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The Eliminators

Large Majority of Former National Security Cabinet Officials Want to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

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Four veteran cold warriors this week reiterated their call for steep reductions in nuclear arsenals with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide. The Wall Street Journal op-ed from former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn builds on their revolutionary article from last year, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”

Now, an overwhelming majority of former top national security officials are arguing for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. It may take a while to get there, they say, but seven former secretaries of state, seven former national security advisors, and five former secretaries of defense have endorsed freeing the world of nuclear weapons, as well as progressive steps to realize this vision. They represent almost 70 percent of the men and women still living who have served in these top posts and are not currently serving in the administration.

Every one of these officials favored building and deploying thousands of nuclear weapons while in office. But they say today’s global situation has radically changed. There is no longer a military justification for the almost 10,000 nuclear weapons that the United States fields and the estimated 15,000 held by Russia, many of them on hair-trigger alert ready to launch within 15 minutes. Together these two powers hold 95 percent of all the world’s nuclear weapons, with the other seven nuclear weapon states dividing up the remaining 1,000.

The growing list of supporters for a nuclear-free world includes 17 former cabinet members, as well as former generals, senior officials, non-proliferation scholars and politicians such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). “You have a big vision, a vision as big as humanity—to free the world of nuclear weapons,” he told the group at their October conference at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “Let me know how I can use my power and influence as governor to further your vision.” Nancy Reagan also sent a letter of support.

And the support is bipartisan: 53 percent of the cabinet-level endorsers are Republicans and 47 percent are Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of all the living former secretaries of state have given their general support for the project, as have 70 percent of all former national security advisors and 62 percent of all former secretaries of defense. The only former secretary of state not endorsing is Alexander Haig; the only defense secretary hold-outs are James Schlesinger, Harold Brown, and Donald Rumsfeld; and the only former national security advisors not signing up are Brent Scowcroft, William P. Clark, and John Poindexter. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are currently in office and are not counted.

Thus, for the first time since the administration of President Harry Truman in the 1940s and of President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, a call for the elimination of nuclear weapons comes not from the left, but from the moderate middle. This opens up political space for others to embrace a more progressive security agenda.

The chances of achieving many of these specific policy goals, such as ratifying the nuclear test ban, are greater than ever. Conservative icons Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, and Frank Carlucci all opposed ratification in 1999, but now seem to support it. As the ranks of this non-proliferation movement continue to swell, a nuclear-free world begins to seem not only possible, but plausible.

Joseph Cirincione is a Senior Fellow and Alexandra Bell is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. To read more about the Center’s foreign policy decision please see our National Security page.

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