Fifty years ago the biggest event in human history almost happened. During a fateful 13-day period in October 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States balanced at the brink of nuclear war as the Soviets attempted to establish nuclear bases in Cuba.
I had just graduated with my degree in nuclear engineering from MIT and reported to the Army nuclear power program at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. All of us spent the week glued to the TV wondering if the world's first nuclear war was about to begin. I will never forget the relief we felt when we learned that, thanks to the vision and restraint of a handful of people, this point in history would be marked by what did not occur.
What President John F. Kennedy and his advisers didn't know as they contemplated an invasion of Cuba was that the Soviets already had tactical nuclear weapons on the island. An invasion could have started a nuclear exchange. Kennedy's advisers gave him two alternatives: an invasion or a naval blockade. Kennedy chose a blockade. Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev chose to remove the bases. Somehow, through all that tension, better sense prevailed. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly though, the costs of our nuclear posture are not. We have a Cold War nuclear arsenal built to defend us from Mad Men-era threats. But those threats, like the three-martini lunch, are a thing of the past. And the over half a trillion dollars we're going to spend on maintaining that bloated arsenal over the next decade will be a half trillion less we can spend on the training and equipment our troops need to face 21st-century threats.
Today, President Barack Obama has the opportunity to bring a Cold-War era policy into the 21st century and is readying a presidential policy review for our thousands-strong nuclear arsenal.
What the president decides to do impacts everything from where and how the weapons are targeted to whether or not we reshape our stockpile to reflect modern needs.
For example, for the cost of one new ballistic nuclear submarine, we could provide body armor and bomb-resistant Humvees to all our troops overseas, house and treat every homeless veteran, and still have $2.2 billion left over to pay down the debt. And that is just the cost of one of the 13 new subs Congress is trying to force on the Pentagon. Our troops and security should come before pork-barrel nuclear programs.
Re-shaping our nuclear force is an issue of vision and conscience. We need the vision to recognize our world has changed, and we can't allow pork-barrel spending and bureaucratic inertia to shape our national security priorities.
As a matter of conscience, we should remember that weapons are still pointed at civilian targets, and we haven't even adopted appropriate safe guards that would reduce the chance of accidental launch. A single strike on a city can kill millions of people. And if the United States remains mired in Cold War attitudes, it makes it harder for us to lead in the effort to reduce and lock up nuclear stockpiles in other countries, which increases the risk of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.
It's up to the president to buck bureaucratic inertia and have the vision to confront the threats and costs our stockpile has created. This week, more than a hundred political and faith leaders have signed a joint letter asking the president to do just that. They join military leaders like former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, who have long pushed policy-makers to reduce the role of weapons in security strategy, trim stockpiles and save millions of dollars.
I hope the president and Congress listen.