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Lee Butler, USA, retired Four Star General, who served, until 1994, as Commander in Chief of the long-range air, land and sea based nuclear forces of the United States. Since 1996 he has been a strong public advocate for abolition of nuclear weapons.
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Lee Butler

After 37 years in uniform I took early retirement in 1994. My last assignment was as Commander in Chief for all of America’s nuclear forces and my last task to limit them. The Cold War was over, we could begin to reduce the cost of nuclear modernization, we canceled 40 billion dollars of new programs and took nuclear bombers off alert after 30 years. That was my personal recommendation and it was accepted by the President.

With a profound sense of relief I hung my uniform in the closet, determined to close the military chapter of my life and never again to speak publicly on military issues. Only two and a half years later, I changed my decision. I was prompted by an inner voice I could not still, by a concern I could not quiet. It had had a long time coming, but over time I developed a deeply held conviction — that a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons is necessarily a world devoid of nuclear weapons.

I had retired with a fair amount of confidence that the process of disarming was well underway. Yet over the ensuing two years, I became increasingly dismayed by the way in which huge bureaucracies function, driven by hundreds of thousands of people who have a personal stake in things not changing. While this is human nature, in this setting the consequences are potential devastation of both humanity and nature. I had to share my professional experience and my conclusions.

Over the last 27 years of my military career, I had been involved in every aspect of American nuclear policymaking from advice to the government to military command centers, from cramped bomber cockpits to the suffocating confines of ballistic missile submarines. I certified hundreds of crews for their nuclear mission and I approved thousands of targets for potential nuclear destruction. I investigated a dismaying array of accidents and incidents involving strategic weapons and forces. I read a library of books and intelligence reports on the former Soviet Union and what we believed to be its capabilities and intentions. As an advisor to the President on the employment of nuclear weapons, I anguished over the complexities, the profound moral dilemmas and the mind-numbing consequences of decisions which would put the very survival of our planet at stake.

The first time I saw a film of the explosion of a nuclear weapon it had made an unforgettable impact on me. I could not forget it and my dismay grew as over the years I studied the devastating effects of nuclear weapons in great detail. Everyone knows the image of the nuclear mushroom, but it was part of my duty in developing war plans to understand and be intimately familiar with the precise effects on people, constructions and nature.

I don’t think there has ever been a worse dilemma than the exchange of nuclear weapons. We found ourselves caught up in a situation where the rational response to a nuclear attack was to reply with nuclear weapons. There would be no winners in this exchange and we knew our reply would mean the death of a hundred million people. This is a logic without rationality, and the flaw lies already in the fatal idea of deterrence. The consequences are terrible even if deterrence with conventional weapons fails, but with nuclear weapons the failure of deterrence means that there is no hope of recovery or recuperation. It is totally final and therein lies the dilemma that I felt to the depth of my being.

In earlier years, I weighed the destructiveness of these weapons against the severity and urgency of the communist threat, and found that the latter clearly outweighed the former. Now at a comfortable distance from the Cold War we need to think more deeply about the costs and risks that were run and how this way of thinking could have ever been seen as rational. It is essential to analyze and apply the lessons of this frightful period.