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Jonathan Power: Can Obama Better Ronald Reagan on Nuclear Arms Control?

A 50 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal of Russia and the United States was proposed by President Barack Obama this past weekend. And President Dmitry Medvedev seems to be receptive. What neither have mentioned is that we have been here before—with presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But, in a bit of infrequently told history, this earlier attempt at a grand disarmament was undermined by a key adviser on the American side and short sightedness on the Soviet side. Although Russia and the United States keep their missiles on hair-trigger alert, there is almost nobody in the higher reaches of policy making on either side who thinks they would ever be used. Indeed, this has been so for years. Doubts about the reasoning for the vast number of nuclear weapons in America's stockpile go back a long way. President Dwight Eisenhower, the former World War II commander in chief, observed that, “military statements of nuclear weapons requirements were grossly inflated.” Indeed, nuclear stockpiles seem to have always been governed by a calculus of confusion. Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once replied to a question posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Rhodes (whose latest book, Arsenal of Folly, is the best single read on the subject) by saying, “Each individual decision to increase the number of nuclear weapons seemed rational at the time but the result was insane.” Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, certainly no dove, while negotiating with the Soviet Union in Moscow, said at a press conference, “One of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a country is what in the name of God is nuclear strategic superiority?” Ronald Reagan was the first American president to break through the murk and horror of the nuclear weapons debate. Many have judged Reagan as a bit of a simpleton. But now, thanks in part to good biographies on him, we may have a more nuanced view. Yes, he wasn't an intellectual, but his political instincts were fine-tuned and turned out to be right more often than the counsels of his experts. Within his administration it was he who felt the strongest about nuclear abolition. Jack Matlock, Jr., who served as Reagan's principal adviser on Soviet affairs, said in one interview that he “suspected that Reagan would not retaliate in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.”

THE INDEX — March 17, 2009

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THE INDEX — March 3, 2009

President Barack O

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