Brian Johnstone.

The situation regarding nuclear weapons is much more dangerous than it was a few years ago.

Russia is at present engaged in a massive rebuilding program of nuclear weapons. The US military has upgraded and refurbished nearly all its existing strategic and tactical delivery systems and the warheads they carry.

At the same time, many are calling for abolition of nuclear weapons.

William J Perry has written one the most lucid and best informed books available on the dangers of nuclear war, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford University Press 2015).

Perry witnessed the devastation wrought by bombing raids on Tokyo at the end of the Second World War. That destruction had been brought about by thousands of bombers in hundreds of raids. But comparable devastation had been produced in Hiroshima, and then on Nagasaki, by just one bomb. Perry quotes Einstein, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking”. The most important task facing humanity today is to change our mode of thinking. Perry would seem to have changed his own way of thinking over the years as his range of experience broadened.

The balance of terror

In the early years of his involvement in this issue, Perry devoted his efforts to obtaining technical information. The crucial issue at this time was that there was no available structure whereby enlightened minds could engage in planning to reverse the growing capacity for overkill. Those who had the capacity to engage with the issue had only “the grim pragmatism of the doctrine of MAD (mutual assured destruction)”. This, as described by Perry, was shared terror. To work, this presupposed that those in power on both sides were always rational and well informed. They were not. It also required “indefinite good luck.”

At this period, Perry saw the immediate solution as a technical one; improved information had to be acquired; what was needed was “a revolution in reconnaissance technology”. But, while this was achieved, all that was accomplished was shoring up mutual assured destruction by making war too terrifying to contemplate. Enlightened reason, if it was engaged at all, could operate only within the boundaries set by irrational passion.

The stark reality was that decision-makers were required not only to have extraordinarily accurate information, they also had to grasp that information and reach decisions in minutes. Their decisions would affect the whole planet.

Perry in the Cuban missile crisis

Perry was summoned to Washington for consultation at the onset of the Cuba missile crisis in 1962. He recalls that he went every day to the analysis centre, thinking that this would be his last day on earth. After the experience of the intense discussions during the Cuban missile crisis, he concludes that “we may have avoided a disaster through considerable luck”.

Perry’s thinking at this stage would seem to be cast in terms of technical reason. Since rational decisions cannot be made under such time restrictions, the task is to extend the available time. This mode of reasoning is still evident in his final statement of purpose. This provides an illustration of the kind of step-by-step approach favoured by Perry and the co-members of his project. As an example, Perry writes, “It is time for the United States to make clear the goal of removing all nuclear weapons everywhere from the prompt-launch statutes in which nuclear-armed missiles are ready to be launched in minutes”.

The factors that prevent a change of thinking may be illustrated by Perry’s account of an historic summit meeting between US president Ronald Reagan and general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik Iceland on 11-13 October 1986. It is astounding to read that these leaders discussed dismantling all their nuclear weapons. Both leaders genuinely wanted to reach agreement. But they were unable to do so.

The obstacle, on the face of it, was a technical issue. Gorbachev wanted a provision in the agreement that the Americans would limit the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) program to the laboratory.

It is sobering to reflect that Reagan’s unwillingness to limit the SDI program seems to have been the main reason the agreement on abandoning nuclear weapons was not reached. Yet, ultimately, the SDI program was abandoned, because it was impractical and would cost too much money. Economic reason ultimately prevailed.

Perry’s “Nuclear Security Project”

In 1994, Perry was appointed Secretary of Defence by President Clinton. This office required him to engage in the politics of nuclear arms control. His thinking developed further. In 2007, together with George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger, he formed the Nuclear Security Project. The aim of the Project is “to call the world’s attention to the great dangers posed by nuclear weapons, call for increased urgency in taking steps to reduce those dangers, and advocate that we begin moving towards a world without nuclear weapons”.

While the members of the Nuclear Security Project agree with the end-goals of the abolition of nuclear weapons, they differ from others regarding the means. They do not support the endeavour to achieve a treaty banning nuclear weapons. They advocate a step-by-step process.

ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) is working to achieve a world treaty banning nuclear weapons. ICAN is active in Australia. This movement has had some success. On 27 October 2016, the United States adopted a landmark resolution on a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons.

The Australian representative attempted to derail the process, claiming that such a treaty might undermine the step-by-step process towards disarmament. However, according to the Guardian, documents reveal that the real reason was the Australian government’s belief that it needs the US deterrent. It is not really concerned about an effective step-by-step process towards abolition; it wants the US to keep nuclear weapons. The Australian people need to become engaged in this debate: their own survival is at stake.


Brian Johnstone is a Redemptorist priest who has been Professor of Moral Theology at the Alfonsianum Moral Academy in Rome and at Catholic University in Washington. He is currently working and lecturing in Australia and New Zealand.

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