By Scott Ritter. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2020
As the subtitle suggests, Scott Ritter’s latest book is the history and the motivation underlying the build-up of the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal over the last seven decades. The Scorpion King part refers to the brief description that Robert Oppenheimer had made of the nuclear situation, quoting: “We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” Ritter’s response to this situation is to adopt a no-first-use policy, to greatly constrain the U.S. president in his access to the nuclear button, and to achieve nuclear disarmament.
In May 1945 General George Marshall had voiced his opinion that the U.S. should not drop the atomic bomb on a Japanese city. In his mind the decision regarding atomic bombing was “a purely political question, outside the purview of the military.” There were many people who thought that nuclear weapons should not be used. Quoting Ritter: “J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of Los Alamos, led the charge, arguing in a letter to Secretary of War Stimson that continued pursuit of the atomic bomb was folly, and that every effort should be made to capitalize on the horror of the atomic weapon in order to outlaw war.“
But political, industrial and military forces favoring nuclear weapons have so far prevailed in the United States and in eight other countries, namely Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Ritter’s book is focused on the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia. It has been estimated that a general nuclear war between these two superpowers would kill about half the American and Russian populations either directly or over months through the radioactive fallout.
What is frightening in reading the book is the military planning that in many circumstances included a nuclear first strike, either based on a “pre-emptive” philosophy or in retaliation to an attack by conventional means. What is shocking is reading about military planning of 50 million or 100 million deaths without any consideration of the moral aspects of such horror.
Fortunately, one could say that the history of the fabrication and potential use of nuclear weapons is filled with immense efforts to avoid their use in all circumstances and to achieve nuclear weapons reductions and nuclear disarmament. Most U.S. presidents have gone on record as being opposed to nuclear war, and many of them have contributed to efforts towards nuclear disarmament.
On the U.S. side one has witnessed an enormous amount of fighting between people in influential positions having anti-Soviet feelings and advocates of nuclear arms control. Scott Ritter has very well described the complex social interactions that have led to the present situation. A very positive aspect of this historical fight is the fact that more than fifteen formal treaties or interim agreements have taken place as a result of sustained efforts on both the American and Russian sides. Gorbachev took many daring initiatives, like year-long or permanent moratoria on nuclear testing, which U.S. presidents chose to ignore.
With Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House, it seems that the enormous progress in nuclear arms control, achieved after seven decades of work, has entered a destruction phase. Taking the time to read Scott Ritter’s 483-page book will encourage and further motivate the reader to keep on going in our historical journey towards international security without nuclear weapons.
Michel Duguay is a professor at Université Laval, Québec.