With Washington’s nuclear targets, Putin’s war feels closer to home

Reprinted from the The Seattle Times, March 6, 2022

Author Nicholas Mele is a retired U.S. diplomat, currently coordinates the Pax Christi USA Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament and serves on the Pax Christi International Working Group on Nuclear Abolition. He lives in Bellingham.

Events in Ukraine are far from Puget Sound and, despite real-time reporting and video from the conflict, often seem just another level of anxiety.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought the war much closer to home with his decision to put his nuclear forces on high alert. In fact, one reason for the cautious U.S. and European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is concern about triggering any use of nuclear weapons. Residents of Western Washington should be similarly concerned.

One of the world’s largest stockpiles of deployable nuclear warheads sits in the U.S. Navy’s submarine base, Naval Base Kitsap. Is it conceivable that no Russian missiles are targeted on that arsenal? Last year, some members of Congress, including several of the Washington state House delegation, tried but failed to cut funding for new nuclear weapons programs. One target of their cuts was the intercontinental ballistic missile program — hundreds of missiles in silos in three Western states and two Midwestern states that have existed for decades.  

The continued possession of nuclear weapons is predicated upon the long prevailing strategy of nuclear deterrence, also known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Putin’s nuclear threats and bullying behavior are an eerie echo of President Richard Nixon’s “madman” strategy, which was to convince potential enemies that he was so unpredictable they could never rule out the possibility of a U.S. first strike with nuclear weapons.

If today’s news from Eastern Europe does not change our thinking about nuclear weapons, consider the reality of our decades-old and threadbare imaginations when we speak of nuclear deterrence and the history of near accidents involving nuclear weapons. Many former diplomatic and military officials have been working for nuclear abolition for some time; they include President Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger and many others from the U.S. and other countries. Religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, the late Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis have also condemned the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

Powerful interests stand in the way of nuclear abolition, interests that President Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. For decades, every single congressional district in the United States is home to at least one business which provides jobs by making weapons. Most Americans assume we have dismantled our nuclear arsenal but the truth is, the warheads at Naval Base Kitsap are sufficient to pose an existential threat to human life, and thousands more are deployed or stored around the country and in other countries. 

If the only target in our area was the Kitsap base, that should be enough to stir us to action in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, other targets abound, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to the industrial, intellectual and financial resources of Western Washington.

What can average citizens do? We can:

∙ Demand accountability from the overwhelming majority of elected officials who accept contributions and open their doors to the weapons’ manufacturers.

∙ Boycott banks and investment funds that finance nuclear weapons research, development and production (dontbankonthebomb.org has lists of financial institutions that invest in nuclear weapons).

∙ Campaign for those corporations that are heavily involved in nuclear weapons work to disinvest (dontbankonthebomb.org also has a list of companies that manufacture nuclear weapons and components).

∙ Inform ourselves and our neighbors about the way our refusal to step away from nuclear weapons is putting people around Puget Sound at risk of nuclear destruction. Several local institutions, notably the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which is located next to Naval Base Kitsap, offers education and opportunities to take action to abolish nuclear weapons.