I love my 12 grandchildren. And I want them—and your grandchildren—to have a future. A future where their world has not been devastated by a nuclear catastrophe or an environmental catastrophe.
And so I have dedicated my remaining years to doing what I can to give them a better chance to enjoy this beautiful world.
I am 92, so it is unlikely that either a nuclear catastrophe—or an environmental catastrophe—will happen during my lifetime. But it is all too likely that either or both of these catastrophes will happen during their lifetimes unless we start taking the necessary preventive actions—which we are not doing.
In nuclear issues I have had unique experiences—experiences that taught me the dangers of nuclear weapons; and special knowledge—knowledge that allows me to work effectively to reduce those dangers. So I have concentrated my efforts in that area.
Two events have had a profound effect on my thinking. The first occurred in 1962—the Cuban Missile Crisis, where I was deeply and personally involved analyzing the incoming intelligence to prepare a daily briefing advising President Kennedy on how many more days he had available for solving the crisis through negotiations. Every day I went into the analysis center I thought would be my last day on earth.
That experience lives with me to this day—and has had a profound influence on my thinking about nuclear weapons. It showed me that blundering into a nuclear war by a political miscalculation was a real danger.
The second experience occurred in 1979, when I was the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense. I was awoken at 3am by the watch officer at the North American Air Defense Command, telling me that his computer was showing 200 ICBMS on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. He quickly explained that he had determined that his computer was in error, and he was calling me to help him understand why his computer was giving him a false alert.
That experience has had an equally profound influence on my thinking. It showed me that blundering into a nuclear war by a technical error was also a real danger.
So those experiences engraved in my consciousness the grave danger that nuclear weapons posed to our country—and to the world. Ever since then I have looked for things that I could do to lower that danger.
During the 1980s I pursued Track 2 diplomatic efforts with like-minded colleagues in the Soviet Union. During these meetings with my Soviet colleagues, we were looking for ways to escape the deadly embrace of MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction— between our two countries.
During that tumultuous decade we saw the amazing transformation from two countries at the brink of nuclear war to two countries that were discussing giving up their nuclear weapons.
Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev actually discussed at Reykjavik giving up all nuclear weapons. They failed to reach an agreement, but the enduring legacy of that meeting was their conclusion: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
And then at the end of that decade—and to everyone’s surprise—the Cold War ended.
I can still remember the disbelief—and the joy—as I watched young Berliners tear down the Berlin Wall. I thought that now we would finally leave behind us the dreaded fear—the fear of a nuclear holocaust destroying our civilization. And I thought that now we would begin the dismantlement of the deadly Cold War nuclear arsenal.
It was not to be so easy, but it did start out well.
During the period in the 1990s when I was the Secretary of Defense, we actually dismantled 8,000 nukes. And for one brief, shining moment it seemed that we were well on our way to dismantling the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War, and to forming a cooperative relationship with Russia.
But the dismantlement stopped in 1997, shortly after I left office as Secretary of Defense. And in 2001 we started backsliding.
In 2006, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and I embarked on a joint venture to reawaken world interest in ridding the world of the nuclear scourge, and initially we were very successful.
The highlight of that period was President’s Obama Prague speech, where he said: “I state clearly and with conviction the commitment of the U.S. to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons.”
The next year, New START was negotiated by President Obama and President Medvedev. It was a simple, non-controversial agreement, or so I thought—but it met fierce resistance in the U.S. Senate and was only confirmed after Obama made major concessions on rebuilding our nuclear arsenal. At that point President Obama gave up his Prague ambitions because he believed that the political cost was too high.
Today we are on the brink of a new Cold War. The U.S. and Russia are rebuilding their Cold War nuclear arsenals at an unimaginable cost. We have returned to the Cold War dangers I thought we had left behind.
How, in God’s name, could we have let this happen?
And what can we do to turn it around?
The answer to first question is complex—I will dismiss it by observing that during the last 2 decades both Russia and the U.S. took unwise actions.
I discuss them at length in my book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. I don’t point my finger at just one country. I found plenty of blame to go around.
The focus my talk is not on who’s to blame—but on how to turn the situation around. And I can’t overemphasize how important it is to turn it around.
The danger of a nuclear catastrophe occurring today is greater than it was during Cold War. I strongly believe that and I am not alone. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have each year for last 60 years set a Doomsday Clock at so many minutes before midnight (Doomsday). During the Cold War, the minute hand ranged from 2 to 7 minutes before midnight, with only one year at 2 minutes before Doomsday. During the time I was Secretary of Defense it had backed off to 15 minutes before midnight.
During the last 20 years it has started moving closer again. This year they set it at 2 minutes to midnight: closer than all years of the Cold War except one, and equal to that year.
I fully agree with their assessment.
I believe we have let this happen because leaders and people in both of our countries simply do not understand how dangerous it has become. So our policies and actions do not take adequate account of the level of danger.
Ultimately, to eliminate this terrible danger, we have to dismantle all nuclear weapons, since great dangers are inherent in the very existence of so many nukes. But that is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, there are many actions we could take to reduce these dangers—but we are not taking them because we do not understand the peril we are facing.
So, in despair of our political leaders taking appropriate actions, about 5 years ago I started a large-scale education program to educate people in the world on nuclear dangers and to promote actions to lower those dangers.
First I wrote My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, a memoir of my direct experiences with nuclear events and policies, explaining why I am fearful that we are headed for a nuclear catastrophe and outlining what can be done to lower the dangers.
The book was translated into Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, and Russian. In February 2018 I launched the Russian edition in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The book can get my message across to thousands—but I need to get it across to millions.
While in Moscow I was interviewed by the popular news journalist Vladimir Pozner. The interview was seen by millions Russians, but I can’t count on getting that kind of coverage very often.
So I am taking ideas from the book and putting them in online courses, videos, and Podcasts accessible to a broader audience.
The online courses are offered free through Stanford University and cover nuclear history and the threat of nuclear terrorism.
The videos are depictions of my nuke nightmares—how a nuclear catastrophe could happen—such as a regional nuclear war or a nuclear terror attack—and what its consequences would be.
I just finished recording my first podcast, ”At the Brink,” which should be available early next year.
And I have written a new book (co-authored with Tom Collina) that will be published next summer, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear bomb.
The book is called “The Button.” It tells the story of how we got into this mess, and provides specific ideas on how to lower danger:
End launch on warning
Revoke presidential sole authority
Stop the new nuclear arms race
There are bills pending in the U.S. Congress today dealing with the first two of these dangers. But there is no chance that these bills will be passed in the next year because our public and our Congress do not understand the dangers.
So I have to admit that I feel great frustration pursuing these impossible dreams.
And I understand that no one can resolve this huge problem by himself or herself. But each of us can try.
I cannot do everything
But I can do something.
I don’t expect to see the fruits of my work during my lifetime. But I have a dozen good reasons for keeping at it:
My 8 grandchildren, and my 4 great grandchildren.
I am working for them, and for all the other grandchildren on our planet.
I am 92 years old. But I will continue to work on this existential problem as long as I am able. And I know that my colleagues in the Luxembourg Forum are working with me to rid the world of this existential danger. What we are doing is lonely and it is frustrating; but it could not be more important.