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“The Nuclear Enterprise Is on Autopilot”: A Conversation With Nuclear Expert William Hartung

CounterSpin interviews William Hartung on nuclear overkill.

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Janine Jackson interviewed William Hartung about nuclear overkill for the November 17, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: We have this idea that things should make sense. But we have homeless people and empty buildings, we have unemployed people and work that needs doing — and we have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet, and are building more. The thing is, these things do make sense — just not in a way we would hope for, or the way we are often told. When it comes to nuclear weapons, our next guest explains, all the talk you hear about strategic considerations driving proliferation — how do we look tough with North Korea, and so on — is in a sense a distraction from what’s really going on. If you really want to know why the US keeps churning out nuclear warheads, follow the money.

William Hartung has been doing just that for years now. He’s director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, author most recently of Profits of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military/Industrial Complex, and a contributor to the book Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation, which is just out now from New Press. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, William Hartung.

William Hartung: Thanks so much for having me.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the authority and process for the use of nuclear weapons. One senator said constituents are asking him at townhalls if Trump can just order a nuclear attack without any controls, and, obviously, that’s because they’re worried that he might. As you write, “A tough guy attitude on nuclear weapons, when combined with an apparent ignorance about their world-ending potential, adds up to a toxic brew.” No argument there. Let’s start by just talking about the current state of the arsenal that we’re being told needs to be “modernized” and expanded. We have, what, some 4,000 nuclear weapons?

Yes, in the active stockpile. So any of those could be deployed at any time. There’s a little under 2,000 ready to go now, in ballistic missiles and in submarines, on bombers. And that’s far more than would be needed to destroy North Korea — that would be a handful of weapons — pretty much disable and destroy any country in the world. And if there were a large exchange, probably end the prospects of life on the planet over the medium term. So there’s massive nuclear overkill and, you know, some experts — those who believe in nuclear deterrence, as opposed to getting rid of nuclear weapons — say about 300 would be enough to dissuade any country from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons. So you’ve got huge excess. Some of it is leftover ideology from the Cold War but, as I said, most of it is power and profits.

Let’s get into that, because, despite the arsenal you’ve just described, we are looking at a “modernization plan” to the tune of some $1.7 trillion. I’ll ask it simply: Why is that the case?

Well, I think the nuclear enterprise is on autopilot. They always build a new generation, and the companies always need a new contract. The Pentagon cooked this up under Obama, so it’s not, unlike many other things, a Trump invention. But General Dynamics wants to make new nuclear submarines; companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin want to make new nuclear bombers; the ballistic missile force, which is based in Wyoming, North Dakota, some in Nebraska, etc.; the senators from those states are very keen on a new generation of ballistic missiles, because they’re afraid they might get dropped from the arsenal if they’re not brand new and shiny. So there’s a lot of pork barrel politics involved, and also just kind of, bureaucracies want to be fed, and they want to be fed dollars, both in the Pentagon and the services, and of course the companies.

I think it was from you that I learned about the strategy, if you will, of breaking up the production process of a particular weapon, so that you’ll have many states and their representatives invested in it.

Exactly. And the nuclear complex is very much that way. You’ve got weapons labs in California and New Mexico; you’ve got a uranium facility in Tennessee; you’ve got submarines based in Washington state and Georgia; you’ve got those ballistic missiles in the northern Midwest, as I mentioned; Connecticut’s building nuclear-capable submarines; and on and on. So if you put together the senators and representatives from those states as kind of a solid bloc — I’ll support your nuke if you support mine — you’ve already got a huge group in Congress pushing for this stuff.

And when Chuck Hagel, for example, was being confirmed as secretary of Defense, he had signed on as an advisor to a project by the group Global Zero that said we could get by with as few as 900 nuclear weapons, not the 4,000, and also perhaps we didn’t need ballistic missiles. And he was pilloried by members from states that have the missiles, or the command and control for the missiles, and so forth, to the point where he basically backed off and said, well, that was just one idea, you know, that was a study, it doesn’t mean it’s something we’re going to do. So Congress is a big part of the problem.

I’d like to do a little bit of history, as you do in this piece for TomDispatch, because it seems as though we used to see this in a more clear-eyed way. I mean, Eisenhower pretty much called it, right, with the military/industrial complex?

Yes. And he was most concerned about things like the push for a new nuclear bomber by the contractors and the Air Force. Some generals who — you know, he was the commander in chief, after all — were talking out of school about needing this, even if he thought we didn’t. He basically called the push for the bomber, and the false claims about a missile gap that were used to fuel a missile buildup, political demagoguery, and he said that, basically, there was undue influence on senators like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, by the industry to get them to adopt these positions.

So he was right on target way back then. And I think he would be horrified to see the shape of the nuclear/industrial complex now, the size of the companies like Lockheed Martin, which gets $30 to $40 billion a year, in a good year — for them, not a good year for the taxpayers. So there were no companies of that size in Eisenhower’s day, and they have that much more influence, because of their spread across the country, their campaign contributions, their lobbyists and so forth.

Well, I was just going to go there, because the mechanics, the techniques, you say, haven’t really changed fundamentally, and that is: campaign contributions and lobbying. And it’s not partisan, it’s bipartisan.

Exactly. So, for example, the entire weapons industry has, in any given year, 700 to a thousand registered lobbyists, almost two for every member of Congress in some years, and that’s not counting board members and people who consult and other people who try to influence the process, but aren’t technically lobbyists. They give tens of millions of dollars in contributions. They also fund think tanks, like the Center for Security Policy, the Lexington Institute, the Democratic-leaning Center for New American Security. In many cases, those think tanks advocate positions that the logical conclusion is, we need more Pentagon spending. So they’re almost like, in some cases, mouthpieces for the industry, but very useful, because the industry doesn’t have to lobby for it themselves; it’s being done under the alleged aura of objectivity, which of course doesn’t exist when you’re on the payroll of the arms industry.

And media, of course, play a role here, in a general failure to indicate which think tanks are tied to where, so that they do abet this process of presenting them as independent entities that just happen to have a point of view that dovetails with that of weapons makers.

Yeah. We need truth in labeling, basically.

Yes, exactly. And another thing that media can play a role in is credulous, shall we say, reporting of another angle of approach, which is that weapons are about jobs.

Yes. Well, the thing is, Pentagon spending is the least effective way to create jobs. Economists at the University of Massachusetts have done very good work on this, and they’ve figured out infrastructure spending is about one-and-a-half times as many jobs as Pentagon spending, and education spending more than twice as many. So it’s really about serving particular areas and members. You know, if you have a fighter plane built in St. Louis, the Missouri delegation is going to push for that, and if you have a nuclear-capable submarine in Connecticut, that delegation is going to push for it, and those, as you said, are both Democrats and Republicans. So it’s not that we couldn’t create jobs differently; it’s that there’s a political logjam in Washington against investing in other things.

Let me just ask you, finally, you remind us that grassroots activism in Europe and in the US, the freeze movement, that was what played a role in helping turn around Ronald Reagan’s view on nuclear weapons. Is that what we need now?

Absolutely. And I think, globally, there’s been some hope. The UN has passed a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, which many people thought would not be possible, and the majority of the world’s countries are behind that. Of course, the big players are not, but I think this puts them on the moral defensive and political defensive, such that if we can build the movement here, we might make some progress.

And, of course, all bets are off about what Donald Trump himself might do, but I think there’s already building support in Congress for a new policy, including not letting the president be the sole person to decide if we launch a nuclear war.

We’ve been speaking with William Hartung. His article, “Massive Overkill Brought to You by the Nuclear Industrial Complex,” can be found on, and the new book Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation is out from New Press. William Hartung, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you.

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