We're still on the eve of destruction


Thursday, December 30, 1999

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has a slogan, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." Sometimes countries, like individuals, need to be protected from themselves. Right now, my country, the United States, needs all the help it can get. America has adopted nuclear weapons policies that endanger Canadians, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Americans and everyone else on the planet. Without pressure from its allies it is unlikely to change them.

In the most recent exhibition of U.S. government irresponsibility, the Republican-dominated Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, claiming that it was a danger to U.S. national interests. For a country which holds nuclear proliferation to be the greatest threat to its national security, the vote was stunning in its perversity. If the nation with the world's largest and most advanced nuclear arsenal -- the nation which has carried out the most nuclear tests, and which, by the way, also has by far the strongest conventional military forces on the planet -- feels it needs to continue testing nuclear weapons, how can it ever hope to persuade other states that they do not need to test and build nuclear weapons?

Not to be outdone by the Republicans, the Democratic administration now gives every indication that it is prepared to authorize deployment of a Star Wars "missile defense" system which has flunked 14 of 20 performance tests so far and seems unlikely to defend anything except the bank accounts of the prime contractors. However, this same missile defense system may of course destroy the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and whatever else is left of three decade's efforts at arms control.

Even more dangerous, and harder to comprehend, is the continuing refusal of the U.S. government to take its nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. A decade after the end of the Cold War, Washington maintains some 2,500 missile-mounted nuclear warheads on high alert. In this particular folly, the U.S. is joined by the Russians who have some 2,000 warheads of their own on hair-trigger alert. These weapons can all be fired in about 15 minutes and reach their target cities in another half hour, destroying the world as we know it.

They are an accident waiting to happen.

For well over a year, top Pentagon officials have been reassuring the public that Y2K-related computer glitches will not increase the danger of accidental nuclear war between the United States and Russia. But in September, Assistant Secretary of Defense Edward Warner conceded that the most important safeguard against such a war, the "hotline" between the United States and Russia, was not Y2K compliant.

According to Senator Christopher Dodd, Mr. Warner reported in Senate testimony that six of the seven separate hotlines that link the U.S. and Russian nuclear command structures, "would experience Y2K failures and they will fail if the fixes are not implemented." The Pentagon now assures us that these fixes are "in the mail" and will be completed in time.

Let us hope so. The stakes could not be higher.

A study which I co-authored for the April 30, 1998 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the accidental launch of the missiles aboard just one Russian Delta 4 submarine would kill some 6,700,000 Americans in the first 30 minutes with another six to 12 million people dying of radiation illness in the following weeks.

Even without a Y2K-related computer failure, such an accident is possible. On Jan. 25, 1995, Russian military radar mistook a weather rocket launched from Norway for a possible missile attack on Russia. President Boris Yeltsin was given some five minutes to decide if he should launch a full-scale counterattack on the United States that would have involved, at that time, 4,000 nuclear bombs hitting every city in the United States.

We don't know exactly what happened in the Kremlin that day, but by great good luck Mr. Yeltsin decided not to launch a nuclear attack.

That Jan. 25 was an ordinary day. There was no great international crisis, not even a minor bump in relations between the United States and Russia. Yet the policy of maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert brought us to the brink of global destruction.

These policies are not supported by the American people. More than 80 per cent wanted the Senate to ratify the CTBT, and nearly as many favour the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, these huge majorities are not well organized or particularly vocal, and they have not influenced U.S. government policy.

What should Canada do?

I think it's time for Canada to be firm, and, if need be, angry with its American friend. The nuclear policies pursued by Washington are not an internal matter: They threaten all humanity.

Canada should be congratulated for leading the effort earlier this month to urge NATO to adopt a "No First Use" policy. Canada should break with Washington and support efforts at the UN to convene a global conference to negotiate a nuclear weapons convention. And as a country certain to be in harm's way if there is an accidental nuclear war, Canada should demand that the United States and Russia take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.

Such actions will not be popular in Washington today; a drunk doesn't like being told that he is not driving safely. But they are the right thing to do, and some day a more sober American government will join the majority of the American people in thanking their Canadian friend.

Ira Helfand, an emergency room physician in Northampton, Mass., is the former North American vice-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

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