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Cold War Lessons for Today's Nuclear Disarmament Debate

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
August 20, 2009


During the last years of the Cold War, when I was a junior U.S. naval officer on a ballistic missile submarine, I learned lessons about nuclear weapons and political change that convinced me that nuclear abolition is admirable. But it will take considerable effort to achieve, and next major steps will require addressing bureaucratic inertia on nuclear targeting policy, linking conventional and nuclear arms control, and reducing the prestige of possessing nuclear weapons by, for example, encouraging Great Britain, the nuclear weapon state in the forefront of nuclear disarmament, to show a clear path toward its relinquishment of these weapons.

In late November 1989, I attended the U.S. Navy's school on nuclear weapons targeting. Without revealing classified information, I can say here that I was shocked to discover that the main mission of my submarine was to target Eastern Europe, which was then part of the Warsaw Pact. Our targeting assignment especially included East Germany. What I remember most clearly was that none of my fellow officers at the school were discussing the fundamental changes sweeping East Germany-the Berlin Wall had been knocked down earlier that month-other Eastern European countries, and the Soviet Union.

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