The Four Horsemen against the Bomb

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Author: David Cortright

Military officials and politicians today seem unable to conceive of a future without the Bomb. Old thinking retains its grip at the Pentagon, and the vested interests that profit from excessive military spending remain a formidable lobby. Congress sustains nuclear postures that are inherited from the Cold War and continues to fund unneeded weapons systems.

Yet some of the principal architects of the Cold War have now become advocates of disarmament. It is one of the ironies of our age that Cold War wannabes in Washington cling to outmoded policies, while genuine Cold Warriors of the past now call for a world without nuclear weapons.

The Four Horsemen

The most important voices against the Bomb are those of the “four horsemen”— former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. All are eminent statesmen who spent their careers justifying and building nuclear weapons but who now recognize the need to abandon them. In the process they have reshaped the global nuclear debate.

The four eminent statesmen who spent their careers justifying and building nuclear weapons now call for a world without nuclear weapons.

The “neo-abolitionist” cause emerged from a conference in 2006 at the Hoover Institution commemorating the 20th anniversary of Reykjavik. That was the dramatic international summit at which Reagan and Gorbachev came breathlessly close to an agreement on complete nuclear disarmament. After that conference Shultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn wrote their now famous articles in The Wall Street Journal announcing their support for disarmament, making the case for eliminating all nuclear weapons and listing concrete steps toward achieving that goal.

The case of William Perry

For the group of four, the commitment to nuclear abolition is a striking departure from previous beliefs. William Perry spent most of his professional life in the Pentagon, building and maintaining nuclear weapons. At the end of the Cold War, however, he realized that the vast remaining arsenals of the United States and Russia were a security liability rather than an asset. His support for disarmament results from a deepening concern about the spread of nuclear weapons to other governments and potentially to non-state actors and the consequent risk of nuclear use and terrorist acquisition.

There are fewer nuclear weapons, but they are in a growing number of hands, and they are coveted by those who would not hesitate to use them to inflict maximum loss of life.

Perry warns that the danger of a bomb actually exploding somewhere has increased since the end of the Cold War. There are fewer weapons in the world, but they are in a growing number of hands, and they are coveted by those who would not hesitate to use them to inflict maximum loss of life and global chaos. Many international experts and policy reports have called attention to the twin threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, including the Hans Blix Commission.

Completing unfinished business

It is not only fear but hope that inspires the growing disarmament movement. For Shultz especially, the goal is to rekindle the spirit of Reagan and Gorbachev and their commitment to transformational disarmament. He was present at Reykjavik at the most pivotal moments as the two leaders exchanged agreed plans for reducing nuclear weapons to zero. He knows it would be possible to negotiate such a staged process. In Reagan’s vision it would include shared missile defenses to protect against cheating. Shultz, Perry and their confreres want to complete the unfinished business of Reykjavik, a binding agreement among the major powers to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The goal is to rekindle the spirit of Reagan and Gorbachev and their commitment to transformational disarmament.

The journey toward that goal will be a long one, but steps in that direction are being made, including implementation of the New START arms reduction treaty and the declared commitment of the United Nations Security Council to a world without nuclear weapons. Efforts by the four elders undoubtedly have helped to make this possible. Now in their 80s and early 90s, respectively, Perry and Shultz could be resting on their laurels. Instead they continue to campaign across the globe for their lofty vision. We owe them a debt of gratitude.


David Cortright is director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. This essay is adapted from “Cold Warriors Against the Bomb,” found at the webzine Peace Policy, published by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


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