Interview – Isaacs

“No Unalloyed Triumphs”

Interview with John Isaacs
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Washington, DC, July 20, 1999
> View as PDF


John Isaacs has served with the Council for a Livable World (CLW) since 1978 as legislative director, as president, and currently as executive director.  Previously he worked for Americans for Democratic Action dealing with SALT II. He is considered one of the leaders of the nation’s arms control community and has long been an expert on the workings of Congress.

In this 1999 interview he describes the major anti-nuclear campaigns since the late 1970s and gives insights into the general workings of anti-nuclear activism. Isaacs asserts that CLW has mainly focused on issues that they considered “legislatively possible”. Nevertheless, campaigns such as the one against the MX missile often tended to end in compromise and were rarely “unalloyed triumphs”.

Isaacs evaluates various U.S. administrations by their receptiveness and success with regard to nuclear issues. While he assesses the George Bush, Sr. years as particularly positive, he believes that the Clinton administration has passed up on many remarkable opportunities. Most of Ronald Reagan’s disarmament proposals he deems a result of a “fairly simple minded-idealism”.

Isaacs stresses his conviction of arms control not primarily as an end in itself but as a key conditioner and important building block to improve political relationships in foreign policy. While emphasizing the crucial role of arms control, he also uses a cautious and more sober tone, remarking that, “ what arms control, I believe, can do and has done is place some limits on the waging of war and weapons of mass destruction, but not eliminate the threat yet.”

Interview Transcript

Asked about the CLW’s major antinuclear campaigns since the early 1970s, JI replied:  “We have always focused on what we consider to be legislatively possible, what is possible in the American political processes.  That means right now although we support abolition of nuclear weapons, that is not political feasible, so that’s not something we’re working on at this point.  But that meant . . . trying to get the SALT II treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate, a campaign ultimately unsuccessful.  Moving on from there to the Nuclear Freeze campaign in 1982-83 . . . and about the same time trying to kill the MX missile program before it was deployed.  And then on to the B-2 bomber campaign.  So it’s been some weapons programs, some arms control.  And . . . in the last eight years . . . the focus has been first, trying to win approval of the chemical weapons convention, which was successful, and now trying to win approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, while encouraging Clinton to move quickly to negotiate further nuclear reductions with the Russians.  Somewhere in there, I guess, in an early fight against the B-1 bomber, when Carter was still President. . . .  Another example of a fight we did not get involved in particularly was where cruise and Pershing missiles were slated for Europe, which was an issue that was going to largely be decided by Europeans and not by the United States Congress. . . .”

The B-1 bomber campaign:  “It’s very rare when either a President or a Congress will kill a program, so you need some extraordinary circumstances to be successful.  And especially helpful is having a President who wants to kill a program. . . .  Carter definitely did want to kill it.  I’m not sure I can call it successful when the program was ultimately restored, but he did kill the program.  Congress did accept that after some major fights in the House and Senate, only to have the program restored when Reagan was elected in 1980.  I think the arguments against the B-1 are the same ones against the B-2 and a number of other weapons systems:  just too expensive and too little need for these kind of weapons systems. . . .  If you want to maintain an adequate deterrent in the missile era, when a missile can take 40 minutes from this country to the Soviet Union, why would you want to spend a lot of money on highly expensive bombers?  So it’s a financial question, the value of the program question, and choices — choices within the Pentagon budget and between Pentagon spending and other kinds of spending.”

Asked what kind of pressure the movement put on Carter re: the B-1, JI said:  “I think the grassroots pressure was not directed so much at Carter as at Congress. . . .  I think Carter . . . may have come into office having campaigned against the B-1, and so the pressure had to be devoted to Congress.  There’s pressure on him on the question of the neutron weapon, MX missile, and some other decisions.  But my recollection is that we weren’t pressuring him on the B-1.”

Asked what kind of interaction the CLW and the broader movement had with Carter and his officials, JI responded:  “We certainly worked very closely with them on the SALT II ratification campaign.  I don’t recall working with them or against them — or, in other words, close working relationships with them or even adversarial — on the B-1 campaign.  It’s not like the Clinton administration, where . . . by now an awful lot of people I’ve worked with over the last 20 years are in the administration, so there are people I can talk to and work with on issues.  In the Carter days, I recall myself having many fewer connections, and I suspect most of the community did not have those kind of connections, either. . . .  There were certainly close connections with Warnke and ACDA, but I don’t know how much role they played in weapons systems, such as the B-1 or neutron weapons — more, I guess, working with them on arms control.”  JI had met Warnke, but didn’t know him especially well.  

MX missile campaign:  “I would argue that on most of these issues it was a compromise.  So I can’t call them unalloyed triumphs.  Originally the Pentagon wanted to build 200 and deploy 200 MX missiles.  And they went through 30 some deployment schemes, including on trains, and under water, and all sorts.  Ultimately, they deployed 50.  So is that a victory?  No, they went and deployed 50.  Is it better than 200?  Yes, it’s better than 200.  So I wouldn’t call it a victory for our side, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a victory for the Reagan administration, either. . . .  It’s kind of like the B-2.  That’s not totally unalloyed victory, either.  They built 21 of them, but they didn’t build 120.  It’s a classic compromise, and that’s frequently the outcome of these systems.  It’s not like ratification of a treaty where it happens or its doesn’t happen.”

Asked if he agrees with David Cohen that the MX as proposed was a first strike weapon, but didn’t finish up as one, JI replied:  “There are long debates on first strike weapons, and our side used that issue, and the other side used that issue.  And I never bought it and I still don’t buy it.  A first strike weapon implies that a country would choose rationally to make a first strike.  First of all, I don’t think any rational leader would do so because it would mean mutual annihilation.  Secondly, none of these systems would work that way, that you can reliably launch a strike and be comfortable that you wouldn’t suffer retaliation.  That you’d launch the MX missiles, for example, and whatever the computer simulations or tests, you wouldn’t be sure they’d hit what they’re supposed to hit.  And if we’d employed a missile defense, or if we deploy one now, there’s no assurance that it will work either.  So if you go through the numbers, I guess you’d say 2,000 highly accurate warheads on top of 200 missiles might have constituted a first strike, by those calculations.  But I reject those calculations.  So if David Cohen accepts that concept, then maybe he might be right. . . .

It was always controversial — those who felt we should focus on larger issues and those who felt we should focus on a weapons system, which we could either cut back or kill.  The arguments against the campaigns on weapons systems — MX, B-1, or B-2 — is, if you kill those, then the Pentagon comes forward with something else to substitute.  And so, even if we had succeeded, we wouldn’t ultimately cut the military budget, but rather refocus the money to other weapons programs.  And so, some of those who worked on the Freeze campaign were very reluctant then to get into the MX campaign or the B-2 campaign for that reason. . . .

It helps in any major campaign to have something to be against, and Ronald Reagan and his team were a dream team in that sense, with their loose talk about nuclear weapons and nuclear war.  Weinberger or Haig talking about nuclear warning shots in the Mediterranean.  Who was it, the Pentagon official, who talked about how you survive a nuclear war if you shovel down and put a few doors above you, or something like that?  Ronald Reagan’s joke before his speech attempt, doing a count-down.  All that, however real or not, was enough to scare the American people, and for good reason.  And generate support for what we were trying to do.  Also the Reagan administration made it clear that it was not interested in arms control with the Soviet Union, the only way to beat the Soviet Union was to overwhelm them in spending, in weapons, in numbers, in power. . . .

The [Freeze] campaign really took off.  Every once in a while a good idea . . . sweeps the country and it did more than any fight I’ve been involved in on these issues, before or since, in terms of generating grassroots movement, generating an awful lot of national and local press, generating local initiatives and then state by state referenda, and then votes in Congress. . . .  The Freeze was an issue, which you could deal with on all these different levels, which made it easier to develop grassroots support.  If people in Arizona knew there was a referendum coming up on the Freeze, that’s something they could put their attention to, as opposed to a plan that’s just in Congress.  It was a massive and very effective campaign.  Obviously we didn’t get a freeze in the arms race, but I believe the Freeze campaign was effective in setting some limits around what Ronald Reagan and his team wanted to do.  This didn’t end the arms race, but prevented Reagan from going as far as he wanted.  Sure Reagan built up massively the military budget and spent a lot of money on MX missiles, B-1s, and other systems, but ultimately in the second term Reagan himself switched directions, from anti-arms control to negotiating the INF, CFE. . . .  This was a significant step forward.”

“Clearly they [government officials] were reacting to the pressure, and that’s one reason that then Senator Cohen and others came up with the build-down, and Reagan came forward with his Star Wars speech, making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”  These things were done “to counter the Freeze movement.”  But JI can’t provide evidence that the movement was the reason Reagan moved toward arms control.  JI adds, though:  “The deal on MX, Midgetman, and arms control — that was also in reaction to the pressure. . . .  Then Congressman Les Aspin, then Congressman Al Gore, Jr., and still Congressman Norm Dix negotiated a deal with the Reagan administration, I think partially in response to the pressure from the Freeze . . . where members of Congress agreed to accept MX (or at least some MXs), the Reagan administration agreed to proceed with Gore’s cherished Midgetman missile, and the Reagan administration agreed to resume arms control talks.”  Doesn’t recall when this occurred.  

The nuclear reductions called for by START:  “I doubt that the movement can claim credit for that, nor do I think it’s that significant. . . .  In terms of their [the Reagan administration’s] arms control decisions, going to Reykjavik, Reagan operating to get rid of all their land-based missiles, that certainly we had absolutely zero influence on.”

Asked about Reagan’s sincerity as a nuclear disarmer versus his response to antinuclear public pressure, JI replied that it is very hard to determine motivation.  “So all I could do is guess.  But I would guess a lot of it is fairly simple-minded idealism.  That he wasn’t bright enough to go through all these wonderful Herman Kahn or Richard Perle calculations — well, if they had this number, we need that number.  And pushing that notion of getting rid of all land-based missiles was unheard of in our community, unheard of I think to his own team, I’ve no idea where that came from.  But I’ll give Reagan credit that he would like to have eliminated a lot of nuclear weapons at the end.  It was the same sort of naive idealism that led him to think that nuclear weapons could be made impotent and obsolete if we developed this ballistic missile defense system.”

On SDI:  “My speculation is that he was sincere.  That it wasn’t done just to deflect [public] pressure.  Not the kinds of things he proposed at Reykjavik, which went beyond. . . .  Some of the proposals were calculated design. . . .  But I think he went beyond that to some inner beliefs later in his term.  But that’s, again, pure guess.”  Asked if this horrified other members of his administration, JI replied:  “Absolutely! . . .  I’m sure an awful lot of his team knew nothing about it and were cut out of the decision-making process there.”

Asked about major gains since the 1980s, JI replied:  “There have been gains.  I would not call them major gains.  Probably the most important and dramatic gains in the short period of time came not because of anything we did, but because George Bush was President and Jim Baker was Secretary of State.  They were both very confident about their abilities and the knowledge of the issues — and Brent Scowcroft in there, too.  And because they took all the power into their hands and more or less avoided or evaded the bureaucracy in the State Department and the Defense Department, they were able to make very fast decisions.  Therefore, they were able to take advantage of an unusual opportunity not presented to any other President, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism.  And so they moved rapidly and signed the START I and START II treaties. . . .  But I don’t think that’s anything we did.  I think it was a fortunate series of happenings where the right people were there at the right time, taking advantage of an unprecedented situation.  

Unfortunately, we’ve had the same sort of unprecedented situation over the last six and a half years under Clinton, but they have not been able to take advantage of the same opportunity. . . .  Clinton had no background on these issues, we had a weak Secretary of State first, and not a great Secretary of State now in my judgment, and national security council advisors kept focusing on other things and other crises and other foreign policy issues and never had the full focus on arms control.  Their attention got diverted.  And the American public moved away from arms control issues after the fall of the Soviet Union.  And unfortunately President Clinton’s advisors did the same thing.  So, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity, they moved on to other issues and left behind a history of failed opportunity.  The Bush team took advantage of that opportunity. . . .  So much depend on who’s in the executive branch and what their capacity is. . . .

In my twenty-plus year career, there never has been the public attention and the grassroots movement on nuclear and arms control issues since the `80s.  And presumably there never will be again.  It’s just that people aren’t worried about these issues. . . .  There are a lot of reasons why people should be worried, but they aren’t. . . .

The most important impact on the arms race was not the grassroots movement, not brilliant policies, but the broader picture between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The reason that nuclear war became less possible, the reason that arms control made the progress it did was because the Soviet Union disappeared.  And so the political relationship between Washington and Moscow improved significantly.  That’s why people aren’t as worried about nuclear war.  Both sides still have combined somewhere about 30,000 nuclear weapons, both sides still have thousands of long-range strategic weapons on a high state of alert.  The reason people are less concerned is not because the numbers have been reduced dramatically, or not because of the series of arms control agreements, but because at least for a period of time, Moscow-Washington relations were remarkably warm.  And even today, while they’re not so warm, they don’t match the Cold War hostility. . . .

I’ve always felt arms control was a means to improve the political relationship between countries, as opposed to an end of itself, that moving from 10,000 to 6,000 or 6,000 to 3,000 warheads was nice, and helpful, but each side still maintained and maintains the capacity to destroy each other and the world many times over.  But as the arms control agreements that Bush signed, especially, were important building blocks in the improving political relationship between the two countries, that improved political relationship in turn made it easier to get these arms control agreements signed.  So arms control as an end in itself is to me less important than the overall relationship. . . .  

What arms control, I believe, can do and has done is place some limits on the waging of war and weapons of mass destruction, but not eliminate the threat yet.  That does lead to the further goal of trying to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, of abolition of nuclear weapons, and that would be a worthy goal.  It’s just far away.  And a test ban treaty does again some place some limits on what countries can do, either in developing nuclear weapons in the first place or improving nuclear weapons.  Now when I’m talking about nuclear arms control, I’m talking about the U.S. and Russia.  Certainly nonproliferation efforts that help convince countries that they shouldn’t go nuclear are to everyone’s advantage. . . .  My argument particularly applies to the U.S.-Russia relationship.  Going from thousands of nuclear weapons to a few thousand less nuclear weapons ultimately doesn’t mean that much, except as steps toward a greater goal.”

On the Clinton administration:  JI agrees with Rolf Ekeus that the Clinton administration did the muscle work to get other countries to agree to the CTBT.  “It’s not that there are no successes, but just too few successes and, again, tremendous opportunities lost.  The administration has some good ideas, but just not the capacity to carry them out.  And even that . . . success of the test ban treaty is not a completed success.  It hasn’t been ratified.  It hasn’t gone into effect.  It took five years, I believe, for George Bush’s chemical weapons convention to be ratified, and the U.S. still hasn’t complied with it. . . .  The Clinton administration gets some credit for the test ban treaty and nonproliferation treaty extension.  So it’s not as if they haven’t done anything.  It’s just that they could have done so much more, and they still have a very large and unfinished agenda.”  Asked if part of the Clinton administration’s problem had been a Republican Congress, JI replied:  “Yes.  Absolutely.  There’s no doubt that a Republican President has been able to and probably can continue to accomplish more than a Democratic President.  But I think the test ban treaty could even today be ratified, if the administration puts a lot of time and effort into it.  I think START III could have been accomplished a long time ago.  Congress wouldn’t dare vote against a START III agreement.  The Congressional resistance on test ban, on ABM treaty, are problems.  But all that does is give the Clinton team an excuse to say:  `Well, we’re probably going to have enough trouble completing this, so let’s move on to some other issue.’  If Democrats had control of Congress since 1994, the test ban treaty would certainly have been approved by now.  But even with a Democratic Congress in for two years, the Clinton team wasn’t able to get the chemical weapons treaty approved. . . .  It took about three more years. . . .

We have had . . . over the years modest progress. . . .  There have been a series of modest but useful steps.  And, unfortunately, when you’re talking about diplomacy, when you’re talking about difficult arms control, when you’re talking about dealing with a recalcitrant legislature, apparently that’s all the political processes will sustain.  It takes a very bold vision and effective leaders to go beyond that. . . .  Arms control is an enormously complex process, and political processes have been enormously resistant to past movement. . . .”

JI again emphasizes the remarkable success of Baker and Bush, including the absence of protest from Republicans or anyone at Bush’s unilateral withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe.  But “Republicans who wouldn’t oppose a Reagan or a Bush will oppose a Clinton or a Carter.”