Gen. Lee Butler to Nuclear Abolition Movement: “Don’t Give Up“

Protesters against nuclear weapons march during a protest in May, 2010.Protesters against nuclear weapons march during a protest in May, 2010. (Photo: Lucas Wirl/Flickr)

Also see Part I: Ex-Chief of Nuclear Forces Still Dismayed by Deterrence Theory, Missiles on Hair-Trigger Alert

Part II:

When Lee Butler looks back at his anti-nuclear efforts of the mid- to late-’90s, he views himself as a “reluctant activist.” The former commander in chief of U.S. strategic nuclear forces never felt comfortable fully allying himself with longstanding organizations that had waged the fight for nuclear abolition for many years already. To do so, he feared, would tarnish his reputation with elite decision-makers—government officials and military leaders. He felt his particular value to the cause of disarmament was as an expert who’d have access to the corridors of power in many countries, not as a radical peacenik. So Butler’s relationship with abolition groups was never uncomplicated, though he consistently lauded them for their patience and dedication.

Butler discussed his views on how anti-nuclear organizations today can survive and exert influence in a world that often appears apathetic.

KAZEL: Do you think anti-nuclear groups can still achieve abolition?

BUTLER: If you are an optimist, with respect to the future of mankind, you have to believe that more opportunities will come, like Sisyphus moving that ball up the hill. Sometime, you’re going to get to the top and it’s going to roll down the other side, and the era of nuclear weapons will be over.

If you wanted me to pick a date for that, I would say a possible prospect, and a happy one, would be July of 2045—the 100th anniversary of the first test of an atom bomb in the deserts of New Mexico.

KAZEL: Because that date could become a goal for people?

BUTLER: It’s possible. It has significance. It’ll be a hundred years in the Atomic Age. It’s far enough out, that enough things could happen serendipitously to make that possible.

KAZEL: Total nuclear disarmament by all nations by then?

BUTLER: Yes. What that requires, however, is for people to continue to stay focused, work very hard at it, keep advising sensible and acceptable alternatives that can be embraced by increasing numbers of people as opportunities present themselves—and they will.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Global Zero, Bruce Blair’s organization, are vital, because they have to continue public education and awareness.

KAZEL: Can nuclear-abolition activists influence the views of military and political leaders today?

BUTLER: Your principal purpose is to understand who is your target audience. Political and military leaders are not your target audience. Their minds are made up, and they are not going to be changed. Your target audience is publics. I mean worldwide.

[Among the public] there is one group that is simply not interested in the subject, and will not be. There’s a second group that is already interested and committed, and you would be wasting your time preaching to the choir. It’s a third group, the unaware, who have simply never thought about these matters. It’s just never gotten on their radar screen. That’s the vast majority of the people in the world. The challenge for [anti-nuclear groups] is to frame a message that captures their attention and gets them to think.

I’ve talked to audiences ranging from sixth graders to corporate titans. I know what captures their attention immediately: the dimensions, the anecdotes, the histories drawn from the whole Cold War that get the response, “That’s utterly dismaying.” The $6 trillion that was spent on nuclear weapons alone in the Cold War. The number of warheads that were fabricated. You can count on very few fingers and toes the number of people in the world who actually understand how extraordinarily dangerous these weapons are, and how we lived on the brink of nuclear warfare in the Cold War years.

KAZEL: What would you tell nuclear abolition proponents of today, who might be discouraged?

BUTLER: You have to cling to the belief of what I call the “small weights in the pan” theory of opinion change. The scales of the blindfolded [Lady] Justice, right? It is still possible to imagine that those scales are now profoundly tipped on the side of nuclear deterrence. But I don’t see that as one enormous block, I see it a mountain of many small blocks of individual opinions. You just want to move those weights, one at a time, from one pan to the other. At some juncture, you reach a tipping point and opinion begins to shift more in favor of elimination.

That’s a long, hard process, but it has happened time and again throughout history. I’ve seen enormous changes in public morality, in societal values, happen in my lifetime. People just need to understand it’s hard.

These groups need to work in concert to develop a global strategic plan, if they’re going to maximize their resources. They need to be in league with one another.

KAZEL: You depict any use of nuclear weapons as a grave violation of morality. How can religious leaders help the cause of abolition?

BUTLER: What can be done, should be done, must be done is for a collective of organizations, like the World Council of Churches, to take their message to their flocks on a worldwide basis: a very bold statement with regard to the moral imperative [of abolition]. And these churchmen are long overdue, in my estimation.

This message needs to be sent from every pulpit, and it needs to be done in a coordinated and concerted waya very strategic way. It’s not something you talk about every Sunday: “Today, let’s talk about tactical nuclear weapons.” No. It needs to be done once, and it needs to be done according to a very scripted message.

KAZEL: Where would religious leaders get the script?

BUTLER: I’d be happy to write it for them. Read my book. [Laughs]. Read my speeches. I’ve said it hundreds of times.

KAZEL: Lawrence S. Wittner, a retired professor who has written on antiwar movements, says nuclear abolition groups can be stronger if they reach out to partner with other kinds of organizationsmedical, scientific, environmental, religious, anti-poverty, labor, professional. Do you agree?

BUTLER: It’s right on point. The IPPNW, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, is a very respected group with global reach who’ve done some groundbreaking work with regard to consequences of regional nuclear warfare and a case study on India and Pakistan. Get professional groups involved.

The climate change movement. You talk about climate change: It’s hard to imagine anything other than volcanoes that would pose a greater risk right now [than a nuclear exchange]. I would consider it a great misstep if [global warming activists] did not make some public statement about the climatological risks of nuclear weapons and be on record about their elimination. I mean, it’s right in their ballpark.

KAZEL: Can activists get the attention of the public these days? You write in your upcoming book that average people seem uninterested in, even largely unaware of, nuclear weapons—that they’re totally distracted by trivial news and the demands of consumerism.

BUTLER: People are self-absorbed. Social media has fueled the fires of worrying about what other people think, what they wear, what they eat, or what they’re doing at the moment. It is a ceaseless round of chatter—often inane things that have virtually no consequence. The lead singer leaves the boy band One Direction, and it becomes a worldwide tragedy. How do you generate that level of concern for nuclear weapons?

I’ve got six grandchildren that I can measure this against, and I watch how they spend their time: what they worry about, the subjects they discuss. [Laughs]. Wow. People can’t focus even on inane subjects for long. To me, the challenge has never been greater. How do you penetrate the cacophony of noise that surrounds everyday life?

KAZEL: Surveys say a pretty sizable portion of adults, especially younger adults, don’t even know the U.S. still has nuclear weapons.

BUTLER: They assume they all went away because the Cold War ended.

KAZEL: Do you see any positive side to technologies such as online social media?

BUTLER: We can see more and more on these global social networks people will respond with great compassion. The outpouring of monies to alleviate the suffering from hurricanes or tsunamis—that speaks volumes that there is a global well of empathy. For all of the social media that consumes us, some of the stories are very heart-touching with respect to how people respond so generously, often in the case of people they don’t know. That’s what ultimately is going to save us, not just from nuclear war but from wars of all kinds.

The world is, in fact, becoming much flatter. We’re connected in ways that were unimaginable just 10 years ago. Events are known worldwide in an instant, where people have developed a common set of emotional responses to tragic events.

Empathy to an important degree requires personal knowledge. It’s easier for us to empathize with people we know, who are suffering greatly, than complete strangers. When people reach the degree of personal interconnectedness where they say, “I know who they are; I’m not going to do [violence] to them”—I see great evidence of the possibilities.

There’s every chance that the bar of civilized behavior will be ratcheted upward. As it moves, I think there will be a greater focus on anomalies such as nuclear weapons, which threaten wholesale destruction.

Part III: Strategic Thought: Lee Butler on Nuclear Policies, Past and Present

On why nations amass nuclear arsenals:

It’s almost a testosterone-driven calculation: “At what point am I still the biggest guy on the block?” One of the terrible things that happened in the Nuclear Age was the possession of nuclear weapons became a validation of national manhood. That sent a terrible message. It makes you “count” more amongst your national brethren.

You can marshal all the arguments in the world with respect to effects on the climate, number of people killed [due to ecological damage], etc. But none of that is going to make a dent in the fact that nations like India and Pakistan view their nuclear arsenals as measures of their manhood, pure and simple. That’s what, in their eyes, gave them international stature. That’s what, in their eyes, commanded respect. Quite frankly, they don’t [care] about the consequences of these weapons. The most insidious part is, given the fact that they live side-by-side and they have no warning time, they are almost driven to a posture of pre-emptive strike. And the targets for their relatively imprecise weapons are cities. The worst possible situation.

Maybe someday there will be leaders of those two nations who say, “What in the world have we done?” I said to India’s nuclear-weapons community in Bangalore, “The first thing that happened when you became a nuclear-capable state is that you became a nuclear target. How did that increase your security?” I didn’t get an answer for that.

On Barack Obama:

President Obama himself is quite extraordinary [as a proponent of nuclear abolition]. He was studying these questions as a college student. He came to the conclusion, a very long time ago, as to precisely what we’ve been talking about—that nuclear weapons, as a practical matter, are an unacceptable form of warfare. So he was predisposed to make further reductions, which he’s done. New START was quite an achievement. I think that’s as much as could have been done at that point, given that he’s not a unilateral actor.

On U.S.-China relations:

Does the fact that China is a nuclear-weapons-capable nation pose a threat to the vital interests of the United States? Only if we regard them as an enemy. Britain has nuclear weapons. France has nuclear weapons. Do we view them as threats? No. We have a long history of amicable relations. So, no, I don’t view China as a threat to our survival. Is there any element of our relationship that could conceivably lead to some sort of nuclear exchange?

A lot of people would disagree. They’d say, look what they’re doing—they’re modernizing their military forces. Look what they’re doing in the fishing grounds of the South China Sea and elsewhere. As a very long stretch, there’s the question of Taiwan. It’s always been the thorn in the side [of our relationship]. But I think any nation in this world today is far more constrained in their actions than they were a half century ago, when might always could make right and if you wanted to go seize something, you just went and did it. Today I think that for whatever quarrels we might have with China, there’s a far greater likelihood that they can be settled in other courts of arbitration than to imagine we might somehow end up in nuclear war.

I would [want to] know exactly what their nuclear capabilities were, what kind of forces they have, where they were based. But that’s a different matter from considering them an enemy.

On U.S. “missile defense” technologies:

I watched the convoluted history of “Star Wars” evolve from the very beginning, when President Reagan became enamored with Edward Teller’s brainchild. Here we were, embarked on an enterprise that was entirely open-ended in terms of cost and aspiration, and for which I had the unfortunate task of developing some sort of military objective that made sense. It became very apparent that this was nothing more than the quintessential, cosmic, technological hot biscuit popping out of the oven that captured the fancy of the leader of the free world. And all of a sudden, we’re off and running with really no clear path, and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. I came to the conclusion that it was a pipedream from the very beginning. There was no way we could ever erect a leak-proof antiballistic missile system for the United States.

It also was counterproductive from the standpoint of what it said to our allies: “Well, we’re OK, so good luck.” If we were really serious about protecting the coalition nations that subscribed to us as their protector, we would have imagined this on a global scale. [Yet] it was hard enough to do it on a national scale, and it ultimately proved undoable. But in the process, we alienated Russia once more, at a time when more than anything else we needed to be cultivating relations at the end of the Cold War.

We just sort of continually jabbed our finger in their eye, and at the end of the day it cost us the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty and the expenditure of a lot more money. I guess what we have to show for that is a very limited capability against a very small-scale, prospective missile attack from a North Korea, for example. It gives a measure of comfort to think, I guess: Kim Jong-un might just wake up one day and decide to kick one off to Hawaii or wherever he’ll be able to reach—maybe the shores of some outer Alaskan island? And that we might have some prospect of shooting it down? I view that as highly unlikely.

[Russian leaders] see it as a threat. Their principle force is their land-based missile force. It always has been. For us to proceed with a system that…appeared to threaten them, from their viewpoint was one more thing that said we’re not serious about having a good relationship.

On missteps by the U.S. after the Cold War:

The first thing I would have done would have been to begin standing down NATO—wean European nations off of U.S. largesse and have them begin to take responsibility for their own national security. The Warsaw Pact dissolved. The failure to dismantle the alliances of the Cold War was a huge mistake. I smile when I hear people today say, “Well, thank God we’ve got NATO, because we’ve got Putin.” I think we got Putin because we didn’t dismantle NATO, along with the whole attitude that we adopted with regard to Russia: kind of “kick ‘em while they’re down.”

There may be a so-called “fog of war,” but there’s a fog of peace, as well, where you still can’t see with any clarity exactly who you’re dealing with, and the belief systems that have built up on both sides, and how impenetrable the mythology has become. [Our post-Cold War posture toward Russia] was an enormous strategic blunder. We’re still paying the price for it.

I expect more of our senior leaders. I expect them to see the larger picture, and play for the longer game. The longer game was establishing sound, cordial relationships with Russia to shepherd them into the realm of democratic government. Instead, the whole thing just went off the rails. In the process, arms control got lost. I was just horrified by all that, and really dismayed. The loss of momentum in nuclear arms control was the greatest price. You only have a short period of time to capitalize on those kinds of opportunities. The door closes.