The Bomb -- nearly forgotten by many of us -- has returned to the world's center stage in a hurry. When India set off several nuclear explosions and President Clinton quickly responded with economic sanctions, the news coverage was jolting.
Condemnation of India's nuclear tests is certainly justified. But the story we're getting is quite partial. The plot narrated by the White House and echoed by the American media -- presenting the U.S. government as a principled foe of nuclear escalation -- is akin to a fairy tale.
This country's journalists don't have to visit India in order to find alarming evidence of a nuclear arms race. They could venture much closer to home.
Forty miles from San Francisco, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory are still designing thermonuclear bombs. Under a benign-sounding Stockpile Stewardship and Management program, the Department of Energy carries on with the business of devising new and "improved" nuclear warheads.
In fact, the U.S. government is spending $4 billion a year to develop nuclear weapons. The effort includes sophisticated computer simulation that enables the United States to upgrade the deadly capabilities of its nuclear arsenal without resorting to test detonations.
Now, more than ever, the Clinton administration is a fount of piety as the president and his top aides scold the transgressors in New Delhi. While lecturing India to show restraint, the U.S. officials continue to lead the world in building a nuclear bridge to the 21st century.
The news media hardly seemed to notice as the United States completed the testing and deployment of B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear warheads last year. And when conflicts with Baghdad intensified over the winter, we heard little about Washington's not-so-veiled threat to use such weaponry against Iraq.
A few months ago, Clinton oversaw a major overhaul of nuclear weapons policies and issued a presidential directive allowing the Pentagon to plan for the use of U.S. atomic weapons against non-nuclear states. (Clinton's order violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- the same pact, ironically, that the president cited in reverential tones May 13 when he announced sanctions against India.)
In February, with a U.S.-Iraq confrontation heating up, Boris Yeltsin warned that "Clinton's actions could lead to a world war." American news media attributed the Russian president's comment to irrational inebriation. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, called the remark "somewhat daffy." But Yeltsin was apparently referring to the fact that Clinton had authorized the U.S. military to target Iraq with nuclear arms.
Jay Truman knows quite a bit about nuclear tests. Growing up in southern Utah during the 1950s, he watched mushroom clouds rise from the Nevada Test Site about 110 miles to the west. While in high school, Truman was diagnosed with lymphoma. Unlike many of his classmates, he survived.
Now, Truman is director of a regional organization known as Downwinders. "There is no excuse or justification for any nuclear weapons testing by any nation," he told me. "But before everyone starts pointing their fingers at India as the world's only nuclear villain, it's important to look at the ongoing weapons development programs of the United States and the other members of the ‘perm five' -- the established nuclear weapons countries -- and clean up our own houses first."
Truman emphasizes that "the nuclear arms race will not be over until all nuclear weapons testing and development have been stopped by everybody -- not just India." For years, he points out, "India has been warning that it was unfair and discriminatory for certain nations to maintain nuclear arsenals and to be able to threaten other nations with them. "If we really want a world free from the horrors of potential nuclear annihilation and free from the economic burdens of an ongoing arms race," Truman says, "the world should choose to get that message and understand it and act on it this time. Because if we don't, we may not get another chance."