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Opinion: Biden confronts the nuclear elephant in the room

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Speaking at a fundraiser for Senate Democrats on Thursday, President Joe Biden warned that the risk of “Armageddon” – given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats – has not been this high since 1962.

Julian Zelizer

While multiple US officials told CNN the warning was not based on any new intelligence, those were unsettling words for a nation to hear from the commander in chief. Whether one lives in red or blue America, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is something that transcends partisan lines.

Last week, Putin annexed four Ukrainian regions after a sham referendum – a move that could justify his use of nuclear weapons to defend the territories he considers a part of Russia. This historic moment in the war between Russia and Ukraine is an important reminder that the US has let nuclear arms control fall from the agenda, and the consequences are dangerous.

Biden’s comments referred to the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when the world seemed to teeter on the brink of nuclear war as the US and the Soviet Union faced off over missiles in Cuba.

As President John F. Kennedy struggled through negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for 13 days, Americans waited with bated breath and did their best to prepare for a nuclear attack. Some planned escape routes from major cities while others stocked up on transistor radios, bottled water and radiation kits for their families. Although nobody knew it at the time, the danger was even greater than most thought as the leaders didn’t have full control of the situation. In the end, diplomacy won out, a deal was reached and disaster was averted.

Today, the threat is not so much a nuclear war but, rather, Russia’s potential use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine. The carnage would not be as catastrophic as what was at stake with Cuba in 1962, but devastating, nonetheless. And if tactical weapons are used in this situation, Putin would open the door to their deployment again. The normalization of these weapons of mass destruction would create a nightmarish situation.

In 1963, Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the pursuit of arms agreements would remain a priority for more than a decade. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement and four years later, President Richard Nixon struck a deal with the Soviet Union to limit the number of nuclear missiles in their arsenals. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks [SALT] were essential to Nixon’s policy of détente – easing relations with the Soviets.

Although Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter continued to pursue more agreements, namely SALT II, those efforts stalled in the late 1970s. The conservative movement in America, with Ronald Reagan at the helm, made détente and arms agreements a focus of his political attacks. During his primary challenge to Ford in 1976, Reagan said détente was “a one-way street. We are making the concessions, we are giving them (the Soviet Union) the things they want; we ask for nothing in return.” Although Ford defeated Reagan, the attack had staying power, and Ford backed away from the policy of détente, shying away even saying the term in public. After conservative Republicans did well in the 1978 midterms, with many candidates running on platforms that called for being tougher on communism, a new treaty became even more difficult, politically.

Soviet aggression didn’t make things easier. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter admitted, “My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically in the last week than even the previous two and one – half years before that.” Carter had already signed the SALT II treaty in June 1979 after seven years of negotiations, but he asked the Senate to postpone action on it after the Soviet invasion. (While the treaty was never ratified by Congress, the US voluntarily observed the arms limits for several years.)

Fears of nuclear war then accelerated. In the 1980s, then-President Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric and a series of quick successions of Soviet leaders kept Americans on edge. When ABC broadcast the movie, “The Day After,” in 1983, which depicted a fictional war that escalates to nuclear Armageddon, millions of viewers were terrified. In his diary, Reagan wrote, “It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed.” One 16-year-old who watched the film told a reporter, “I thought the show wasn’t as scary as thinking about it afterwards, and wondering if we’re all going to die.”

A massive, international nuclear freeze movement that emerged during the 1980s reflected the zeitgeist and created renewed pressure on elected officials to engage in negotiations again.

Although Reagan spent his first term railing against any negotiations with the Soviets, he later bucked conservative opposition to sign the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) in 1987. The emergence of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev changed international dynamics and his embrace of reform and peace opened the door to the treaty, which led to the elimination of entire classes of missiles.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev signed Strategic Arms Reduction Treat (START) I, which made deep cuts in each nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Although the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons remained a topic of discussion – particularly how to keep them out of the hands of rogue states and terrorist networks. In 2002, while President George W. Bush and Putin signed a new nuclear arms treaty, the US later raised concerns that Russia was assisting Iran with what intelligence agencies deemed to be a nuclear weapons program. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 that aimed to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

But when Donald Trump became president, he pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 (subsequently, Iran has escalated its nuclear arms program). In 2019, the United States also withdrew from the INF Treaty. One year later, Trump did the same with the Open Skies Treaty, which had enabled participants to conduct surveillance flights to foster transparency and reduce the risk of war.

While Biden’s recent comments invoking Armageddon may not be based on new intelligence on Putin, they reflect the long-simmering unease over the Russian leader’s nuclear threats and should serve as an impetus to bring back long-term nuclear arms control. Biden has already attempted to kick-start this issue by extending the New START nuclear treaty with Russia until 2026.

It’s time to make nuclear arms control a priority once again. This will require innovative thinking since we are no longer living in an era where most of these weapons are under the control of two superpowers. Now the reach of these weapons of mass destruction is much wider and control over their usage is more difficult than it was in 1962.

From the moment these weapons were introduced, the world has lived with the perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation. In recent years, the attention has turned to other dangers, from terrorism to pandemics, and many people seem to have forgotten the giant elephant in the room.

With Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons, it’s past time to kick start a new era of arm controls. As Gorbachev said upon signing the INF treaty, “The treaty whose text is on this table offers a big chance at last to get onto the road leading away from the threat of catastrophe. It is our duty to take full advantage of that chance and move together toward a nuclear-free world, which holds out for our children and grandchildren and for their children and grandchildren the promise of a fulfilling and happy life without fear and without a senseless waste of resources of weapons of mass destruction.”

As the world now faces the real possibility of those weapons being deployed, let’s remember Gorbachev’s wise words — a sentiment that was shared by Reagan – and make this world safer.

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