Paul Carroll is the senior advisor at N Square, a nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation collaborative. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA panel discussion titled “Is War With North Korea Inevitable?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the Green Room about military theorists, arms races, and backyard bomb shelters.
Arms races historically have gone in cycles. Are we entering a new one?
Absolutely. We entered a prelude to a new global arms race during the Obama administration. In 2009, one of Obama’s first landmark speeches was the Prague speech, a very Kennedy-esque speech about the goal and the vision of the U.S. as a world free of nuclear weapons. People in my community were excited and inspired. And at the same time it seemed like all the big [global] players were marching to the same tune. Unfortunately, between the financial crisis and other big issues, things stalled a few years later, and certainly in the second term. I think with Obama, as with other presidents, the vision was there; the bureaucracy and the politics were not. Now the arms race is on steroids. You have a president who doesn’t have a grasp of the tradition of arms control.
Could we be reverting to a new era of duck-and-cover drills and people building bomb shelters? Will Americans buy into that mentality the way we did during the Cold War?
I’ve heard people tell me that they’ve talked to neighbors that are building bomb shelters. I’ve seen articles describe how to survive a terrorist bomb. On the one hand, if it’s based in some real knowledge, that’s OK. On a more fundamental level, it bothers me that it makes it seem like it’s getting out of the way of a hurricane or a tornado—and it’s just not.
What got you interested in working for arms control?
My dad said to me when I finished college, “So your career goal is to put yourself out of a job?” I said, “Hey, that’d be fine with me!” It was kind of an intellectual thing. It’s not like someone who decided to do environmental work because they saw a slaughter of seals. For me, that came later. But when I graduated high school in 1984, I wanted to fly jets for the Air Force, partly out of patriotism but partly because it was cool.
A Tom Cruise “Top Gun” thing.
Exactly. And when I started to study foreign policy I gravitated toward Cold War history, and I realized we’re really playing with our existence. And that bothered me.
Were there any particular teachers or professors who really influenced you and shaped your thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear policy?
When I studied political science at Rutgers there was a guy named Ed Rhodes and he studied Navy policy and tactics, including the nuclear Navy, and he encouraged me. There was another guy named Vasquez, who taught the classics of international relations, but he had a seminar called “Avoiding Nuclear War” and it was just very thoughtful.
As a classics man, did he talk about avoiding the Thucydides Trap?
I think he did. There were certainly some classics from the Greek era. I remember the more modern ones, like Carl von Clausewitz, and Thomas Schelling and game theory.
When I was working in government at the Department of Energy, I went to the Nevada Test Site. You may have seen pictures of all the craters. I stood on the edge of one of those craters, and it is massive. And that was a pretty small bomb. So that, for me, is what translated this kind of intellectual interest and passion about these issues into, “Holy [expletive]—that’s what these things actually do.”
If you could do anything to help all Americans understand what nuclear weapons can do, and what nuclear warfare would be like, what would that be?
Two things. First, if you don’t think you live next to a significant nuclear facility, you’re probably wrong. So look it up. If you live in Tennessee, go visit Oak Ridge. If you live in Washington state, go visit Hanford. And even if they’re not a sexy lab or a test site, you’ll get a sense of the scale of the industry, but also of the ecological scars. This is a multi-generational endeavor to clean this stuff up, let alone the war aspects. And I think “Fail Safe” would be the movie I would recommend. The Henry Fonda version in 1964, it’s not like a bunch of bombs going off in the abstract. They make you feel the emotion of why this is so dangerous, without having to show big explosions.