President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima on Friday—in a symbolic effort to close some very old wounds from America’s first nuclear detonation. In a much-anticipated speech, Obama declared that “we have a shared responsibility to look directly in the eye of history,” learn from it and “pursue a world without” nuclear weapons.
But for 76-year-old retired Air Force General George Lee Butler, a country boy from rural Mississippi who once had his finger on the trigger for thousands of nuclear warheads more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, Obama and the rest of Washington are moving far too slowly towards a denuclearization; indeed, he believes the devastation that unfolded there is still a haunting vision of what could happen in the future.
Butler is a former bomber pilot who in 1994, after retiring from a position as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, made the highly unusual and controversial decision to renounce his lifelong profession of preparing for cataclysmic conflict and publicly embrace the abolition of nuclear arms on the grounds that they are “immoral and therefore anathema to societies premised on the sanctity of life.”
Butler says that while he is cheered by Obama’s rhetorical embrace of denuclearization and by the agreement to cap nuclear arsenals that the president reached with the Russians in 2010, he is generally chagrined that the two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, have missed opportunities to move towards much smaller nuclear arsenals and to limit the risks of a surprise or accidental nuclear attack.
In a new memoir, Butler writes that “any sense of urgency for further reductions has been lost” in part because the United States has mishandled its relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin, he writes, “is the thuggish and entirely predictable embodiment of a Russia wounded badly in pride and stature” due to some mistakes Washington has made. Russia is still far from “a great rather a feared nation, and like my own country, it is still held in thrall by nuclear weapons,” he says.
At Hiroshima, a relatively small and primitive explosive destroyed roughly 65,000 structures and killed 70,000 people instantly and 70,000 more over the next five years. Butler, as the 13th in a long line of gung-ho U.S. nuclear commanders— an heir in 1991 to the legacy of the likes of Curtis LeMay—came to realize this was minor damage compared to what could be wrought by the weapons he controlled. In the nuclear war contemplated in his years in Omaha, Nebraska at the Strategic Air Command, he writes, roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons would have been used by America and another 10,000 by Russia in the space of just a few hours.
“Wholesale nuclear war” – of the type that he and his colleagues expected, planned for, and practiced in simulations – “would have made life as we know it unsustainable,” Butler writes. “Billions of people, animals, every living thing would perish under the most agonizing conditions imaginable.”
And it could still happen today, he believes, because U.S. officials remain in the grip of the delusion that nuclear deterrence is an effective and safe policy. According to data recently declassified by the Pentagon, the United States still has 4,571 warheads in its stockpile, plus more awaiting dismantlement. The data show, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a smaller reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal under Obama than during any other post-Cold War administration, and a steady decline during the Obama administration in the pace of warhead dismantlement.
In his new book Butler reveals—in passages written by him and by a former Pentagon colleague—that the world was in greater danger from nuclear devastation during the Cold War than most people knew. He writes that the nuclear targeting process for years was substantially divorced from what the nation’s top civilian leaders, including the president and secretary of Defense, said they desired. His story of the infighting waged between defense civilians in Washington and the military’s team of targeting officers in Omaha hasn’t previously been told in such detail.
Butler’s dramatically changed role in America’s nuclear drama was driven by what he describes as a growing alarm over deficiencies in nuclear war plans and the vested interests of Pentagon officials and the defense industry in maintaining such plans. After participating in monthly drills at the Strategic Air Command headquarters with U.S. officials to prepare for a massive nuclear attack, he learned that then, as today, a president would have just ten minutes “to grasp the circumstances, listen to… the retaliatory options, and make a decision that could mean life or death for tens or hundreds of millions of people.” And in every case, the “presidential stand-in” on the phone would ask for Butler’s recommendation, putting the onus of that heavy decision on him.
Butler, who had begun investigating the nuclear targeting plan’s secrets several years earlier as a senior officer with the Joint Staff, eventually recoiled from his role as a chief implementer of the war plan. His public remarks after retiring in 1994 brought him a burst of celebrity and swept him into commissions and studies by independent experts aimed at pointing the way towards a closure of the nuclear weapons age.
Stepping into the anti-nuclear camp, he writes, “put my reputation in the balance [and] cost me innumerable friends.” At one point, a fellow retired senior officer startled him on the way to a National Press Club speech by asking if he was concerned “that you will give comfort to our enemies and insult the men and women you used to command.” His advocacy failed, in the end, to significantly alter the direction of nuclear policy under three succeeding presidents.
But now, Butler says firmly, “I have no regrets” about staking out that startling position.
Butler says he remains convinced that during the Cold War, “we fell victim to a cascading series of missteps, driven by the visceral fear” of a nuclear-armed archenemy, and reaped as a result “a bitter harvest of worst-case scenarios” that ceaselessly demanded “more weapons and delivery systems.” He still feels that “shearing away entire societies” — a unique prospect of nuclear war — has no military or political justification, as he told an arms control group in Boston in 1997. “There are no rogue nations, only rogue leaders,” and so any use of such devastating weapons would necessarily amount to unjustifiable overkill.
Butler as a result says he has many lingering frustrations about the military’s failure to hear his alarms about the dangers of keeping large nuclear stockpiles, and about what he regards as the continuing ability of today’s nuclear strategists and the large corporations that profit from such work to pull the government more deeply into archaic nuclear roles.
Although President Obama in 2009 embraced “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and during his visit to Hiroshima called for a “moral revolution” that would eliminate such arms, Butler says he is not a fan of the administration’s nuclear modernization plans.
Those plans include upgrades to a handful of existing nuclear warheads, a fleet of new nuclear submarines, a new intercontinental ballistic missile system, a new air-launched cruise missile, and a new strategic bomber force. The cost, according to the Pentagon, will be $350 billion to $450 billion over the next 10 years alone, and many independent experts say it will be much higher.
When Butler commanded such weapons systems, he calculated they had cost the government more than $6 trillion. The submarines under his operational command alone cost $3 billion a copy, he writes, the 24 missiles on each boat cost $60 million apiece, and the annual operation of a boat cost $75 million.
His staff in Omaha numbered 6,000, including a thousand intelligence analysts, and he nearly always held a “clunky cell phone” that kept him tethered to the command’s command post 100 feet below ground. “I saw the arms race from the inside… I was responsible for nuclear war plans with some 12,000 targets, many planned to be struck with repeated nuclear blows, some to the point of complete absurdity,” he recalled.
More than some of his predecessors in that role, Butler insisted on getting detailed briefings on both nuclear weapons targets and the effects of their detonations. Typically around 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, the weapons in his arsenal would ignite fires and char skin many miles away, generate gusts of winds more fierce than anything produced by nature, destroy electrical circuits and disrupt communications miles away, dig out craters approaching a mile in diameter, and release “a torrent of poisonous fallout” over a large territory downwind.
But parts of the plan were using these weapons “were inconsistent with presidential guidance,” says Butler’s former colleague, Franklin C. Miller, a senior Defense Department and White House policy official under five presidents and the author of a chapter in Butler’s memoir. The reason, Miller said, was that for decades, military authorities who controlled access to the target list and the procedures for creating it “thwarted every effort by [civilian defense officials]…to gain the insight” needed to ensure the plan reflected their wishes.
The targeting staff in Omaha, for example, had planned so many detonations in and around cities that the civilians’ desire to leave open the option of preserving them was not feasible, Miller wrote. He recalls that then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was among those who were astonished at the number of weapons that had been directed at the general area around Moscow, a figure that targeters surrendered only after Miller demanded to know it.
The civilians’ desire to ensure that Soviet leaders could sense some restraint in a nuclear exchange — preserving the option of a negotiated settlement – was also foreclosed by the scale of the planned devastation. The overkill extended to sending nuclear-armed NATO warplanes to bomb targets “already destroyed by U.S. strategic missiles.” No consideration was given to the consequences of firestorms or radiation — only to blast effects. And no room was left in the plan for waiting for enemy warheads to detonate before US missiles were let fly. No senior targeting officer “could believe a president would not choose to direct a launch on warning/under attack,” Miller wrote.
Some of the details of Miller’s fight with the targeters were redacted in Butler’s manuscript by the Pentagon’s current Joint Staff under classification rules that govern what even retired generals can say. But Miller wrote that he came away from his close contact with the war plan convinced that the “target base and the weapons allocation process were incoherent and riddled with errors,” and that a lack of civilian oversight had improperly left the Air Force and the Navy to decide for themselves how many nuclear “delivery systems” — planes and missiles — they should buy. This problem was fixed at the time, Miller wrote.
In an interview this month, Miller confirmed that the NATO bomber overkill issue was also fixed. Officials say further that “launch under attack,” which lay at the heart of the U.S. war plan until the 1980’s, is still an option in the U.S. war plan but no longer the required response. And Miller said “while I investigated [nuclear weapons] effects other than blast, there was never enough reliable data to quantify or measure them; as a result, I did not attempt to change the ‘blast only’ rules.”
As to whether the problems of that era have cropped up again, Miller said although he remains in touch with defense officials, “I don’t comment on current [strike] plans.” He said he remains a supporter today of keeping a substantial stockpile of nuclear arms so that America can deter its enemies by scaring them so badly with the prospect of massive devastation that no nuclear war will ever start – following the classic theory of nuclear deterrence.
Butler, who considers Miller a close friend, to the contrary came away from his years of close contact with the war plan convinced that the theory of deterrence itself was unrealistic. “We maintained the wholly misguided belief that the vast nuclear weapons enterprise could be exquisitely managed,” Butler says. Instead, problems with the management and operation of nuclear systems were persistent and the mammoth bureaucracies involved in such work acquired “gargantuan appetites” for new and ever-more destructive weaponry, he said.
Butler’s open-mindedness made him an appealing figure in the late 1980s to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, and to then-Air Force Secretary Merrill “Tony” McPeak. In their day, while serving under two Republican presidents, the three of them easily embraced the idea that the Cold War was over and communism no longer posed a political threat.
Butler was then head of strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, and he became the proverbial garden party skunk, openly supporting budget cuts that were anathema to some of the military services. When he was asked in 1989 to attend an interagency briefing by senior officials at the Department of Energy — which oversees the production of nuclear warheads — on their future plans to double the capacity of the complex at a cost of billions of dollars, he shocked the room.
All those attending, he writes, had “lauded the briefing with lip-smacking anticipation of what it would mean for his or her piece of the pie.” But when Butler said the military would instead be cutting nuclear weapons requirements by 50 percent, “dead silence ensued. No one moved” and the meeting was swiftly adjourned.
After taking the Strategic Air Command’s helm in 1991, Butler writes, he summoned to Omaha the leaders of firms that he said had “pocketed trillions of dollars in profits” by making Air Force and Navy strategic hardware — Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, Rockwell, General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Raytheon, and others — to tell them it was time to stop growing and start cutting the nuclear weapons business.
Most of those present greeted his words “with disbelief and denial,” he recalls. And when he conveyed the same message at a separate meeting that year to directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, “there followed an incredulous silence.”
With the approval of President George H. W. Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Cheney, Butler eventually organized the dissolution of the Air Command, took its airborne command post off alert, and placed its warheads under a new Strategic Command with both nuclear and non-nuclear warfighting responsibilities. Angry servicemen at the headquarters in Omaha responded by organizing a brisk trade in T-shirts that blared, “The Butler did it.”
Persistent appetites for more weaponry
In his memoir, Butler says that the inertia behind America’s nuclear weapons work — which has produced an arsenal smaller in quantity but greater in quality than during the Cold War – is attributable in part to some nefarious institutional forces. He disparages what he calls the “two-way flow” of senior military officers “moving out of uniform and into the corridors of key defense industries, and the reverse migration of top industry executives coming into high-level positions in the Department of Defense.”
It’s not illegal, and need not be unethical, he writes, but it is “fraught with opportunity for mutual nest-feathering, sweetheart deals, inflated [military] requirements, and massive contracts.”
He said nuclear weapons policymaking remains — as he told an audience at the Stimson Center in 1997 — under the control of “a relatively small cadre of theorists and strategist who speak with great assurance and authority” but remain stuck “in the apocalyptic vocabulary of nuclear deterrence…[and] worlds which spiral toward chaos.” Deterrence, he says, is a “crutch that led to the expenditure of trillions of dollars” while “we ignored, discounted, or dismissed its flaws.”
Rationality, Butler said, “has never been the hallmark of any nation pursuing a nuclear arsenal or thinking about its employment. Such arsenals take on a life and logic of their own, commanding huge budgets and compelling decisions that march at an ever increasing tempo to the beat of fear, technology, status and vested interests.” During his tenure at the Air Force, “vitally important decisions were routinely taken without adequate understanding, assertions too often prevailed over analysis… Technological opportunity and corporate profits drove force levels and capabilities, and political opportunism intruded on calculations of military necessity.”
Butler also says in his memoir that the Clinton and Bush administrations needlessly poisoned the atmosphere for more arms control by pressing for NATO’s wide expansion, “sending the wrong signal to Russia, a defeated foe whose sensibilities are rubbed raw.” They should instead have pushed “our European allies to take charge of their own security,” a view that’s been expressed by others during the election season this year.
Butler, like former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James E. Cartwright, in particular supports scrapping the Air Force’s force of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. He argues that the missiles are “an anachronism,” because they are vulnerable to preemptive attack, unlike those deployed on submarines. Cartwright, who served after Butler as head of the Strategic Command and also oversaw nuclear targeting, has also argued that ICBMs are no longer useful because their most likely contemporary targets — such as North Korea or China — could only be reached by provocatively flying them over Russian territory first.
At Hiroshima, Obama poignantly said “We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry….We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
But Butler says he is sadly not optimistic that major new nuclear arms reductions will occur soon, though he feels the urgency is great. The U.S. Strategic Command’s nuclear deterrence mission, he laments, “is still premised on assumptions and policies distressingly reminiscent of the Cold War era, with arsenals of hundreds of warheads still poised for immediate launch from silos and submarines.”
Butler, who now lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., published the memoir, he says, partly to drive home the argument that it is “way past time to begin to change our thinking and the real world deployment of our [nuclear weapons] systems” — or something like Hiroshima, causing another “silent cry” far worse in fact, could happen again.
This article was co-published with Politico Magazine.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.