Tantalisingly close to nuclear disarmament

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2007, 12:00am

I was telling a friend recently that I was going to write about nuclear weapons. As I explained a couple of my thoughts to her, she said I went white. I countered that this is why we prefer not to think about the unthinkable. I probably do blanche, but I am not alone.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes recounts, in his book Arsenals of Folly, how US president Ronald Reagan one morning watched the film The Day After. It is about a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, a quiet university town in the hilly eastern part of the state. Reagan wrote in his diary that the film 'left me greatly depressed'.

Soon after that Reagan was given a briefing on the consequences of a nuclear war. Officials at the same meeting said he became withdrawn.

So it was that, at the summit in Reykjavik with the reforming Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the two men came as close as two antagonistic leaders have ever done to agreeing to abolish all nuclear weapons.

For the first time, thanks to Rhodes' diligent research, we have a near-verbatim record of the conversations of the two leaders, plus an immense amount of the background negotiations by high-powered advisers from both sides.

The most morally self-contained of all was Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defence, who was the hawk among hawks and who used the credibility earned by his formidable intelligence to persuade Reagan at the last minute to pull back from closing the deal. It remains a mystery why Reagan allowed Mr Perle to do so - perhaps he knew that if Mr Perle was not convinced, the Senate or the mass of voters never would be, either.

After both presidents had retired, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, invited Mr Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, to stay on their ranch in California. That was a conversation without records, but certainly worth imagining - the reminiscing of two men who at one time felt the other represented an aggressive 'evil empire'. Each was out to pull off the coup de grace of a pre-emptive nuclear war, but gradually became convinced that the other was sincere about total nuclear disarmament.

If Reykjavik did not produce the goods, it did change the climate between the two superpowers. It produced, soon after, the agreement to abolish intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe and it encouraged president George H.W. Bush to unilaterally get rid of all American tactical nuclear weapons. Mr Gorbachev immediately responded with far-reaching initiatives of his own.

But once Mr Gorbachev, Reagan and Mr Bush senior were off the scene, momentum on nuclear disarmament was dissipated.

Meanwhile, the remaining Russian missiles rust and rot in silos, poorly serviced and maintained, a form of unwilling disarmament.

If Iran is ever to be persuaded that it should forgo nuclear weapons, the promise made by the nuclear powers to substantially reduce the number of missiles has to be realised. If Iran goes nuclear, the genie will really be out of the bottle, especially in the volatile Middle East.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist