Since the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there have been Americans who have wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Over the decades they have pushed for an emphasis on cooperation over conflict in U.S. foreign policy, a ban on atomic testing, and limits on atomic arsenals, and of course their ultimate goal: complete disarmament. But, while their efforts have had some effect, the complete denuclearization of the United States and its foes has long been a taboo subject within the foreign policy establishment. Liberals, advocacy groups, and some think tanks continue to agitate for a smaller role for atomic weapons—and, occasionally, even hawkish analysts point out that our relative military power would increase in a world limitedto conventional armaments. Nevertheless, not only during the Cold War but even after, disarmament has rarely been a topic for polite Washington conversation— until recently.

On January 4, 2007, George P. Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William J. Perry, and Sam Nunn—that is, two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. They followed it up with another Journal op-ed this past January further detailing their plans.

They were not the first elder statesmen to do so—a 92-year-old Paul Nitze, for example, advocated nuclear disarmament in his last op-ed, published in 1999—but whereas previous similar meditations had largely fallen on deaf ears, this article commanded a significant response. That response may not revive the disarmament movement, whose strength waned after the Soviet Union collapsed, but it could revive its ideals. With decades of foreign policy experience among them, Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn are all éminences grises who garner respect from both Democrats and Republicans. But since the publication of their op-eds, they have become something considerably more: They are the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse.

The disarmament movement has broken on U.S. foreign policy in waves since the 1940s, washing in and then receding, sometimes changing the beach, but ultimately leaving the shoreline intact.

After the bombing of Japan made clear the horror of the atomic bomb, U.S. officials initially—and seriously— pursued proposals to control or eliminate nuclear weapons. In the spring of 1946, for example, the Truman administration announced a plan drafted by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal, chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority, that would have internationalized control over all fissile material. Ultimately, statesman Bernard Baruch took a modified version of this plan to the United Nations.

The Soviets rejected the proposal, however, and the descent of the Iron Curtain dashed early post-war hopes that international laws and organizations would channel man’s energy for conflict into more cooperative endeavors. Washington soon came to rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter Moscow’s aggression, with President Dwight Eisenhower’s policy of massive retaliation giving nuclear weapons a central role in U.S. defense policy. The very concept of “disarmament,” briefly shared among a wide circle of policy makers, soon became tainted by association with communist propaganda efforts, in which the weaker Soviet Union used calls for denuclearization to turn world opinion against the United States by focusing attention on its growing stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Public fear of nuclear weapons, however, only continued to grow—particularly as ever-larger aboveground tests spewed radiation into the atmosphere. In 1957, activists founded the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, or SANE, to educate the U.S. public about the dangers of nuclear weapons and advocate disarmament, and within a year, it had acquired 130 chapters and 25,000 members. The concerns of SANE and other like-minded organizations eventually filtered back to foreign-policy makers, encouraging restraints on the arms race. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), the first of many U.S.-Soviet nuclear accords. 

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Copyright © 2008 by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Reproduced by permission of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.