Scott Fina (second from right) and others have gathered outside the Vandenberg military base to protest the U.S. nuclear arsenal for many years. | Credit: Courtesy

I’m part of a small group of people who protest our nation’s nuclear weapons program at Vandenberg Space Force Base on the Central Coast of California. Monthly, we gather on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1, just outside the base’s main gate. We are a collection of grey-haired and wrinkled folks committed to nonviolence.

We protest at Vandenberg because the U.S. tests its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system at the base. It periodically fires unarmed ICBMs 4,200 miles across the Pacific to tiny Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Vandenberg also trains the missileers who are responsible for launching U.S. nuclear armed ICBMs in an actual conflict.

Generally, the base security soldiers have stood by watching us, or ignored us. We have over the years, however, had our troubling interactions with them. Most of us have been arrested at some point, several of us have been imprisoned, and one of us landed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Objective observers could find the optics of these moments comical. Visualize aged Ewoks holding peace posters, standing up to and then being carted off by stormtroopers armed with semiautomatic weapons (to borrow imagery from George Lucas).

These days we mostly stand quietly, looking into the faces of motorists on Highway 1. It can be monotonous. To pass the time, I survey motorists’ reactions. I compare the number who point a middle finger at us with the number who display the two-fingered peace sign.

Surprisingly, the number of motorists flashing peace signs has been increasing, and these motorists greatly outnumbers middle fingers as the Russian-Ukrainian war continues. They seem to see something our government does not, something strikingly obvious to other governments around the world but our own is blind to: American nuclear aggression.

I came upon a blatant manifestation of this blindness while researching the size and formidableness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It’s in plain view on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) website: a content section titled “America’s Nuclear Triad.” Go there to be treated to a glitzy, multimedia, virtual tour of our nation’s capacity to hurl nuclear bombs across the globe from land, sea, and air.

The DoD website strikes me as part video game, part action movie, and part testosterone booster. It boldly acknowledges that our nation deploys 400 nuclear armed ICBMs in underground silos, 14 Trident submarines collectively carrying 240 nuclear “missiles with multiple, independently targeted warheads,” and 60 long-range nuclear-capable bomber jets, forming “the most flexible leg of the [nuclear weapons] triad, capable of providing massive firepower in a short time anywhere on the globe, even through the most advanced defenses.”

I initially questioned the website’s authenticity; its presentation goes well beyond transparency, like strutting exhibitionism. A statement at the top of the website, however, notes it officially belongs to the U.S. government and provides a link to prove it.

I then wondered if some DoD techies got high one night and altered the webpage to see what kind of a rise they could get out of people, such as the leaders of Iran and North Korea.

One statement in the “sea” section of the website astounded me: “Ballistic missile submarines … are on constant patrol with enough firepower to make just one [submarine] … the sixth most powerful nuclear power in the world.”

So, there are14 American submarines roaming international waters, each with nuclear weaponry greater than all other nations’ on Earth, except the top five nuclear powers (counting the U.S.). By the measure of the DoD website’s swashbuckling, the skippers on these subs must be bummed knowing they share the sixth world ranking with 13 others.

Moreover, the DoD website describes plans for updating and enhancing all three: land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery systems!

All this begs the question: What is the aim of the Nuclear Triad content section of the DoD website, especially as we stand at the threshold of “nuclear Armageddon,” to employ words from President Biden referring to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? It’s a virtual flexing of our nation’s largest military muscles intended to scare our adversaries.

The most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released to the public by the Biden administration in late October 2022 reveals a comparable mindset, albeit in a less melodramatic and more intellectually appealing format. Similar to the DoD website, the NPR displays our nation’s nuclear weaponry capacity, readiness, and future development, but also justifies them with a supposedly informed and accurate understanding of the nuclear threat our nation faces.

The reasoning in the NPR is urbanely articulated; it’s also circular.

In essence, the Nuclear Posture Review claims that our nation’s security depends on having advanced nuclear weapons. Only this will constrain our adversaries who also have them, or might eventually have them, from using them against us. We must also continuously enhance our nuclear weapons to be safe, because our adversaries keep enhancing theirs.

Think this through. Is it not an unending spiral of development of evermore deadly weapons? How does that keep our nation, or any other, safe?

More alarming, the U.S. military perceives nuclear weaponry as the very crux of our national security, not a necessary evil, but a best practice for national defense, stating in the NPR:

“Our nuclear deterrent thus undergirds all our national defense priorities, including defending the U.S. homeland, deterring strategic attacks against the United States, our Allies and partners, and deterring regional aggression with emphasis on the [People’s Republic of China] and Russia.”

Indeed, the NPR even declares the use of our nation’s nuclear weapons appropriate and necessary to deter non-nuclear threats from other countries, claiming:

“We concluded that nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.”

The NPR admits, with even greater bravado, our nation’s willingness to use nuclear weapons, stating its readiness to make a first nuclear strike:

“We conducted a thorough review of a broad range of options for nuclear declaratory policy — including both No First Use and Sole Purpose policies — and concluded that those approaches would result in an unacceptable level of risk in light of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by competitors that could inflict strategic-level damage to the United States and its Allies and partners.”

I grew up thinking our country stood on the highest of moral ground.

But there it is, the first and only nation in the world to actually use nuclear weapons and do so against civilian targets (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the same nation that spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined (including Russia and China) — our nation — acknowledging, if not boasting, that it might throw the first nuclear punch in an international fistfight.

Seeing this from their perspectives, nations like Iran and North Korea would be foolish not to pursue nuclear weapon programs. Similarly, leaders of U.S. adversaries like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping can readily justify their use of tactical nuclear weapons; they need only quote the Nuclear Posture Review!

On the basis of even a brief look at the DoD website and quick read of the NPR, the U.S. is not to be trusted with nuclear weaponry. Our nation has unequivocally belied the pledge it made over 50 years ago when it signed the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968. That year, the U.S. joined Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom — the four other nuclear powers at the time — in promising to get rid of all their nuclear weapons, while 190 other nations agreed to not obtain them.

Moreover, our nation’s current nuclear prowess and aggression render moot the intent, if not the letter, of the terms of numerous major nuclear agreements the U.S. signed on to during the 54 years since the Nonproliferation Treaty. These include the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972), Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I (1972), Threshold Test Ban Treaty (1974), Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (1976), Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (1979), Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (1991), Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (1993), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996), Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (2002), and New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (2010).

In effect, the extensive diplomatic work and good will put into these historic agreements have ultimately gone nowhere in making our world safe from nuclear conflict.

While the U.S. and several other nations work to grow their nuclear prowess, the rest of the world has given up waiting for them to make good on their promises to disarm. In January 2021, the United Nations implemented the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW):an almost desperate and possibly last chance effort to save humanity and nature as we know them.

The TPNW, technically international law, bans the possession of all nuclear weapons. Although a whopping majority of nations have signed this treaty, those actually having nuclear weapons refuse to, including the U.S., Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, and other countries that host nuclear weapons on our nation’s behalf (Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Turkey).

It’s no surprise that the NPR unhesitatingly writes off the efficacy and value of the TPNW, utterly dismissing the judgment of most other nations, stating:

“While the United States actively pursues the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, it does not consider the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) to be an effective means to reach that goal. The United States does not share the underlying assumption of the TPNW that the elimination of nuclear weapons can be achieved irrespective of the prevailing international security environment. Nor do we consider the TPNW to be an effective tool to resolve the underlying security conflicts that lead states to retain or seek nuclear weapons.”

These are damning words by a self-righteous nation that suffers from a superiority complex.

That the world remains on the cusp of nuclear war after so many international agreements seeking disarmament over so many years, suggests an indomitable force undermines them. The American Nuclear Triad section of the DoD website and NPR bare what that force is: the thinking of an imperial strongman.

Our nation confuses leading the world, with ruling the world.

Empires rule, not lead.

Our government’s mindset is so fixed, so narrow, and so blind to itself, that global nuclear disarmament is unlikely achievable through multilateral negotiation. Our nation’s threat to carry out massive nuclear retaliation and refusal to adopt a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons, take mutual attempts at disarmament down a dead-end path.

But there is a way out of this nuclear quagmire, one that would turn military prowess on its head.

When guns are pointed at each other, someone has to holster theirs first to prevent an otherwise inevitable shootout. This warrants leadership of the highest kind: courageous, self-reflective, and visionary.

One nation led the world into the nuclear arms age and only one nation has used nuclear weapons: our own nation. One person in our nation has singular authority to order a nuclear attack: our president acting as Commander in Chief.

In the same vein, our president, carrying out the responsibility to faithfully protect the American people, also has the authority to order the unilateral nuclear disarmament of our nation and lead our country in pulling humanity back from its impending self-destruction.

From a reasoned standpoint — one that fully grasps the greatest and most pressing existential threat to life on our planet as we know it — a presidential executive order to immediately demobilize, disengage, and disassemble the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not far-fetched. On the contrary, the numerous nations that have joined the TPNW await it.

And imagine what taking such a step would bring: an international shockwave shaking the foundation of the suicidal nuclear framework that holds civilization captive today. Suddenly, the tyranny of nuclear weaponry would be exposed and challenged in a way it never has before.

Consider also, the person who sits in the Oval Office today. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, Joe Biden published an article in Foreign Affairs titled, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump.” In the article, Mr. Biden articulated a stance that would begin to put nuclear weaponry back in its box, rejecting its first use and limiting it only for retaliation against another country’s nuclear attack:

“I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

Mr. Biden’s experience included 8 years as vice president and many more as a member of Congress when he published his article. At the time, he had a solid grasp of national security. That he moved away from his earlier defensive stance on nuclear weapons in the 2022 NPR after taking the Office of President, suggests he caved to pressure from top military brass.

Nonetheless, Joe Biden may be the best hope for humanity to avoid nuclear annihilation. He is the oldest person to have been U.S. president, with a limited number of years to live. He has met his career ambitions, and in this sense has little to lose, but possibly a world to gain. But he needs to open his eyes, be true to his own heart and mind, and be out front in leading our nation in disarming itself of these monstrous weapons.

Were he to take this radical step, Mr. Biden can count on impeachment. He can count on lawsuits in multiple federal district courts challenging the constitutionality of the executive order, quickly finding their way into one or more U.S. Circuit Courts, and then one reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

But he can also count on massive protests backing him across our nation and the globe, especially youth hitting the streets, finally awakened to possible nuclear obliteration that could radically shorten their lives and keep them from fulfilling their dreams.

And he can count on the numerous nations around the world that have committed to the TPNW to help mobilize these protests.

In the meantime, we hobbling Ewoks will try to safekeep what remains of American sanity, albeit, we are few in number and passing away quickly.


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