The Boston Phoenix
July 16 - 23, 1998


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 at bay.

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 long-range weapons.

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 warned of.

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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