09.23.09

Drop the Bomb, Obama

When he addresses the U.N. Security Council Thursday, the president will repeat the shocking proposal John Kennedy made a half-century ago: Get rid of nuclear weapons—forever.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution that is a first step toward Obama’s goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Obama, who became the first U.S. president to chair the Security Council, says the measure will lead to tighter controls on weapons states and end loopholes exploited by countries like Iran. “The historic resolution we just adopted enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said Thursday. James Carroll reports on how Obama is following in Kennedy's footsteps. Plus, a gallery of U.N. moments.

At exactly this point in his presidency, John F. Kennedy did what Barack Obama did on Thursday—challenge the United Nations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Obama becomes the first U.S. president to chair an extraordinary session of the U.N. Security Council, with its nations represented by heads of state, not diplomats. As chair, it was his prerogative to set the agenda, and he chose nuclear non-proliferation and “disarmament”—a word that all but disappeared from the rhetoric of American presidents decades ago. It tips Obama’s hand that, because of him, the word disarmament is back.

It is not too much to say that the United Nations was founded to deal with the atomic bomb. In 1946, America still had a monopoly on the “absolute weapon,” but even U.S. statesmen saw the danger of an unbridled atomic arms race. The Baruch Plan supposedly intended to head that off by offering a mode of U.N.-based international control, but Baruch was doomed because it effectively took for granted that Washington would maintain “custodianship” of the bomb, while all other nations—including the Soviet Union—would forgo its development. The U.S. was proposing non-proliferation for other nations without actually intending its own disarmament. That has been the essential American stance ever since, up to and including Iran.

Click the Image Below to View Photos from the United Nations Summit

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But on September 25, 1961, President Kennedy proposed to set a different course. The U.S. and the USSR had come to the brink of nuclear war only weeks before, in the crisis over Berlin. (The Berlin Wall had gone up in August.) Both nations had just broken a moratorium to resume nuclear testing. It was the most dangerous moment yet in the Cold War. Kennedy went before the General Assembly and gave what may have been his most important—and now most neglected—speech. He, too, aimed to put nuclear weapons at the top of the global agenda. He proposed a five-point plan: End production of all nuclear weapons; prevent their proliferation; outlaw all nukes in space; gradually destroy them; and establish a permanent U.N. peacekeeping force.

That last point signals that Kennedy was serious, because it assumes some yielding of American sovereignty, which has always been the U.S. bugaboo when it comes to the U.N. Only an international body with real authority over all nations can supervise genuine nuclear elimination. The principle was crystal clear: Non-proliferation for others means disarmament for us. Kennedy not only knew it; he was proposing it. The day after his speech, he signed a bill that created a U.S. government agency to implement his vision—the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Hawks in his administration hated the word “disarmament,” and wanted the agency named simply with the phrase “arms control.” But Kennedy insisted on “disarmament.” The principle would be reflected in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is now a matter of law. No non-proliferation among nuclear have-nots without serious commitment to eradication by nuclear haves.

Obama knows this, and said as much last spring in Cairo and Prague. By stepping back last week from the missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, he was dismantling the first stage of a nukes-in-space program—the old “Star Wars” fantasy. By putting nuclear weapons and their abolition at the top of the U.N. agenda this week, Obama is sailing with wind that already blows in that direction. “It is clear to all concerned,” he said in Cairo, “that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point.” Thus, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proposes his own five-point plan to, as he calls it, “drop the bomb.” Japan and Australia have recently established new disarmament commissions. Russia is eager to proceed with nuclear reductions toward elimination.

Since the end of the Cold War, a cloud of nuclear complacency has descended over public opinion. But the second nuclear age is about to begin.

Since the end of the Cold War, a cloud of nuclear complacency has descended over public opinion, mainly because the deadly Moscow-Washington standoff ended. But the threat posed by nuclear weapons, while different today, remains monumental. The global threshold is defined by the prospect of an explosive multiplication of nukes, as more nations acquire them, which will make their acquisition and use by non-state bad guys all but inevitable. The second nuclear age is about to begin.

President Obama wants to head it off. As Kennedy said in historic speech:

“The great question which confronted this body in 1945 is still before us: whether man’s cherished hopes for progress and peace are to be destroyed by terror and disruption. … Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us. … Men no longer maintain that disarmament must await the settlement of all disputes—for disarmament must be part of any permanent settlement. … The risks inherent in disarmament pale in comparison to the risks inherent in an unlimited arms race. … Ladies and gentlemen of this Assembly, the decision is ours. Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.”

James Carroll's most recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.