How Newsweek Learned to Fudge Facts & Love The Bomb

On September 14, 2009, an issue of Newsweek was released with the cover story "Learning To Love The Bomb: How Nuclear Weapons Make The World A Safer Place" by Jonathan Tepperman. This article is a deceitful piece of propaganda designed to justify U.S. military hegemony. It is littered with inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions.

Throughout the article, Tepperman repeatedly claims that, "Obama wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons," but no proof is given except to state that, "Obama has said several times [that] nuclear weapons represent the ‘gravest threat’ to U.S. security." Even then no sources are given.

According to Frida Berrigan, paraphrasing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "The Obama administration will spend more than $6 billion on the research and development of nuclear weapons this year alone…. At some point early next year, the Administration will complete a Nuclear Posture Review outlining the role it believes nuclear weapons should play in the American pantheon of power…. In the meantime, the policy of the United States remains no different than it was in 2004, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy." This policy states that the U.S. will use the threat of nuclear weapons to destroy "those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world."

According to Noam Chomsky, a "senior Israeli diplomat" reported that, "Israel had received assurances that Obama ‘will not force Israel to state publicly whether it has nuclear weapons…[but will] stick to a decades-old U.S. policy of don’t ask, don’t tell’."

Tepperman says that Obama should not pursue his "idealistic campaign" to rid the world of nuclear weapons—assuming that Obama is actually planning to—and that "there are more important measures the U.S. government can and should take to make the world a safer place." No examples are given of these measures. Assuming Tepperman actually has suggestions for how the U.S. could drastically change its role in the world and start making it a safer place, I doubt that they are more important than working to prevent a nuclear war. In one case, Tepperman even uses the example of the Cuban missile crisis to prove how nuclear weapons can make the world safer. He writes that "both countries soon stepped back from the brink when they recognized that the war would have meant curtains for everybody."

To make this argument, he had to seriously ignore the facts. Despite what Tepperman may believe, nuclear deterrence did not prevent nuclear war: rather, it was prevented by the cool-headedness of a Soviet submarine officer. In Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky writes that attendees of a conference in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of the crisis were informed that "the world was ‘one word away’ from nuclear war." On October 27, 1962, Soviet submarines were under attack by U.S. destroyers and, thinking nuclear war had begun, the order was given by two of the officers to fire nuclear-armed torpedoes. Fortunately, the order to fire was blocked by the third officer, Vasili Archipov. Had a little less cool-headed officer been in that submarine, the world would have been plunged into nuclear war, probably killing about 600 million people. The fact that the U.S. was willing to attack nuclear-armed submarines sheds some interesting light on the effectiveness of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Tepperman’s use of the crisis shows his willingness to distort or ignore facts.

Tepperman writes that, "The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a non-nuclear, war between two states that possess them." But, as mentioned above, nuclear weapons would have been used if not for a Soviet submarine officer. And nuclear weapons have been used, albeit not conventional ones, in the form of depleted uranium (DU) shells. The U.S. and Britain used them during the First Gulf war in 1997, in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003—Israel also used them in Lebanon. These weapons have caused immense and often untold horror in the places that they have been used. They have spread the seeds of cancer to "40 to 48 percent of the population" of Southern Iraq, according to a cancer specialist at a Basra hospital.

Secondly, there have been two non-nuclear wars between States that possess them: the Sino-Soviet war of 1969 and the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999.


Tepperman writes that "even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear State is unwinnable and therefore not worth the effort." As noted earlier, John F. Kennedy was willing to risk nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also refused to remove U.S. nuclear warheads from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing nuclear weapons from Cuba. This leaves a rational observer with one of two conclusions: if not even the craziest dictator would fight a war with a nuclear State then why were the Vietnamese, Afghans, Iraqis, and many others willing to fight against the U.S., the Soviet Union, or any other nuclear powers?

Going again with bad examples, Tepperman uses the India-Pakistan conflict to prove how nuclear weapons can make conflicts safer. He writes that "since acquiring atomic weapons, the two sides have never fought another war, despite severe provocations." This is extremely misleading. Both states first weaponized nuclear warheads in 1998, although Pakistan had tested fusion weapons in 1983, with the support of the Reagan administration. Their last major war was in 1971. That means that the time without major wars before nuclear weapons was 27 years and the time without major wars since the acquisition of nuclear weapons has been 11 years. That hardly proves that nuclear weapons have stopped war. And nuclear weapons have not stopped the usual animosities, such as repression in Indian Kashmir, ethnic cleansing and Pakistani terror in India—and a war in 1999, while they both had nuclear weapons—that Tepperman ignores.

During the course of his article, Tepperman fails to account for the world’s two most powerful rogue states: the U.S. and Britain. The U.S. currently has 9,400 nuclear warheads, more than the rest of the world put together, and Britain has 200. Much of Tepperman’s argument focuses on the fact that the "rogues" have very little power and very few weapons. But the amount of nuclear weapons owned by the most powerful and violent rogues sheds a different light on this argument. Yes, "revolutionary Iran has never started a war" and North Korea is "a tiny, impoverished, family-run country with a history of being invaded," but the U.S. and Britain have a history of violent conquest and in the U.S. case, a history of using nuclear weapons.

Another dangerous threat that is completely ignored is the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. Historian Lawrence Wittner writes that "in September 1983, the Soviet Union’s launch-detection satellites reported that the U.S. government had fired its Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles and that a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was underway. Luckily, the officer in charge concluded that they had malfunctioned and, on his own authority, prevented a Soviet nuclear alert…. Another nuclear war nearly erupted two months later when the United States and its NATO allies conducted Able Archer 83, a nuclear training exercise that simulated a full-scale nuclear conflict, with NATO nuclear attacks on Soviet nuclear targets. In the tense atmosphere of the time, recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a top KGB official, his agency mistakenly ‘concluded that American forces had been placed on alert—and might even have begun the countdown to nuclear war.’ Terrified that the U.S. government was using this training exercise as a cover for launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the Soviet government alerted its own nuclear forces, readying them for action. ‘The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss,’ Gordievsky concluded. But it came ‘frighteningly close’."

In June 2005, Senator Richard Luger of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report on the possibility of nuclear war. When "asked about the prospect of a nuclear attack within the next ten years, the 76 nuclear security experts he polled came up with an average probability of 29 percent. Four respondents estimated the risk at 100 percent, while only one estimated it at zero." With this grave threat, how can Tepperman and Newsweek argue that nuclear weapons are agents of peace?

Tepperman also writes that "nuclear weapons are so controversial and expensive that only countries that deem them absolutely critical to their survival go through the extreme trouble of acquiring them." This completely ignores the fact that nuclear weapons are not necessary to the survival of the two most powerful rogue states. The U.S. actually has a first-strike policy for nuclear weapons. Even though Tepperman’s statement is entirely false, it raises an important point. If the U.S. slowed down its nuclear proliferation and toned down or stopped its international aggression and hegemony, then nations like North Korea and Iran would not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons, thus moving us a huge step towards peace.

Again, in Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky shows that U.S. political and economic domination and its confrontational attitude has led to Russia’s military proliferating in recent years. Tepperman admits that, "Moscow and Beijing would likely be unmoved by anything short of unilateral U.S. disarmament," although he draws a very different conclusion, i.e., that we should not disarm, whereas I think that it shows that we should all work together to disarm rather than competing for supremacy.

The main logic of the article is summed up in one sentence on the second to last page: "The logic of nuclear peace rests on a very scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad—conventional war—won’t happen." This statement has two main errors.

First, this "very small chance" is a probability of 29 percent, according to top nuclear security experts in Washington. Anyone with the slightest concern for human suffering would not bargain with a 29 percent chance of about 600 million people being killed.

Second, nuclear weapons do not prevent conventional war. Since WW II, there have been approximately 143 separate wars, 28 of which have involved at least one nuclear power. These wars have resulted in between 36,865,270 and 44,865,500 deaths, only counting the direct result of the wars. Also, States with nuclear weapons have actually been involved in wars far more than states without nuclear weapons have. "Between 1945 and 1997, nuclear weapons states have fought in an average of 5.2 wars, while non-nuclear weapons states averaged about 0.67 wars." That does not sound like peace.

Another of Tepperman’s questionable assumptions is that the reason nuclear weapons have not been used is that States are afraid of using nuclear weapons because they know they will be attacked back. This didn’t stop Kennedy. In an article for the History News Network and ZNet, Wittner makes the case that Mutual Assured Destruction did not stop nuclear war: anti-nuclear activism did. In the last line he writes, "Evidence certainly exists that public pressure has prevented nuclear war. Where is the evidence that nuclear weapons have done so?"

Essentially, throughout the course of the article, Tepperman provides no evidence that the existence of nuclear weapons stopped nuclear war, beyond saying that there hasn’t been one.


Robert Miller is a 16-year-old resident of London (England) where he attends the Southbank International School. He is also involved with the Project for a Participatory Society-UK Chapter.