Richard Erlich, Department of English, Professor Emeritus |

The signing in Prague of what the BBC calls “a landmark nuclear arms treaty” has occasioned a good deal of commentary, including comments on President Barack Obama’s characterizing the treaty as a “step on a longer journey” toward nuclear disarmament.

As Martin Schram of Scripps Howard News Service pointed out a year ago, President Obama is hardly unique in calling for a goal of zero nuclear weapons. Obama has added his name to a list including Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn (syndicated column, 9/10 April 2009).

For what little my opinion is worth, I endorse the “Zero-Nukes” call, but with a reservation and a suggestion for a literally more conservative, very immediate preliminary goal.

The reservation stems from the body count from World War II: some 50-70 million dead, NOT counting deaths from the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Insofar as “the Balance of Terror” and M.A.D. — “Mutually Assured Destruction” — have prevented another world war, those two horrendous theories and the weapons backing them up, have served well.

As a practical matter we will move slowly toward reducing nuclear weapons to zero, and toward that final goal we should move slowly.

An intermediate goal, however, should be reached with “all deliberate speed,” in the old sense of that useful phrase before it became a sick joke with resistance to racial desegregation.

A conservative tradition going back to at least Edmund Burke opposing the French Revolution had the theory of “the continuity of generations:” the idea that no generation has the right to make radical changes on behalf of those that get no voice. This meant our predecessors, but primarily future generations. The point as such is debatable: we Americans might be better off if our Revolution, Reconstruction and the New Deal had been more radical. What is not debatable is no generation has the right to put at risk the existence of future generations.

The last two generations are guilty of taking precisely that risk. We humans — primarily Americans and Russians — now have enough nuclear weapons to threaten the survival of human civilization, and with it the human species, and, through nuclear winter, directly threaten extinction of the human species.

So our first goal, a conservative goal to be achieved as quickly as possible, is to bring down the number of nuclear weapons worldwide well below the level that might bring on nuclear winter or the number that could endanger civilization.             

It only takes a few big bombs to maintain the Balance of Terror. We should try to reduce the major arsenals down to those levels before the end of the first Obama administration.

Then we can get to the long, difficult, dangerous process of getting to “a world without nuclear weapons.”