The tax-cutting edge
Nuclear weapons are no bargain
Nuclear weapons are cheap. At least that was one of the founding truisms of the
Cold War. After all, it costs much less to build a nuclear warhead capable of
leveling a town than it would cost to make the thousands of conventional
explosives it would take to do the job. So, by the logic of the time, a nuclear
arsenal was by far the most efficient way of keeping a dangerous Eastern Bloc
A stunning new report by the Brookings Institution, one of the nation's top
think tanks, shows how badly misguided that assumption was. According to
Brookings's calculations, which are based on newly declassified data and four
years of painstaking research, the total cost of the US nuclear weapons program
between 1940 and 1996 came to $5.5 trillion (in 1996 dollars). That many
one-dollar bills stacked together would stretch nearly to the moon and back.
The cost of the warheads themselves amounted to only 7.4 percent
($409 billion) of the total. But there's more to funding a nuclear defense
than buying warheads. During that same period, our nation spent
$3.2 trillion for a vast array of systems designed to deliver nuclear
payloads; another $831 billion went for systems to target and control
those delivery systems; and $937 billion was spent on measures to defend
ourselves against a nuclear attack. If you include the current and future costs
(conservatively estimated at $365 billion) of cleaning up all the nuclear
waste generated in the process, the grand total hits $5.8 trillion.
That price tag -- $5,800,000,000,000 -- is more than was spent over the same
time period on health, or transportation, or education and job training. More
than was spent to fight crime or help the poor. Only non-nuclear defense and
Social Security received more dollars.
At least as disturbing is the fact that it took a private study, and four
years, to bring these numbers to the public. The executive branch didn't even
keep track of how much it was spending annually (not to mention cumulatively)
on the nuclear effort. And Congress showed little interest in asking.
The result was a meltdown of democracy. The public had no idea how much money
was being spent on nuclear weapons -- no way of balancing legitimate security
needs with other pressing priorities. Deprived of this information, it was
difficult for anyone to demand the most basic accountability, to ask whether
there was a cheaper way to achieve the same goal. The debate was not real.
Instead, a kind of madness reigned. At one point in the early 1960s, Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara estimated that the United States needed some 400
megatons' worth of nuclear explosives to be able to destroy its adversaries,
and that something like 1000 long-range weapons could get the job done. At the
time, the US nuclear stockpile contained 17,000 megatons of nuclear explosives.
And, for most of the Cold War period, we hoarded between 10,000 and 15,000
Even then, it was clear that the country was building many, many more weapons
than it could possible have use for. And it was clear that the overkill
increased the risks of an accidental nuclear war. But it was not clear how much
this was costing. One reason: Congress went along with the charade because, as
the Brookings study points out, military contracts generated jobs back home.
This is the "military-industrial complex" that President Eisenhower famously
Today, America pays to maintain a stunning 10,000 long-range nuclear weapons.
Of what possible use are they? We spend $35 billion annually on nuclear
weapons ($10 billion of which goes to cleanup and treaty monitoring).
Meanwhile, countries such as India and Pakistan won't listen to our pleas to
say no to nukes: you are happy to preach disarmament, they say, but reluctant
to practice it.
It is hard to escape the conclusion the public has been sorely misled -- that
Americans have yet to be included in an honest discussion of how many of our
resources should be diverted to weapons of mass destruction. Reacting to
questions from reporters after the study was released, James Rubin, the State
Department spokesman, said that the fact that so much money was spent "should
not come as a surprise." He's right: it shouldn't. But it does. And that's only
part of the problem.
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