Wedded to old modes of thinking, defense policy makers resist change in the face of new realities. Though the Cold War has ended, the Soviet Union has disintegrated, and Communism no longer menaces the world, the United States and Russia continue to maintain enormous strategic nuclear forces on alert. Why?

Nuclear weapons pose horrible risks. The detonation of even one large H-bomb would demolish the largest city, killing millions. The detonation of 10 or 20 such weapons would cause unimaginable devastation to an entire nation.

Yet each side maintains thousands of nuclear weapons. Even when the START I agreement of 1991 is fully implemented, the United States and Russia each will deploy more than 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads. Under START II, signed in 1993 but still awaiting ratification by the Russian Duma, each side would reduce the number of warheads to just 3,500—far more than enough to destroy civilization.

Russia’s parliament resists ratification of START II in order to compensate for the drastic deterioration of Russia’s conventional armed forces. But nuclear weapons are poor substitutes. With an appropriate “aid” package the United States probably could bribe the recalcitrant Russians into greater cooperation in arms reduction.

A larger question is whether the carefully calibrated tit-for-tat method of arms reduction continues to make sense—indeed, whether it ever made sense. Once the arms race was begun, it became self-sustaining. Applying the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), each side wanted more warheads and more accurate and reliable delivery vehicles because the other side had acquired more warheads and more accurate and reliable delivery vehicles. Striving to get or stay ahead, by the late 1980s each side had accumulated more than 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads plus thousands of tactical nuclear weapons.

That the world somehow managed to survive the past half-century without employing these weapons must be credited largely to sheer luck. Besides the close calls occasioned by stupid political leadership, such as the Cuban missile crisis, the mere existence of these massive arsenals created serious risks of accidental or unauthorized launch of weapons with catastrophic consequences.

Unfortunately, dismantling nuclear weapons now gets little public attention. Never comfortable thinking about nuclear war, ordinary citizens allay their anxieties by assuming, contrary to fact, that because the Cold War has ended, they are no longer at risk.

Recently, however, a wake-up call has come from a surprising source. Last December at the National Press Club, U.S. Air Force General George Lee Butler highlighted the urgent need for new thinking by calling for complete elimination of nuclear weapons “as the only defensible goal.” Formerly the head of the Strategic Air Command and its successor Strategic Command, Butler speaks with authority. “The risks posed by nuclear weapons,” he declares, “far outweigh their presumed benefits.”

The day after Butler’s speech, 61 retired generals and admirals from 17 nations, including 19 Americans and 18 Russians, issued a statement. Declaring that nuclear weapons “represent a clear and present danger to the very existence of humanity,” they called for reductions much greater than those slated by START II. “In the post-Cold War security environment,” they stated, “the most commonly postulated nuclear threats are not susceptible to deterrence or are simply not credible.” Thus “business as usual is not an acceptable way for the world to proceed in nuclear matters.” The ultimate aim should be no nukes.

Is this proposal workable? Guardians of the status quo say no. The Pentagon insists that the missiles must stay on alert. Brookings Institution analyst Richard Haass calls Butler’s ideas a “dangerous delusion.” Former defense officials Ashton B. Carter and John M. Deutch argue that “reducing nuclear weapons to zero is not practical or desirable until there is assurance that all nations will do so.”

Of course, some “experts,” especially those institutionally and ideologically committed to the theology of nuclear deterrence, will always insist that we have no such assurance. Demanding complete assurance makes no sense, however, because continuing to maintain nuclear weapons is itself enormously risky. Butler attests to an “appalling array of accidents and incidents” in the past.

Although defense policy makers continue to resist new thinking, Butler believes that striving to set the world on a path toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons is not utopian. “We forget too quickly,” he says, “how seemingly intractable conflicts can suddenly yield under the weight of reason or with a change of leadership.” The military leaders now urging the abandonment of horrifying instruments of mass murder deserve our gratitude for their valuable contribution to the crusade for sanity.