Most Americans are too young to remember the fear and dread of an atom bomb or nuclear crisis.
March 23, 2021 6:18 pm ET
(Editor’s note: This article is signed by William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. )
For the past 15 years, the three of us and a distinguished group of American and international former officials and experts have been deftly and passionately led by our late friend and colleague, George Shultz. Our mission: reversing the world’s reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world. Without a bold vision, practical actions toward that goal won’t be perceived as fair or urgent. Without action, the vision won’t be perceived as realistic or possible.
George led this charge with the tenacity of a U.S. Marine and the wisdom of a man who held four cabinet positions for two presidents, including secretary of state for Ronald Reagan. Reagan considered nuclear weapons to be “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” He took that view and his most trusted advocate for it, George Shultz, to a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.
Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev weren’t able to agree at Reykjavik to get rid of all nuclear weapons. But they did succeed in turning the nuclear arms race on its head, initiating steps leading to significant reductions in deployed long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces, including the elimination of an entire class of missiles. Twenty years after Reykjavik, George and physicist Sidney Drell organized a small conference at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to discuss what it would take to bring the possibilities envisioned at Reykjavik to fruition. This effort led to a joint op-ed in the Journal in January 2007, which has been our guide ever since.
Over the several weeks before George’s death, each of us discussed with him the world’s direction on nuclear arms. We shared our concerns that progress on reversing reliance on nuclear weapons is slowing. We discussed how technology, particularly cyber risks to early warning and command-and-control systems, has introduced new dangers of blunder or mistake. We discussed the tensions and policy paralysis with both Russia and China. Characteristically, George’s approach was not to be discouraged, but instead to get back to work. In that spirit, we offer five points.
First is the need for a bold policy to walk back from these increased perils. This will require a united effort from Washington and U.S. allies on a policy that reduces nuclear danger while maintaining our values and protecting our vital interests. Congress must organize itself to play a meaningful role.
Second, for many decades, memories of a smoldering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fear generated by the Cuban missile crisis, informed and drove nuclear policy. As George told Congress three years ago, “I fear people have lost that sense of dread.” Leaders of countries with nuclear weapons must recognize their responsibility to work together to prevent catastrophe.
Third, we must take action on practical steps that will reduce the risk of nuclear use today while making the vision possible. Here, there are signs of progress. A few weeks ago, Presidents Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the New Start Treaty for five years, ensuring that U.S. and Russian nuclear forces remain limited, with verification and transparency. There is much more work to be done, including securing nuclear materials to prevent catastrophic terrorism.
Fourth, nuclear-weapon states should commit to conduct their own internal reviews of their nuclear command-and-control and early warning systems. These “fail-safe” reviews would identify steps to strengthen protections against cyber threats and unauthorized, inadvertent or accidental use of a nuclear weapon. These reviews should also include options for establishing agreements between nuclear powers precluding cyberattacks on nuclear command-and-control or early-warning assets.
Fifth, creating robust and accepted methods to maximize decision time during heightened tensions and extreme situations—especially when leaders fear they may be under threat of attack—could be a common conceptual goal that connects both immediate and longer-term steps for managing instability and building mutual security.
George spoke passionately about how his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were the motivation for his extraordinary commitment to nuclear threat reduction. He believed the life we leave to our descendants is the most important measure of the life we have led. George’s friend Bishop William Swing has written that “at the end of time, the author of life will return to this created and loved Earth and demand accountability for what we did to enhance or destroy it.” George Shultz loved this earth and he spent his life enhancing it.
Mr. Perry was secretary of defense, 1994-97. Mr. Kissinger was secretary of state, 1973-77 and White House national security adviser, 1969-75. Mr. Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, is a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.