Jeffrey LewisThe Admiral

Listen to “The Admiral” from the At Action Park LP.

Some large portion of my mis-spent youth in Illinois was soundtracked by minimalist post-punk Chicago noise-rockers Shellac.

Central to Shellac’s seminal first LP, At Action Park, was the magisterial “The Admiral”—a sea shanty of sorts about either a twisted sailor with an improbably large mustache or the strip club in Chicago.

But I digress.

Vice Admiral Robert Monroe (USN, Retired), former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, has scrawled in an impossibly silly op-ed in the Washington Times.

Apparently, “The Admiral” believes the United States is “implicitly required” under the NPT to “design, test and produce new nuclear weapons.”

While I enjoy Albini et al on the stereo, Friend of Wonk Stephen Schwartz takes care of The Admiral in an open letter to Monroe and the Washington Times:

To the Editors

Robert Monroe’s defense of nuclear deterrence is deeply flawed and misguided (“Defining Deterence,” Commentary, September 29).

Monroe claims that “a totally different deterrent strategy and totally different nuclear weapons” will effectively deter “rogue, failed and failing states, and terrorist organizations in sanctuary states….” Yet he offers no evidence how this would work, and never explains what would be deterred.

Nuclear weapons have traditionally, and rather effectively, deterred the use of other nuclear weapons. Now Monroe seeks to broaden this mission include, what? Conventional civil wars, low intensity border conflicts, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, conventional terrorist attacks? We don’t have to deter everything, but even if we did, there are abundant non-nuclear means of doing so. And what about suicidal terrorists, who by virtue of having no significant territorial assets to threaten and being willing to die are by definition undeterrable? Old or new, big or small, nuclear weapons can’t address that threat.

Monroe argues, again without evidence, that North Korea and Iran are “quite confident that we would never use” any of the 10,000 or so nuclear weapons in our arsenal to stop them from acquiring their own nuclear weapons. That’s a truly remarkable claim, given how little we know about the inner workings of both countries.

But there’s no need for the United States to threaten a nuclear attack to forestall the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Our vastly superior and precise conventional capabilities, coupled with diplomacy, are up to that task. Moreover, North Korea and Iran cannot assume that we will sit idly by if they ever deploy or threaten to use nuclear weapons. That’s deterrence, and it still works.

Monroe is at his shakiest in arguing that people like me are “wrong in believing our designing and testing new nuclear weapons will somehow contribute to proliferation. In fact, it’s the only way to stop proliferation.” Oh really?

From 1945 through 1990, the United States manufactured some 70,000 nuclear weapons, from multi-megaton citybusters to small battlefield artillery shells and land mines. We also conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, the last in 1992. Yet during that period, the nuclear club expanded to include six other countries. Pakistan joined in 1998, but its nuclear program began in the early 1970s, and the North Korean and Iranian programs also pre-date the end of U.S. nuclear weapons production and testing.

It is simply absurd for Monroe to suggest that U.S. production and testing of nuclear weapons—then or now—has no negative effect on proliferation, let alone claim that this is the “only way” to curtail it. How does he explain our diplomatic successes over the years in getting countries like Taiwan, Brazil and Argentina to abandon efforts to develop nuclear weapons? Were implicit or explicit nuclear threats the reason Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus decided to eliminate all the nuclear weapons they inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Equally troubling is his highly selective and misleading summary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This he characterizes as an agreement which “explicitly approves the U.S. (and four others) as nuclear weapons states” and which established a bargain whereby “non-nuclear states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons” while states “with nuclear weapons agree to try to prevent all others from acquiring them.”

Yes, the NPT legally recognizes there are five nuclear powers, but it hardly approved of that fact, nor did it enshrine it for all time. Article VI of the NPT requires the nuclear powers to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament….” That’s the true bargain in the NPT, the one 97 percent of the signatories to the treaty believe is not being honored by the nuclear powers, especially the United States.

The arms race as we knew it is over, and there are fewer nuclear weapons today than there were when the NPT went into force 35 years ago. But reductions have stalled, leaving more than 30,000 nuclear weapons scattered around the world. The lack of momentum toward disarmament, combined by the hypocritical and belligerent posturing of the Bush administration—which demands that other states disarm even as it insists on the need to retain and enhance a substantial nuclear arsenal for the foreseeable the future—is a major cause of proliferation today.

Stephen I. Schwartz
Editor and co-author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940


  1. P. Geitenbeek (History)

    I hate to find fault with the editorial by Stephen Schwarts, except that in spite of England having nuclear weapons, this did not deter the Falkland War.

  2. Captain_Canuck

    “Canada is a huge country with a very small population and consequently a very big attitude problem, especially towards the United States.” Steve Albini, 1995

    Taken by surprise, indeed.

  3. Josh Narins (History)

    Thanks for presenting the letter, which the WashTimes will unlikely print, and certainly not print in full.