis, and they saw the US undertake regime change in Iraq. I’m sure that there are some in North Korea and Iran that fear regime change there, so we must engage in bi-lateral negotiations to remove this fear.
If the United States continues its current nuclear stance, over time, substantial proliferation of nuclear weapons will almost certainly follow. Some, or all, of such nations as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Taiwan will very likely initiate nuclear weapons programs, increasing both the risk of the use of the weapons and the diversion of weapons and fissile materials into the hands of rogue states or terrorists.
Neither the Bush administration, the Congress, the American people, nor the people of other nations have debated the merits of alternative, long-range nuclear weapons policies for their countries or the world. Such debates are long overdue. If they are held, I believe they will conclude, as I and an increasing number of senior military leaders, politicians, and civilian security experts have: we must move promptly toward the elimination—or near elimination—of all nuclear weapons. For many, there is a strong temptation to cling to the strategies of the past 40 years. But to do so would be a serious mistake leading to unacceptable risks for all nations.
You were president of the World Bank for thirteen years, you had the possibility of seeing close up what poverty means, and who the poor are. What effect did this experience have on you, who were so involved in immense military spending? Were you aware that there was a contradiction?
McNAMARA: I believe that I was able to deal with both things…

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