Michael KreponPOTUS in Situ for SOTU

On February 12th, the President of the United States will deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. Passages about nuclear dangers are usually included on these occasions. I asked Stimson’s Jonathan Fox to read all of these speeches, going back to President Truman, and to pass along the choicest quotes. Truman had surprisingly little to say on this subject, despite presiding over one of the most unsettling chapters of the first nuclear age. The most evocative passages of the lot, in my view, are those of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama. The most newsworthy passage came courtesy of George H.W. Bush. Have a look:

We are concentrating on producing the newest types of weapons and producing them as fast as we can.

– Harry S Truman, 1951

From 1945 to 1949, the United States was sole possessor of the atomic bomb. That was a great deterrent and protection in itself… But when the Soviets produced an atomic explosion–as they were bound to do in time–we had to broaden the whole basis of our strength. We had to endeavor to keep our lead in atomic weapons.

– Harry S Truman, 1953

The world cannot afford to stand still on disarmament! We must never give up the search for a basis of agreement… But a disarmament proposal, to hold real promise, must at the minimum have one feature: reliable means to ensure compliance by all. It takes actions and demonstrated integrity on both sides to create and sustain confidence. And confidence in a genuine disarmament agreement is vital, not only to the signers of the agreement, but also to the millions of people all over the world who are weary of tensions and armaments… I say once more, to all peoples, that we will always go the extra mile with anyone on earth if it will bring us nearer a genuine peace.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958

I have already taken steps to coordinate and expand our disarmament effort–to increase our programs of research and study-and to make arms control a central goal of our national policy under my direction. The deadly arms race, and the huge resources it absorbs, have too long overshadowed all else we must do. We must prevent that arms race from spreading to new nations, to new nuclear powers and to the reaches of outer space. We must make certain that our negotiators are better informed and better prepared–to formulate workable proposals of our own and to make sound judgments about the proposals of others… I have asked the other governments concerned to agree to a reasonable delay in the talks on a nuclear test ban–and it is our intention to resume negotiations prepared to reach a final agreement with any nation that is equally willing to agree to an effective and enforceable treaty.

– John F. Kennedy, 1961

The world was not meant to be a prison in which man awaits his execution. Nor has mankind survived the tests and trials of thousands of years to surrender everything-including its existence–now. This Nation has the will and the faith to make a supreme effort to break the log jam on disarmament and nuclear tests–and we will persist until we prevail, until the rule of law has replaced the ever dangerous use of force.

– John F. Kennedy, 1962

People of the Soviet Union, there is only one sane policy, for your country and mine, to preserve our civilization in this modern age: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?

– Ronald Reagan, 1984

Tonight I can tell you of dramatic changes in our strategic nuclear force. These are actions we are taking on our own because they are the right thing to do. After completing 20 planes for which we have begun procurement, we will shut down further production of the B-2 bombers. We will cancel the small ICBM program. We will cease production of new warheads for our sea-based ballistic missiles. We will stop all new production of the Peacekeeper missile. And we will not purchase any more advanced cruise missiles.

– George H.W. Bush, 1992

Now, even as we prosecute two wars, we’re also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people, the threat of nuclear weapons. I’ve embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them. To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades. And at April’s Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring 44 nations together here in Washington, DC, behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in 4 years so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.

– Barack Obama, 2010

Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better. And if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

– Barack Obama, 2012


  1. John Schilling (History)

    With benefit of hindsight, the Reagan/Bush pair is simply awesome. But it must be acknowledged that they did have some help from abroad in turning those words into action, and as I recall their words and actions both scared an awful lot of people at the time.

  2. Denis (History)

    Yeah, H.W.! He will go down in history for more than lip-reading and riding the Segway rodeo. Five (count ’em!) very specific steps: B2s, small ICBMs, sub-missiles, Peacekeepers, “advanced” cruise missiles.

    And 5 questions immediately occur to me:
    1. Did H.W. follow through on each step?
    2. Did his successors?
    3. Did he or any other president ever promise more in a single speech?
    4. Did any other president ever do more to disarm?
    5. Did I just become a Republican?

    Realizing, and ignoring, that each president is a product of the international situation he is elected into, there should be some quantitative way to rank presidents’ real contributions to nuke build-up/disarmament, using weighting factors for months in office, change in total megatonnage, number of warheads, geographic distribution of warheads, average delivery efficiency, etc. to get a Disarmament Efficacy Factor (DEF).

    Then the question is: Would the DEF inverted be a Presumed Deterrence Factor?

    And if we could quantitate the number of speeches or lines in speeches calling for disarmament for each president, weighted appropriately for time in office, etc., and divide that number by each president’s DEF, we’d have an Index for Tactical and Strategic BS or ITS-BS.

    • krepon (History)


      Brace youself: George W. Bush hacked away deeply at stockpile requirements.

      Hans Krinstensen illustrated this in graphic form. Check out “Worth the Wait” here: http://krepon.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/3524/worth-the-wait


    • anon (History)

      Yes, he followed through on all of them (mostly out of necessity, not out of desire for disarmament):

      “After completing 20 planes for which we have begun procurement, we will shut down further production of the B-2 bombers.”

      The AF had planned on buying 132 B-2s, but they were waaay tooooo expensive,Congress was balking at the cost, and the Cold War had ended. Can’t use Soviet air defense as an excuse if the Soviet Union didn’t exist. So Bush cut it to 75. But the cost was still too high. So they shut it off at 20. But Clinton actually added one, converting a training bomber to an operational bomber, so the number went to 21 until one crashed on Guam a few years back. So we are still at 20.

      “We will cancel the small ICBM program.” Yup. This would be the small, mobile ICBM, that was designed to address concerns about the size and vulnerability of the MX (Peacekeeper) ICBM. it was a dream of the 1980s (and the first project I worked on in my professional career). But the costs and concepts for mobility were out of reach, and the reason to worry about vulnerability went away with the Soviet Union. Better to de-MIRV fixed ICBMs than spend the extra billions to make them mobile (the Air Force needs to re-learn that lesson).

      “We will cease production of new warheads for our sea-based ballistic missiles.” Done (sort of). This was a reference to the W88 warheads for the D-5 missiles. The pits for them were made at Rocky Flats, which had been shut down after an FBI raid. We didn’t have anywhere else to make pits (we have a small capability now at Los Alamos), so he stopped production of something we had no way to produce, and most D-5 missiles still carry the smaller W-76 warhead. The W-76 is going through a life-extension, so, if this counts as “production,” Bush’s cancellation was temporary.

      “And we will not purchase any more advanced cruise missiles.” Done. The stealthy ACM was very expensive; the numbers we needed were somewhat confined by START, and we had much greater uses for the conventional version of the older air-launched cruise missile. So we didn’t buy any new ACMs and the Air Force has since announced their retirement (while it still deploys nuclear and conventional ALCMs. That should tell you something. The new one is gone, the older one is going strong.)

      I know this list is supposed to highlight SOFU speeches, but Bush made far more significant changes in Sept 1991, with the PNIs. This speech just announced further decisions that were “mopping up” after the PNIs. And, as MK says, George W. was at least as zealous (if not more so) in his unilateral disarming steps.

    • Denis (History)

      Thanks, Michael

      What an eye-popper of a graph that one is!

      The link you had up back to Hans’ original piece is expired. Here’s a direct link if anyone wants to get there.

      By my calculations of the total reduction 1977-2013, Bush and Daddy (mostly Daddy) did 71% whilst occupying the WH 33% of those years.

      In terms of war-head reductions per year in office:

      D — JC — 250/yr
      R — RR — 124/yr
      R — GHWB — 2625/yr (!!!)
      D — WC — 125/yr
      R — GWB — 564/yr
      D — BO — 0/yr

      I’m changing my blood-type to R.

      Although Bush Jr. made that comment about taking advice from his “other” father, you have to wonder what direct or indirect influence Bush Sr. (or Babs) had on Jr. in this respect.

    • Denis (History)

      anon, what an amazing summary.

      If that short history was written extemporaneously, I hope you are employed somewhere the secretaries of state and defense have access to you.

      Epiphany could be defined as the process of suddenly being confronted with one’s own appalling ignorance, in which case this recent nuclear history you and Michael are presenting is a real epiphany for me. Thank you both.

      I woke up this morning with Hans Kristensen’s graph in mind – specifically that inflection at 1993. Up until then the total stockpile line is dropping like a pole dancer who has just hit a greased spot. And then Clinton takes over, and the graph flat-lines for his entire administration. Virtually horizontal.

      The fact that Clinton did not oversee substantial warhead reduction could be explained by the old Democrat post-Truman/Acheson paranoia of being labeled soft, but the fact that Clinton did not continue Bush’s initiative clearly can not. There was no way Clinton could have been accused of being soft for continuing the disarmament that Bush began.

      That 1993 inflection – suggesting a refusal or inability of the Democrats to keep a good thing going – makes Democrats look pretty scary.

    • anon (History)


      Thanks for the complement. Although I don’t work for SecDef or SecState (I don’t want to work that hard), pretty much everyone (including their staff) has access to me and my memory. I just happened to be stuck right in the middle of the PNIs back in the day…

      As for the absence of disarmament under Democrats… Part of it is due to the old adage that only Nixon could go to China. Its not that the Dems fear looking weak, its that Rep Presidents have a lot more leeway with Congress when they want to take unilateral actions on nukes. Prior to Clinton (i.e. under Reagan and Bush) Congress recognized that the President, as commander in chief, could adjust nuclear weapons, up or down, as he saw fit for U.S. national secuirty. But Congress passed legislation that limited Clinton’s ability to further reduce deployed forces (while waiting for START II to enter into force), then repealed the legislation when George W. was President, so that he could reduce without treaties. George W. took many “quiet” steps on both the stockpile and deployed forces in Europe. If Obama tried the same thing, the sound of Republicans screaming would be deafening. And the House has tried, through legislation, to limit that ability for Obama.

      The other factor on the graph (1993) is a matter of reality. As the SU collapsed and George H.W. took steps to reduce U.S. nuclear forces (nonstrategics and stockpile), he cleared out lots of the stuff in the attic and the basement. The easy stuff was done. You don’t reduce nuclear weapons on a straight line; it isn’t simple arithmetic. Weapons come in categories, and therefore leave in chunks when you reduce.

  3. Drew (History)

    It is interesting to consider how President Obama’s more hawkish foreign policies (i.e. targeted killings, Asia pivot, etc.) have potentially provided him with enough political capital with the American public and other policymakers to make these reductions.

    Without them, cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile could more easily be construed as weakness. Is this possibly the only way that a Democratic president can make meaningful reductions?

  4. John (History)

    Thanks for Dennis’ informative data on the reduction of
    nuclear warheads!

    The lesson of this is that US can take unilateral
    steps to reduce its N stockpiles to a great extent.

    Obama’s record for the first term in the destruction
    of N warheads is quite disappointing, despite his lofty
    rhetoric. He may negotiate many START agreements but they
    will be meaningless if he does not destroy non-deployed
    warheads. Can he may a differance in the second term?

    I am becoming more pessimistic after looking at the “0”
    data of Dennis. Yes, I will be forced to switch to R party if things do not improve in the next two years.

  5. Alex W. (History)

    Conventional wisdom on the lack of Democrat disarmament is the “only Nixon can go to China” bit — Democrats are too afraid of looking soft on security, etcetera.

    Have there been detailed studies, though, of these policy decisions and of their reception (by the public, by Congress)? I’d be curious to know if this was really true or not or just a case of small sample sizes and more localized political requirements.

    I’m not necessarily doubting conventional wisdom on this matter, though there is often good reason to doubt conventional wisdom on most matters.

    • anon (History)

      The sample size is, obviously, quite small, and probably would not stand up to the rigors of a regression analysis. The meme started on the basis of the fact that Nixon got his treaties ratified, and Carter did not. Then it was extended to Bush I got his treaty ratified (START I) and Clinton did not (START II, CTBT). What many forget (including those in Congress who opposed START II) was that START II was Bush I’s Treaty.

      Anyway, back to regression analysis. Its hard to argue tht the only thing that stopped SALT II was that Carter was a Democrat. There were a whole bunch of other things going on at the time (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iranian taking of hostages), along with Carter’s inept negotiating strategy and internal (but very public) disputes among his advisors, that led to the lack of confidence in his ability to conduct arms control negotiations and secure U.S. security. As for the Clinton example, as I often tell people, Monica Lewinsky killed the CTBT. Republicans in the Senate would have voted “no” if Clinton proposed a bill that suggested that sky is blue.

      But, generally, the meme holds at a theoretical level. If a R President negotiates a treaty, the D Senators will support it because they like arms control (although this was not necessarily true in the early ’60s with the LTBT!) and the R Senators will support it because the like their President. If a D President negotiates a treaty, the D Senators will support it because they like arms control and support their President, some R Senators may also support it because they like arms control, but, as recent cases prove, many R Senators may oppose it just ’cause they don’t won’t to support something favored by the D President.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea successfully detonated a miniaturized nuclear device at a northeastern test site Tuesday, state media said, defying U.N. Security Council orders to shut down atomic activity or face more sanctions and international isolation.

    The underground explosion could take North Korea a big step closer to its goal of building a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile that could threaten the United States.

    —do we believe them when they say they’ve minaturized the design?


    • krepon (History)

      from the CTBTO:
      At 2.57.51 this morning (UCT), monitoring stations of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) detected a seismic event with explosion-like characteristics in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

      The CTBTO’s first and preliminary automatic detections were made by up to 25 seismic stations around the world. The first data were made available to CTBTO Member States in little more than one hour, and before the DPRK’s announcement.

      The event measured 5.0 in magnitude, which is around twice as large as the DPRK’s nuclear test in 2009 (4.52) and much larger than the one in 2006 (4.1).

      The location accuracy is currently approximately +/- 16.2 kilometres, indicating that the location of today’s event is largely identical with the two previous nuclear tests (Lat.: 41.313 degrees north; long.: 129.101 degrees east). As with the two previous nuclear tests, the signal was emitted from close to the surface.

  7. krepon (History)

    Two short paragraphs in the SOTU:

    “Of course, our challenges don’t end with al Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.

    Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”

  8. John (History)

    Not that encouraging message!

    More focused on misguided non-proliferation policy
    than on real disarmament efforts! How will Russia
    react to US’ strengthening of missile defense?