Q: General Lee Butler, the former commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, retired his post in 1996, calling for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. I interviewed him at the time, and he emphasized his concern about the fragility of the world’s nuclear first alert systems, and especially with Russia. At that time he called for total abolition of nuclear weapons, yet now years later promotes a responsible global reduction of nuclear dangers. Are you concerned about the fragility of the first alert systems?
Chomsky: Yes, he also pointed out that the 1960 U.S. nuclear war plan, called the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), was the most outrageous document in human history, except perhaps for the Russian counterpart, which we knew nothing about. This U.S. nuclear war plan, if our first alert system had alerted a Soviet strike, would have delivered 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in the Soviet Union, China, and allied countries in Asia and Europe. Even with the end of the Cold War, because of the ongoing superpower nuclear arms race, Gen. Butler bitterly renounced the current nuclear programs/systems as a death warrant for the species.
Q: In his address at the National Press Club in February, 1998, Gen. Butler referred to “the grotesquely destructive war plans and daily operational risks”of our current nuclear systems, and emphasized “a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons is necessarily a world devoid of nuclear weapons.”He also referred to the “mind-numbing compression of decision-making under the threat of a nuclear attack.”Do you think these concerns are still valid today?
Chomsky: Yes, General Lee Butler recanted his whole career, and gave elegant speeches about the numbers of nuclear missiles devoted to nuclear deterrence being an abomination. Yes, the current nuclear dangers still remain quite high.
Q: During the Bush administration, in August of 2007, there was the unauthorized movement of nuclear bombs from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Six AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACMs), each loaded with W80-1 nuclear warheads, were moved and left unprotected for 36 hours, violating the strict checks and balances of nuclear weapons storage. Investigations later concluded that the nuclear weapons handling standards and procedures had not been followed. Are these the kind of dangers you are referring to?
Chomsky: How dangerous the first alert system is remains only a tiny portion of the overall dangers. To understand more of the dangers of nuclear weapons, definitely read journalist Eric Schlosser’s book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.”(Eric Schlosser is National Security Correspondent for The Nation Magazine.) In his book, there are many details of near-accidents that have happened, and that could have been catastrophic. The possibilities of close calls due to human error were probably even worse on the Russian side. There have been many times we have been extremely near to having a nuclear war.
The U.S. has an automated response system with data coming in about possible missile attacks. However, it is still left to civilians to make the major decision to destroy the world, and usually with just a few minutes to make that decision. To launch a nuclear war is essentially in the hands of the president. We can’t survive something like that, and especially with so many other nuclear powers worldwide. With India and Pakistan, the same tensions can easily blow up in that region.
We also have to address these issues of unauthorized movement of nuclear bombs, and also the reality of simple human error. The record is hair-raising. There are very high standards worldwide that can’t be met, or aren’t being met, and there is too much room for human error. There have also been many circumstances where the authorization to launch missiles have been delegated to lower-level commanders. Even though there is a two-person requirement, if one does lose control and wants to destroy the world, then the fate of the world is the hands of the other person.
Q: The Obama administration is calling for a reduction of troops across the board (Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.), and emphasizes that the U.S. now has so much might and strength from U.S. missile technology, that we no longer need so many troops. What do you think of this?
Chomsky: A reduction to the amount in the world today? Well, the two major wars, the Bush wars, have been winding down so a lesser amount of troops are needed now. We are also letting go of numbers of troops that we needed to fight two wars simultaneously. We have the biggest military budget in the world, and it is equal to the rest of the world’s military budget combined. War-making is now being transferred to other domains, i.e., drone warfare, etc.
In The New York Times recently, there was a debate about whether the U.S. should murder [with drones] an American in Pakistan. In the article, there is no question raised about killing of non-Americans. These citizens in other countries are all apparently fair game. For example, if anyone is holding their cell phone that day, the drone can easily kill them. But when an action like that occurs, it immediately creates more terrorists. The irony is that while fighting terrorism, we are carrying out a version of a global terrorist campaign ourselves, and are also creating additional dangers for our own country.
So we are now utilizing a new form of warfare with the use of drones. Drones are assassinating people worldwide, without these people being proven guilty first in a court of law. They are just killed by a drone. Gone. Our president decides it.
In addition, with the reduction of numbers of overall troops, it still causes an increase of Special Forces operations on the ground. So what kind of operations are they doing now? Read Jeremy Scahill’s book, “Dirty Wars.”[Jeremy Scahill is National Security Correspondent for The Nation Magazine.] He points out how all of these operations are causing the United States to be the most feared country in the world.
Recently, there was an international poll conducted by a major polling organization in which they asked, “Which country is the greatest threat to world peace?””The U.S.”was answered the most. The whole world sees us that way nowadays. Around the world, the U.S. is viewed as its own terrorist operation, and these actions create anger in other countries. It is becoming a self-generating system of terrorism itself (while fighting terrorism). Even if the U.S. reduces the number of soldiers needed for the invasion of other countries, we still continue to use drones now too. It creates a lot of anger worldwide against the U.S. when innocent citizens internationally are continually being killed, and/or no court of law is first ruling the suspected terrorists are guilty before being killed by the drones.
Q: A Russian armed intelligence-gathering vessel, the Victor Leonov SSV-175 Warship, conducted a surprise visit to Cuba on the same day Russia announced plans to expand their global military presence – establishing permanent bases in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Singapore. Amid the rising tensions with Putin over the Ukraine, do you think the U.S. could have another version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or an escalation of war in the Ukraine, especially with NATO troop movement in Eastern Europe?
Chomsky: Ukraine is one issue right now that is very sensitive. Cuba is another target of US campaigns against it. The U.S. has conducted major, official governmental campaigns against Cuba, especially financial warfare, for fifty years. The former Cuban Missile Crisis was to deter an invasion of the U.S.
The sudden presence of a Russian ship in Cuba at the beginning of the Ukraine situation was probably a symbolic move. Russia is surrounded by U.S. military bases and nuclear missiles. We have one thousand military bases around the world with nuclear missiles aimed at all our potential enemies. The country of Ukraine is split right now: Western-oriented and Russian-oriented. It’s located on the Russian border, so there are major security issues for Putin. Ukraine has the only naval base leading to water (the Black Sea) in Crimea, so from Russia’s point of view, the Ukraine situation is a security threat to them, especially with NATO moving into Eastern Europe. If the Ukraine joins the EU, then Russia will have hostile relations at their border. Ukraine has historically been part of the Russian empire, so with the demands being made right now by the U.S., and Russia’s counter-demands, and with the presence of Russian troops, the clash might even blow up to a threat of a major war, which of course, could lead to a nuclear missile confrontation.
Q: Is nuclear disarmament really possible?
Chomsky: It is very possible to take away the nuclear threats to mankind and human survival. In the case of eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide, it only takes everyone agreeing to do it. We know what can be done to eliminate the nuclear weapons threats to humankind. The U.S., like all nuclear nations, has an obligation of good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.
However, with environmental catastrophes, it is not so obvious what the world must do to avoid the accumulative dangers. But one important measure of what to do is to realize that the longer we delay stopping the use of fossil fuels, the worse the worldwide environment will be that we are leaving to our grandchildren. They just won’t be able to deal with it later. However, with nuclear weapons, we can most definitely disarm, and we have a responsibility to do this.