“For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon: a doomsday device.”
Yes, I am quoting the opening lines of Dr. Strangelove, but Dr. Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientist delivered a lecture at Bates January 29th that coincidentally fell on the same day as the 50th anniversary of this film. The timing could not have been more perfect, for the film satirizes the Cold War attitudes towards weapons of mass destruction, while simultaneously making a comment on the difficulty of reducing nuclear weapons stores. Similarly, Dr. Grego’s talk “Putting the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle: Nuclear Weapons, Missile Defense and How Maine Fits In,” discussed the threat of a nuclear weapons arsenal and the challenges faced when trying to reduce the presence of nuclear weapons.
Dr. Grego cited one of the major obstacles in reducing the arms store as the US missile defense system. She stressed that nuclear weapons are a liability, not an asset. These defense systems that have been put in place are not an effective means of preventing a wide scale disaster.
“Keeping thousands of nuclear weapons safe and secure from accidents, accidental or mistaken launch, [or] sabotage, for decades is a tough assignment, and you could fairly say that we are struggling with it,” says Grego.
Although one may think that professional and well trained individuals are handling the weapons, this is not the case. Grego noted that recently dozens of officers responsible for handling nuclear weapons lost their security clearance because they cheated on tests that checked their competency to handle said weapons.
“There are still thousands of weapons in the US inventory, many more than needed to deter a country from using nuclear weapons against the US, and the US has not been quite ready to declare that that is the only reason for having them,” says Grego.
So why do we still have so many nuclear weapons? And why, instead of depleting our stores, does Congress insist on revamping our nuclear defense systems? “
The main obstacle to the US reducing nuclear weapons even further is political will to do so” Grego argues. She also insists that the false sense of security that these defense systems create is a major problem. Decades after Ronald Reagan proposed a defense system in his “Stars Wars” speech, little success or progress has been made with the program, yet the government continues to invest Millions of dollars into it.
The defense plan is meant to shoot down ballistic missiles before they reach the US. It involves an interceptor that would track and destroy the warhead before it reached US soil. Grego says this plan “sounds better after 10 seconds than 10 minutes.”
This defense system is what Grego calls a “scarecrow.” Over the past few decades, the defense programs have continued to fail key tests, and costs the US millions of dollars. Tests that had success were idyllic in nature; that is they would never be effective in real life situations, for they were tested in “scripted scenarios.” Any sort of successful countermeasure would require knowledge of the time of the launch and accurate location of the warhead. But if there was the threat of a nuclear attack, it is highly unlikely that the enemy would send a warning. Additionally, Grego argues that any country that has the technology to build an intercontinental missile can do this well, meaning they could take into consideration any countermeasures that could interfere with their weapon.
Despite the failures of the defense system, Congress is now funding the study of five potential new locations for the establishment of a nuclear defense testing site. And Maine is in the top five. Grego argues this is not a good allocation of funds, and is only adding to the nuclear weapons problem. She claims that by enhancing our defense system, our “
mistaken confidence in the system could lead the US and it’s allies to act more aggressively or to pursue military action before diplomatic ones are exhausted.” This behavior is only antagonizing the nuclear weapon problem. Alexandra LeFevre ‘16 wishes Grego more adequately explained the diplomacy behind nuclear negotiations, but she does agree that it causes problems with international relations “Nuclear weapons have totally altered international relationships. Politicians are hesitant to approach the subject of disarmament not because they are stubbornly ignorant when it comes to the physics (though some of them probably are); it›s because it means an absolute revolution in the way the United States establishes relationships with other countries.“
Things have changed since the Cold War era and the days of Dr. Strangelove, but nuclear weapons are still a prevalent threat today. And without persistence from the public and a change from the government, we are not that far at all from where we were three decades ago.