Terrorism "experts" worry about threats to Manhattan bridges or the Statue of Liberty, but an older and much more serious potential risk seems almost off the radar screen. Late this summer, a few newspapers carried brief stories about a B-52 that had accidentally transported Cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. This nuclear voyage represented a violation of long- standing Pentagon procedures regarding the transport of nuclear weapons, which are required to be shipped only in special planes in secure containers under special security arrangements. The story, however, has had surprisingly little shelf life.
Some anti-war activists did worry about an imminent invasion of Iran. They cited the incident as evidence of a secret Bush - or Cheney - plan to employ nuclear weaponry against Iran. Though I have little doubt that at least some key players in the Bush administration are considering such an option, I doubt that the Minot incident was any part of it. The larger story is that even nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still command civilization-threatening nuclear arsenals.
Not only do these weapons threaten all their neighbors, but their construction, maintenance and periodic deployment and redeployment pose immediate risks to their possessors. The threats that any terrorist organization could pose are exponentially enhanced by the availability of nuclear bombs, and the possibility of a large-scale nuclear exchange is a risk to the world at least on par with global climate change.
Minot was unlikely to be part of any Bush conspiracy to nuke Iran for one simple, but not very comforting, reason. Writing in a recent issue of CounterPunch, Scott Vest, a former Air Force captain at Minot, suggests that the administration would have no need to secretly redeploy weapons from Minot to Barksdale because both bases have plenty of nuclear weapons and because there are special procedures for the secret transport of nuclear weapons.
He goes on to add: "Do I think that neocon whack jobs and particularly Dick Cheney are considering the use of nuclear weapons? I do. But the facts are scarier than the conspiracy theories swirling around this B-52 incident. If a decision is made to launch nuclear strikes from U.S. bases using B-52s, it can be done without any telltale unusual movements of assets. A single B-52H can put over 6 megatons of nuclear power on target anywhere on the planet within 30 hours from the time the order is received."
Our "commander in chief" has an immense and largely secret arsenal of weapons at his disposal scattered all over the world. During the Bush administration, Russian President Vladimir Putin has upped his nation's level of strategic alert. It is often argued - even by Scott Vest in the CounterPunch piece - that the U.S. nuclear armament programs of the post-World War II period won the Cold War and thereby prevented nuclear holocaust. Yet the Soviet Union's economy eroded as much internally as it did from any outside pressures. U.S. cultural freedoms unleashed after McCarthyism and Cold War mania lost their paralyzing grip also did much to undermine social morale in the repressive Soviet state. In addition, at every stage of the Cold War, U.S. advances in nuclear programs led rather than responded to Soviet military advances, thereby escalating the stakes and risks for all and making life more difficult for dissident voices in the Soviet Union.
As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll pointed out five years ago, in some ways it is a miracle that the Cold War arms race did not lead to nuclear Armageddon. The Cuban missile crisis may have been our closest brush with tragedy, but other U.S. presidents have considered nuclear first strikes. Even Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton seeks to establish her tough image by refusing to rule out nuclear strikes.
In any case, however historians parse the Cold War, it has concluded in a truly Pyrrhic victory. That war leaves not only our former adversary its vast arsenal of planet-threatening weapons but even increases the number of midrange powers holding or desiring their own megaweapons.
Yet nuclear weapons remain low visibility for several related reasons. Our society seems to have an enemy du jour mentality, and Iraq, Iran, and Saddam, all nicely and inappropriately conflated, have served as the current focus of worry. And through that focus, the role that current technology choices, in which our elites have considerable financial and even emotional stakes, play is blunted. The triumphal Cold War narrative is sustained. That narrative in turn adds to a powerful nostalgia for an older, heroic era, purportedly dominated by a beneficent U.S. Today, however, the heroic politics we need at all levels is open- ended collaboration across borders about ways to outlaw and police the elimination of these weapons.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Bangor Daily News