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John Lewis Gaddis on: Lessons from 50 Years of Nuclear History
John Gaddis Q: Lessons to be learned from fifty years of nuclear history?

JLG: The lessons to be learned, I think, are first of all that it's very hard to figure out what to do with a nuclear weapon once you have one. And the superpowers never completely figured that out. Lessons to be learned. It's very important to think in terms of the common danger that weapons can pose to both sides, even if the weapons have been accumulated for use against the other side. Weapons themselves can become a threat, rather than a source of security. And I think that danger would be there whether we were talking about nuclear weapons, but it could extend to other kinds of weapons as well.

Lessons to be learned in terms of certainly the importance of communication on both sides, certainly the importance of conveying intentions clearly on both sides, certainly the importance of trying to anticipate how the other side will react in certain situations. I think also, lessons in terms of the importance probably of looking at the Cold War more as an anomaly than as a model for the future. The Cold War was a very unusual period in world history, and I think it would be quite dangerous to try to draw too many lessons from it and try to apply them too automatically to the situations that we confront today, in what is really a very different kind of world.

Q: But we're not quite out of the box yet. As long as large numbers of these weapons exist, there is a danger that somehow, at some point, this will all blow up in our faces.

JLG: A large number of weapons do exist. There is great danger. And that's why I would favor a strategy moving toward the total abolition of all nuclear weapons, provided such a thing could be verified adequately.

Q: The scientists very early on said that this is a completely new situation and it needs new thinking, and that we have to change our ideas. Is there evidence that we are doing that?

JLG: Well, I think the most interesting evidence is the number of military leaders - General Butler, Admiral Turner, others, the group that signed on to the collective proposal last year, looking toward the eventual complete abolition of nuclear weapons under proper verification procedures. If you have people whose career it was to deal with these weapons, to handle them, to manage them, to think about how they could be used, the fact that these people have now come out into the vanguard of the group calling for total abolition, I think, tells you something. [It] tells you simply that they're dangerous. It tells you that they are blunt instruments. It tells you that they are not easily adapted to precise objectives. It tells you that they're still highly risky instruments.

Q: So what we have to do now is wait for the politicians to catch up?

JLG: I think that's quite often the case. Yes.

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