General Lee Butler Reflects on Working Toward Peace

I get a lot of questions like, "If you had been President Truman, would you have made the decision to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima?" "Was this a revelation, was it an epiphany, what was the catalyst for your change of view?" The questions go to the issue of when I had the responsibilities as the commander of the nuclear forces, as a nuclear advisor to the president and, perhaps most particularly, as the person who devised the nuclear war plan. Did that give me pause? Were there reservations?

The evolution of my views was not an epiphany, not some road-to-Damascus revelation. From the very outset, the nuclear arena was superimposed with a blanket of secrecy that was virtually impenetrable. Access to the knowledge and access to the levers of power that control this arena were reserved to a very small number of people throughout its history in this country and in the Soviet Union.

I was commissioned as a lieutenant in June 1961. I became the commander of the nuclear forces of the United States in January 1991, almost thirty years later. Until the day I assumed those responsibilities, I had never been given access to the nuclear war plan of the United States in its entirety, even though in Washington I had policy responsibilities that directed the plan. I knew nothing about the submarine operations of the strategic nuclear forces of the United States, and I had an incomplete understanding of the process that would lead to a command from the president of the United States to unleash nuclear war in retaliation for a presumed strike.

Deepening Doubts

Up to that point I had developed a series of reservations and doubts that progressively deepened. I had no basis for understanding whether these concerns proceeded from a lack of information and insight, or whether they were rooted in the reality of bureaucratic processes run amuck, by the intrusion of the self-serving profit interests of the military- industrial complex, by the collision of cultures and turf in the Pentagon for budget dollars, or simply by the towering forces of alienation and isolation that grew out of the mutual demonization between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over a period of forty-five years. I just didn't know.

Beginning in early 1991, I went through a process that very quickly accelerated and confirmed my worst fears and my worst concerns. What we had done in this country, what I believe happened in the Soviet Union, and what I think will inevitably happen in any country that makes the fateful decision to become a nuclear power-to acquire the capability to build and employ nuclear weapons-is this: the creation of gargantuan agencies with mammoth appetites and a sense of infallibility, which consume infinite resources in messianic pursuit of a demonized enemy. When that happens, it quickly moves beyond the capacity for any single individual or small group of people, like the president, the National Security Council, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or the Joint Staff, to control them or to understand. Let me give you some illustrations of what I mean.

A Chilling Ballet

In those responsibilities of commander of the forces responsible for the day-to-day operational safety, security, and preparation to employ those weapons, I was increasingly appalled by the complexity of this
ballet of hundreds of thousands of people managing, manipulating, controlling, and maintaining tens of thousands of warheads and extremely complex systems that flew through the air, were buried in the bowels of the land, or patrolled beneath the seas of the world.

The capacity for human error, human failure, mechanical failure, or misunderstanding was virtually infinite. I have seen nuclear airplanes crash under the circumstances that were designed to replicate, but were inevitably far less stressful than, the actual condition of nuclear war. I have seen human error lead to the explosion of missiles in their silos.

I have read the circumstances of submarines going to the bottom of the ocean laden with nuclear missiles and warheads because of failures, mechanical flaws, and human error. I read the entire history, and when I came away from it-because I was never given access to it before-I was chilled. I was chilled to the depth of my strategic soul.

Consider my responsibilities as a nuclear advisor. Every month of my life as a commander of the nuclear forces I went through an exercise called the Missile Threat Conference. It would come at any moment of the day or night. For three years I was required to be within three rings of my telephone so that I could answer a call from the White House to advise the president on how to respond to nuclear attack. The question that would be put to me in these conferences, and as it would be in the event, was "General Butler, I have been advised by the commander in chief of the North American Air Defense Command that the nation is under nuclear attack. It has been characterized thusly. What is your recommendation with regard to the nature of our reply?"

That was my responsibility, and occasionally that call came in the middle of the night as my wife, Dorene, and I lay in our bedroom. I had to be prepared to advise the president to sign the death warrant of 250 million people living in the Soviet Union. I felt that responsibility to the depth of my soul, and I never learned to reconcile my belief systems with it. Never.

My third responsibility was to devise the nuclear war plan of the United States. When I became the director of Strategic Target Planning, another hat I wore as the commander of the Nuclear Forces, I went down to my targeting room, several floors underground. I told my planners that we were going to get to know each other very well because I wanted to understand the plan in its entirety. I think this story is the most graphic illustration of the evolution of my views and my concerns and, ultimately, my convictions. When I began to delve into that war plan, I was absolutely horrified to learn that it encompassed 12,500 targets. I made the personal commitment-because I viewed it as absolutely integral to my responsibilities and the consequences of that targeting-to examine every single one of them in great detail.

Ending the Madness

It took me three years, but by three months I was absolutely convinced that it was the most grotesque and irresponsible war plan that had ever been devised by man, with the possible exception of its counterpart in the Soviet Union, which in truth probably mirrored it exactly. Because what that plan implied was, among other things, in the event of nuclear war between two nations, in the space of about sixteen hours some twenty thousand thermonuclear warheads would be exploded on the face of our planet, signing the death warrant not just for 250 million Soviets, but likely for mankind in its entirety.

The second thing that I began to grasp was that neither in the Soviet Union nor the United States did any of us ever understand those consequences, because the calculation as to the military effectiveness of that attack was based on only one criterion, and that was blast damage. It did not take into account fire; it did not take into account radiation. Can you imagine that? We never understood, probably didn't care about, and certainly would not have been able to calculate with any precision, the holistic effects of twenty thousand nuclear weapons being exploded virtually simultaneously on the face of the earth.

That was the straw that tilted my conviction with regard to the prospects of nuclear war, and ultimately to an unavoidable responsibility to end this. To end it! And by the grace of God I came to that awareness and I inherited my responsibilities at the very moment the Cold War was ending and, therefore, I had the opportunity to end the madness.

So in those three years I did what I could to cancel all of the strategic nuclear modernization programs in my jurisdiction, which totaled $40 billion. I canceled every single one of them. I recommended to the president that we take bombers off nuclear alert for the first time in thirty years, and we did. I recommended that we accelerate the retirement of all systems designed to be terminated in present and future arms control agreements, and we did. We accelerated the retirement of the Minuteman II force. We shrank the nuclear warplanes of the United States by 75 percent. By the time I left my responsibilities, those 12,500 targets had been reduced to 3,000. If I'd had my way and I'd been there a while longer, I would have worked to reduce them to zero. Ultimately I recommended the disestablishment of my command. I took down its flag with my own hands.

Creeping Re-rationalization of Nuclear Weapons

When I retired in 1994, I was persuaded that we were on a path that was miraculous, that was irreversible, and that gave us the opportunity to actually pursue a set of initiatives, acquire a new mind-set, and re-embrace a set of principles, premised on the sanctity of life and the miracle of existence, that would take us on the path to zero. I was dismayed, mortified, and ultimately radicalized by the fact that within a period of a year that momentum again was slowed. A process that I have called the creeping re-rationalization of nuclear weapons was introduced by the very people who stood to gain the most by the end of the nuclear era.

The French reinitiated nuclear testing at the worst possible moment, as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty hung in the balance. We have reinitiated the process of demonization of "rogue nations"; what a horrible, pernicious misuse of language! What an anti-intellectual, dehumanizing process of reducing complex societies and human beings and histories and cultures to "rogue nations." Once you do that, you can justify the most extreme measure to include the reintroduction of nuclear weapons as legitimate and appropriate weapons of national security.

If we truly cling to the values that underlie our political system, if we truly believe in the dignity of the individual, and if we cherish freedom and the capacity to realize our potential as human beings on this planet, then we are absolutely obligated to pursue relentlessly our capacity to live together in harmony and according to the dictates of respect for that dignity, for that sanctity of life. It matters not that we continuously fall short of the mark. What matters is that we continue to strive. What is at stake here is our capacity to move ever higher to the bar of civilized behavior. As long as we sanctify nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of conflict, we will have forever capped our capacity to live on this planet according to a set of ideals that value human life and eschew a solution that continues to hold acceptable the shearing away of entire societies. That simply is wrong. It is morally wrong, and it ultimately will be the death of humanity.



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