Hagel's Call for Nuclear Disarmament Has Been Mainstream Since Reagan

He wants to decrease the size of our arsenal. But so do most security experts, on both sides of the aisle -- something opponents of his nomination have forgotten.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters

Among the many heresies imputed to Chuck Hagel is the belief that we can greatly reduce our nuclear arsenal. The former Nebraska senator's views, however, are hardly radical -- in fact, they are downright boring. They represent the consensus of such a long list of security experts from both political parties that it is hard to list them and still keep this article interesting.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and several other key GOP leaders base their opposition to Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense in large part on the supposedly extreme policies he advanced. Inhofe said that while Hagel's military service was commendable, he has been "an outspoken supporter of nuclear disarmament" and "seeks a world free of nuclear weapons."

In particular, Inhofe singled out Hagel's participation in recent study:

Hagel was a commissioner on a May 2012 Global Zero report on modernizing U.S. nuclear strategy, force structure and posture. Not only does that report not fully support the president's commitment to nuclear modernization but it also advocates the assumption of extreme risk to our national security, including possible unilateral nuclear disarmament. Given the premises and conclusions of the Global Zero report, how can we in Congress be confident that he will carry out the modernization efforts required to maintain the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent?

In other words, we need more nuclear weapons, not fewer. Hagel will elaborate his views at his confirmation hearing (and likely show how they track very closely with the president he hopes to serve). But the basic premise -- that reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons is a wild, left-wing position -- is unquestionably false.

The elimination of nuclear weapons is the official policy of the United States, enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 that requires the nuclear-weapon states to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." Many presidents have personally and passionately believed in this goal. Stimson Center expert Michael Krepon has put together a long list of quotes along these lines that past presidents have used in their inaugural addresses. Here is Ronald Reagan's from 1985:

We're not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.

I have not conducted a thorough review of how often former secretaries of defense discussed the elimination of nuclear weapons. One would start, however, with the first secretary of the nuclear age, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who, after ordering the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, worked for the rest of his life to control what he called "the most terrible weapon in human history."

But let's assume that no other secretary of defense has been as outspoken about his view that significant reductions in nuclear weapons were in the best national security interest of the United States. What does that signify?

That the center has shifted. Hagel's views are not unique among security experts; they are now the norm. They reflect the growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. security establishment that whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War are now outweighed by the threat they present.

It is epitomized by the work of former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. These two Republicans and two Democrats call now for "a world free of nuclear weapons." In a January 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, they wrote, "We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands." The only way to prevent this, they argue, is to move step-by-step to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

In their January 2008 op-ed, the four listed other former officials who had endorsed their views. The list at the time represented two-thirds of the former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisers still living, including Colin Powell, James Baker, and Melvin Laird.

Presented by

Joseph Cirincione

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.

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