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Doomsday machine.

The Doomsday Machine in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove was the metaphor for the nuclear arms race. Nobody--well, hardly anybody--wanted the device to go off and destroy the planet, but the mad momentum of superpower rivalry had its own irresistible logic. Ultimately, all fail-safe systems failed, and the movie ended to the sentimental strains of We'll Meet Again as the horizon filled with beautiful mushroom clouds.

The dread that lurked behind such gallows humor--the constant fear that the world might be consumed in a final nuclear Armageddon--was supposed to evaporate with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Suddenly, there was no "evil empire," armed with a nuclear arsenal second only to America's own, to threaten our national security. The esteemed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved back the minute hand on its closely watched Doomsday Clock, and people everywhere breathed a deep sigh of relief. Nuclear disarmament organizations turned their attention to more mundane missions. If world peace wasn't at hand (and it obviously wasn't), at least the threat of nuclear war had been substantially diminished and perhaps even eliminated altogether.

Last fall, even the Congress of the United States moved, in its own timid and half-hearted way, to come to terms with the new realities. Following the lead of Russia and France, it agreed to a nine-month moratorium on nuclear testing. Though Congress stipulated that testing could resume, temporarily, after July 1 of this year, there was reason to hope that four of the major nuclear powers (Britain tests its bombs at the U.S. site in Nevada) might never again explode a nuclear weapon. This would give them strong leverage to curb testing by China, which is not a signatory to any testban treaty, and would endow the self-acknowledged nuclear-weapons states with the moral authority to discourage other nations from acquiring their own nuclear arsenals.

Opponents of the nuclear arms race have long believed that a total, comprehensive ban on testing is the key to ending the production and accumulation of these abominable weapons of mass annihilation. The Russians have sought such a ban for decades. They would have agreed to it in the early 1960s, when John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev negotiated the treaty barring atmospheric testing, but the United States insisted that it had to keep testing underground. When he headed the Soviet government, Mikhail Gorbachev twice instituted unilateral bans on nuclear testing, hoping that the United States would follow suit, but each time our Government refused.

The people who run the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories--Lawrence Livermore in California, Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico--have always been at the forefront of the campaign for continued testing. They believe that a total ban on testing will, in effect, put them out of business and end, after a half a century, the ugly work of building nuclear bombs. They're right; in fact, that's the whole idea. But the conclusion of the Cold War has not diminished their determination to keep going about their costly, deadly task. And they appear to have scored one more triumph in their relentless effort to block a test ban.

According to reports from Washington, President Clinton has decided to accede to the urgings of the weapons labs, the Pentagon, and the national-security agencies that simply refuse to recognize the dawn of a new era in international relations. They have drafted a plan that calls for resumed nuclear testing by the end of this year, and Clinton is expected to sign it. As part of a "compromise," the President is expected to call for a total cessation of testing in 1996.

An awful lot can happen in the next three years. Russia and France will almost certainly resume nuclear testing if the United States does. China, which detonated its last underground nuclear test about a year ago, is more than likely to follow suit. When Russia resumes testing, some other components of the former Soviet Union will be tempted to explore the potential of their own nuclear weapons capability. China will have considerably less influence when it comes to restraining North Korea, which is supposedly on the brink of building its own nuclear arsenal. A dozen or so other nations, at least, have or are close to having the capability of launching a nuclear attack; they, too, will be encouraged by the example of the major powers to do their worst rather than their best.

The nuclear weapons nonproliferation treaty expires in 1995, and its renegotiation and renewal will also be put in grave jeopardy by the resumption of testing. When Jerry Ford was President of the United States, he predicted once that there might be thirty or forty nuclear powers by the end of the century. It seems likelier than ever that his prophecy will be fulfilled. "As nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and nuclear technology proliferate," says Dr. Bernard Lown, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, "the likelihood that nuclear weapons will one day be used again--either in anger or by accident--is growing exponentially. Unless swift action is taken to further remove the nuclear threat, we may very well witness in the near future regional conflicts where nuclear weapons are used."

This is the perfect time to begin dismantling the Doomsday Machine by halting nuclear testing once and for all. The weapons-makers insist they must test in order to make weapons "safer"; the hilarity of that claim apparently escapes them. But their determination to maintain their fiefdoms should not be allowed to jeopardize our best chance in half a century to restore a measure of sanity to international relations.

Does Bill Clinton really want to go down in history as Dr. Strangelove?
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Title Annotation:total nuclear test ban eschewed by President Clinton
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Deemed offensive.
Next Article:Life behind bars.

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