Berkshire Eagle, 30 June 1989
Nukes sprout like mushrooms
[I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Betsy Kingsbury in the reprinting of this article.]
As troops massacred people in Tiananmen Square, it seemed that China-- a nuclear-armed country--might erupt in civil war. As more and more nations develop nuclear weapons, the prospect of their use in an internal conflict grows.
Also, as more nations develop ballistic missiles, the danger of nuclear attack grows. The capacity to join nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is spreading, so we urgently need to end nuclear proliferation.
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A number of countries without nuclear weapons want them. They aspire to membership in the exclusive nuclear club. The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China and India admit to belonging. Affluence is not required.
Experts generally agree that Israel has nuclear weapons. South Africa and Pakistan are apparently now capable of producing them. Iran, Iraq and Libya have taken steps toward joining the club.
The spread of nuclear weapons heightens the danger that a country will use them. The growing number of countries with ballistic missiles (India and Israel are examples) means a greater capacity to attack with nuclear weapons over long distances.
The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the greater the danger that guerrillas or fanatical groups will somehow steal or even manufacture them. Although it would not be easy, groups could make a crude bomb with about 12 pounds of plutonium, for example. Many of the bomb's "secrets" have been published and plutonium has been stolen.
The Reagan administration's fierce anti-communism led it to downplay its non-proliferation efforts vis-a-vis Pakistan, India, Israel and South Africa. For example, to secure Pakistan's help in an effort to dislodge the Soviets from Afghanistan, the administration requested and Congress approved in 1981 a six-year aid package for Pakistan without including the Symington Amendment, an important non-proliferation provision. Pakistan probably now has the essentials for up to eight atomic bombs.
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To counter Soviet influence in the Middle East, and to protect Israel, its strategic ally, the administration winked at Israel's acquisition of components for nuclear weapons. For example, it did not react strongly to Israel's smuggling from the United States about 800 fast electronic switches known as krytons.
Nor did Washington act to prevent South Africa's obtaining nuclear materials. It preferred "constructive engagement" with Pretoria, which it saw as a counter to the Cubans and Soviets in Angola.
There is hope. The Reagan administration persuaded China to join the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since 1981, 25 additional countries have adhered to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, bringing to 134 the number of countries pledging not to acquire nuclear weapons.