Sometime this fall, the senate will take up debate over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was signed in April by President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, which is why in this political climate despite endorsements from dozens of generals and national-security officials passage is no sure thing.
The debate will be fierce, though most of the opponents' arguments are irrelevant. For instance, they contend that the treaty forces the U.S. to cut more missiles than the Russians true, but the Russians will have to cut more warheads, i.e., more nuclear weapons. They note that the Russians have threatened to pull out of the treaty if the U.S. greatly expands its missile-defense program true, but Article XIV allows both sides to pull out for any reason they want, and besides, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's officers firmly support the accord.
But there are big questions about nuclear weapons that probably won't be discussed at all. For instance: Why did these two nations build so many of them in the first place? (At the peak of the arms race, in the mid-1960s, the U.S. had more than 30,000.) Under the treaty, the U.S. and Russia will each be limited to 1,550 long-range warheads; but beyond a certain point, does it matter how many they have 1,500 or 1,000 or 100? What are the prospects of cutting the arsenals down to zero nukes, as President Obama has proposed? Is that a goal worth pursuing? And does the New START Treaty, as the accord is known, mark a first step toward getting there?
The atomic age began with the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The Soviet Union built its own A-bomb four years later. The U.S. soon followed with a hydrogen bomb that could deliver the blast power of millions of tons (megatons) of TNT, not just thousands (kilotons). The arms race proceeded at a trotting pace through the '50s, when each side built bomber planes with the range to strike the other's territory and also deployed "tactical" nuclear weapons (in the form of artillery shells, short-range missiles and even land mines) to deter, or to be used in, a war in Europe.
How the Arms Race Exploded
Not until the 1960s did the arms race really take off, as each side fielded massive numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which could strike the other's soil with little warning. At that point the arms race jerked into an arms spiral. Each side was aiming most of its ICBMs at the other side's ICBMs, so when one side fielded more, the other followed suit.
The turning point came in 1960, during the final months of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, when the U.S. military, led by the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC), devised the first formal nuclear war plan, called the SIOP (pronounced sigh-op), short for Single Integrated Operational Plan.
Until then, each branch of the military the Army, Navy and Air Force had been building its own nuclear arsenal and writing its own war plan, with no collaboration whatsoever. The idea behind the SIOP was to impose some order on the entire arsenal and create a national war strategy.
But SAC used the occasion to justify building more nuclear weapons, mainly Air Force weapons. The U.S. strategy (enshrined in Eisenhower's "massive retaliation" policy) was this: If the Soviets attacked the U.S. or Western Europe, even if no nukes were fired in the process, the U.S. would launch all of its nuclear weapons against every target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and communist China. (The U.S. had little ability to defend Western Europe with conventional arms at the time, and it was widely believed that the U.S.S.R. and China formed a monolithic alliance.)
The SIOP determined which weapons would be fired or dropped on which targets. The calculations that went into the plan were hair-raising, resulting in tremendous overkill. At one point, Eisenhower sent his science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, to SAC headquarters in Omaha to be briefed on the new plan. One of his aides, a weapons scientist named George Rathjens, leafed through SAC's atlas, looking for the Russian city that most resembled Hiroshima. When he found it, he asked an SAC officer how many weapons the SIOP "laid down" on that city. The reply: one 4.5-megaton bomb and three 1.1-megaton bombs, in case the first was a dud 7.8 megatons in all more than 600 times the explosive power of the mere 12.5-kiloton bomb that demolished Hiroshima.