Join “Back from the Brink” — and Start De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons Ahead of Scrapping Them

Matt Bivens, MD
7 min readApr 7, 2019

Russia’s newest weapon is in some reports the largest nuclear explosive ever built — twice as large as the biggest-ever hydrogen bomb detonated — and is mounted on an underwater drone. The Russian defense ministry held an on-line contest last year, and people voted to name it Poseidon, after the Greek god of the sea and earthquakes.

Russian officials have stated a Poseidon could be detonated miles out to sea, to send a tidal wave toward East Coast cities.

The Russians quickly add they don’t want to do anything like that, but they also have to prepare for the worst, because we in the United States have thousands of nuclear weapons aimed their way including about 150 in forward positions in Europe; we are hugely increasing expenditures on new nuclear weapons; and we have just pulled out of one of the last arms control treaties between our nations.

The experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have never judged us closer to a humankind-ending nuclear war. The hands of their so-called Doomsday Clock are now set at two minutes to midnight (midnight being the end of the world). The only other time the Clock was this close to midnight was 1953. In their expert opinion, we have never been closer to the end of the world — but you probably haven’t heard much about that, because these are the realities we don’t talk about when we instead talk about the mass psychogenic illness known as “Russiagate.”

It’s not just the disarmament community wonks. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as candidates, expressed concern about being expected to approve a nuclear weapons launch based on panicked briefings limited to a few minutes. (As an emergency department physician, I have to make rapid critical decisions about one patient’s heart attack or stroke — and it is incredible to me that I get a lot more time to do that than either the American or Russian presidents are expected to take, before deciding whether to hit the world-ending nuclear button!)

Both Obama and Bush noted that keeping weapons on high alert (also called hair-trigger alert) seemed unnecessary. After all, we have submarine-based nuclear weapons, and could wait 24 hours or 48 hours or even longer before responding to an attack. That’s an important safety cushion, given near-misses over the years.

(To take just one of many examples: The military once called the White House at 2:30 a.m., insisting that President Jimmy Carter be dragged out of bed to authorize a nuclear weapons launch, because they were seeing more than 200 incoming Soviet ICBMs. Carter’s security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, demanded confirmation, so the Pentagon called back and said it was actually more than 2,000 missiles. Brzezinski has recounted how he decided not to wake his wife, preferring she die in her sleep unaware. Then the Pentagon called back a third time to sheepishly admit they had bad data — from a defective 46-cent computer chip.)

“Firing off 1,000 or 500 or 2,000 nuclear warheads on a few minutes’ consideration has always struck me as an absurd way to go to war,” says General William Odom, a retired Army three-star general and former director of the NSA under President Reagan.

Odom is one of many public advocates for taking nuclear forces off hair-trigger alert.

“I think that one of the first things we should do is take every U.S. weapon off of high alert,” agrees Stansfield Turner, a retired navy admiral and CIA director under President Carter. “We have an absolutely insane policy in this country. Had it now for 30 or 40 years … Our missiles that count are in submarines out here at sea, and [our adversaries] can’t see those. So we can always counter-attack, no matter what.”

General Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force four-star general who under President Clinton was Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command — meaning he was in charge of nuclear forces — has testified before the Senate we should take weapons off of hair-trigger alert. In a less formal setting, he recently explained to an audience, “It’s one of those things where the services are not gonna do anything until the Big Kahuna says, ‘Take your missiles off alert,’ and then by golly within hours the missiles and subs will be off alert.”

(So why didn’t either Obama or Bush give that order, back when he was the Big Kahuna? Because We the People have not been paying attention — not been backing our leaders up, even when they have invited us to do so — and for too long have deferred to “the experts.” Which might be sensible, but unfortunately we let the military-industrial complex define “experts” as the those who talk tough and blustery and ask for more weapons. Others with experience and expertise — defense secretaries, CIA directors, NSA directors, and generals in charge of the nuclear weapons themselves, all of whom might seem like obvious “experts” — instantly get reclassified as “peaceniks” the moment they question existing war plans.)

And so the insanity continues. General George Lee Butler, also a retired Air Force four-star general and also a former head of the Strategic Command, under President George H.W. Bush, has even called upon Americans to pray for change: “Pray for the political leadership — that they might have the wisdom and the courage to take steps that are required, to reduce these forces from their states of hair-trigger alert, where they have been now for lo these many years.”

De-alerting nuclear weapons is the first in a series of steps towards getting rid of them entirely, just as we have done with similarly indiscriminate chemical and biological weapons. Too optimistic? It’s actually probably already happening: The United Nations passed a treaty in 2017 to declare nuclear weapons illegal, and while Washington is sullenly ignoring this huge new reality — and the mainstream media is too busy hyperventilating about Russians under the bed — this treaty is being ratified by parliaments around the world. At last count, 70 nations have signed the treaty as an expression of intent to adopt it; 22 have actually ratified it, the most recent being South Africa. Once 50 nations ratify, the treaty will become international law. The United States and Russia may both try to ignore it at that point, but each nation’s military will face legal challenges and public embarrassment — just as they have done with, for example, the treaty banning land mines.

“History shows that the prohibition of certain types of weapons facilitates progress towards their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed by international treaties are increasingly seen as illegitimate, losing their political status,” says a statement by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons. “Arms companies find it more difficult to acquire funds for work on illegal weapons, and such work carries a significant reputational risk. Banks, pension funds and other financial institutions divest from these producers.”

Graphic from ICAN

Asserting citizen control over the military to stand down from the brink of nuclear war — remember, the Doomsday Clock has never been closer to midnight! — this is a bipartisan issue: Democrats like former defense secretary William Perry and Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey have been passionate advocates of nuclear disarmament work. But so have Republicans, including three former Republican secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Colin Powell.

Nuclear disarmament is also an issue that is, frankly, too important to leave to Washington politics. So it is gratifying to see local leaders stepping up. Over the past summer, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan group that unites cities with populations of more than 30,000, held its annual meeting in Boston. The gathered mayors endorsed “Back from the Brink,” a grassroots campaign that calls for taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; dropping plans for massive new spending; pledging never to use nuclear weapons first; ending a president’s sole, unchecked authority to launch nuclear weapons at will (when not under attack); and reviving good-faith disarmament talks.

The nation’s mayors approved this unanimously. Many of them went home and soon after their city councils and governments reiterated that call. Cities that have publicly signed off on the “Back from the Brink” campaign so far include Los Angeles, Baltimore and Washington DC. In doing so, these local leaders have echoed former U.S. presidents, generals, admirals, national security officials and Cabinet secretaries, who are all asking us to take a hard look at our rudderless, expensive and dangerous nuclear weapons policies.

Which is the same warning we have heard from many others who have examined this question — from Albert Einstein to Martin Luther King, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Pope Francis, from the International Red Cross to the American Medical Association.

“Back from the Brink” continues to grow. It has been endorsed by towns, churches and organizations across the nation, and more are signing up every day. (You can learn more here). I and others in Physicians for Social Responsibility are hoping to see this put into the political agenda of the upcoming presidential election.

Matt Bivens, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician, the EMS medical director for several 911 services in Massachusetts, and chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. A version of this article first appeared in my hometown newspaper, The Standard Times.



Matt Bivens, MD

Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering journalist & Russia-watcher.