That number does deter one group — Obama’s political opponents. Let’s face it, nuclear weapons for decades have primarily been political weapons, both domestically and abroad. If you have more than your enemies, you are a strong leader. Faced with an international crisis, that leader can say “nothing is off the table” — and that can be read as a threat to employ nuclear weapons.
But despite what defense planners say about actually using them only against valued military targets, they are in fact weapons that will kill thousands of civilians either immediately or through radioactive aftereffects. Two atomic bombs, far less powerful than today’s warheads, used twice against Japanese “military targets” destroyed two cities and killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Would a U.S. president use one or more nuclear weapons first, or only if the United States were attacked? In either event, this country does not need 1,000 or more of them. Nor do we need all of the 12 new $4 billion strategic nuclear submarines, each with 16 missiles. Each missile carries a minimum of four warheads. With only nine such subs, the United States could have three on patrol, two in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic, and the United States would have a minimum of 192 warheads ready to hit targets all over the world.
With such an underwater fleet, do we still need up to 400 new land-based ICBMs? And why have any strategic bombers fitted to carry nuclear weapons?
Years ago, Robert McNamara — defense secretary through much of the 1960s — told me he had always believed that 500 warheads or less was enough, even at the height of the Cold War. He based that on recalling one night during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis when, during a private meeting with President John F. Kennedy, they discussed the impact just one nuclear weapon would have on the United States if fired by Moscow, and what the president would have to order in response.
“As I walked out of the White House and to my car,” McNamara said, “I feared we might end the world as it was unless we prevented that from happening.” They did, and from then on, both Washington and Moscow over the years avoided another such direct or indirect confrontation.
Nuclear weapons deterred conventional war between the world’s then-superpowers. But neither country ever needed the more than 10,000 each had built. According to McNamara, several hundred would have been enough then, and it certainly would be enough now. The United States today can’t afford the Cold War luxury of overbuilding its nuclear force, and that could be a blessing.