At the height of the Cold War, almost no one was bold enough or foolish enough to predict the Soviet Union's collapse, let alone without the eruption of a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. One of the few who prophesied its demise, George Kennan, was deeply worried about a nuclear cataclysm. Kennan, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and the father of containment policy, warned repeatedly that unwise U.S. nuclear policies could lead to Armageddon. The Cold War is now history, but warnings of an impending nuclear catastrophe are still very much alive. Anxieties today stem not from the threat of a surprise Soviet missile attack but from the fear of Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and terrorist groups seeking to carry out catastrophic attacks against soft targets in the United States.

And yet, not a single death has occurred as a result of nuclear terrorism. Since 9/11, there have been more than 36,000 terrorist attacks, resulting in approximately 57,000 fatalities and 99,000 casualties. A terrible, mass-casualty attack using nuclear or biological weapons could occur at any time, and much more can be done to keep the United States safe. As the attacks that have occurred have repeatedly demonstrated, terrorists do not need weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to cause grievous harm; they can do so using hijacked airplanes, fertilizer, automatic weapons, and grenades.

But the situation is far from bleak. It is not easy for terrorist groups to acquire the skills and materials necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow have reduced their nuclear arsenals by 34,000 weapons over the past two decades, nuclear testing is now rare, the list of countries with worrisome nuclear programs is very short by historical standards, and the permanent members of the UN Security Council now have less to fight about -- and more reasons to cooperate in preventing worst-case scenarios from occurring -- than ever before.

Yet warnings of the possibility of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons attacks are as loud as ever. These warnings must be put in perspective. The United States has managed to remain safe from nuclear catastrophes in far more dangerous times. And if the threat is so great, and the protections so weak, why have there not been grievous WMD attacks on U.S. cities already? Wise U.S. initiatives to reduce these dangers have helped tremendously, such as programs initiated by then Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to lock down dangerous weapons and materials and to dismantle Cold War-era missiles and bombers. There is another explanation as well: the threat itself has been greatly exaggerated.

CRYING WOLF

Predicting nuclear disasters was common during the Cold War. Paul Nitze, Kennan's successor as director of the State Department's policy planning staff, issued the Cold War's most famous warning to President Harry Truman in April 1950, forecasting four or five years of great danger ahead facing an emboldened Joseph Stalin. The anxieties expressed in Nitze's report -- known as NSC-68 -- were reasonable given that the Soviet Union had conducted its first nuclear test in August 1949, Mao Zedong had just taken over mainland China, and the Korean War, which was to begin in June 1950, was already brewing.

The next warning of nuclear danger came in November 1957, four days after the launch of the second Sputnik. The Gaither Committee, headed by a Ford Foundation and RAND Corporation executive and assisted by Nitze, warned President Dwight Eisenhower, "The evidence clearly indicates an increasing threat, which may become critical in 1959 or early 1960." Such anxieties stemmed from presumed gaps between the bomber and missile capacities of the United States and those of the Soviet Union. But these gaps proved to be imaginary -- Washington actually led Moscow in these areas. The most harrowing episode of the Cold War -- the Cuban missile crisis, of October 1962 -- was in fact prompted by Moscow's weakness, rather than its strength, as the Soviets sought a quick fix for their perceived strategic disadvantage.

The doomsayers got it wrong again during the Ford administration, when a group of experts was assembled to determine whether the U.S. intelligence community was underestimating the Soviet threat. These hawkish experts, known as Team B, included the historian Richard Pipes; a young Paul Wolfowitz, who would later become deputy secretary of defense; and Nitze. Team B issued a report in 1976 predicting that unless urgent measures were taken, the Soviet threat would reach its peak between 1980 and 1983. Although the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lent credence to Team B's assessment at first, the ill-conceived occupation that followed turned out to be a harbinger of the Soviet Union's dissolution rather than a steppingstone to more ambitious conquests.

Today, as was the case during the Cold War, there is no shortage of nonproliferation specialists predicting impending nuclear disasters. Eighty-five experts polled by Senator Lugar in 2005 estimated that the risk of a WMD attack occurring before 2010 was 50 percent and before 2015, 70 percent. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its iconic Doomsday Clock at five minutes to midnight -- two minutes closer to Armageddon than it was during the Cuban missile crisis. A bipartisan congressional commission concluded in 2008 that "America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing" and that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013." Graham Allison, one of the commission's members, had warned in 2004 that "the detonation of a nuclear device in an American city is inevitable if the U.S. continues on its present course." And soon after leaving office, former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a "high probability" that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack on the United States in the coming years.

These sorts of scary predictions have a basis in reality. After all, Iran has mastered the ability to enrich uranium, is laying the foundation for a nuclear weapons program, and has close ties to terrorist groups; Pakistan is ramping up its capacity to produce plutonium as the central government's influence is waning; and North Korea has a bomb-making capacity, weapons-grade material, and a need for hard currency. Al Qaeda's leaders have sought to acquire and use these weapons, and other extremist groups have an interest in doing so, too.

Experts cite such worrisome developments and then use threat inflation to seize the public's attention and to secure sufficient appropriations for their preferred remedies. They, along with government officials, members of Congress, and the intelligence community are all safer warning of great danger than downplaying threats -- except when their inflated anxieties facilitate a preventive war based on false premises. The Iraq war notwithstanding, when worst cases do not materialize, those who issued dire warnings can take credit. And if attacks do occur, the alarmists can always say, "I told you so."

As real as these threats are, hyping them carries its own risks. Crying wolf too often can lead to complacency when action is needed most. Repeated warnings can also prompt taxpayers and lawmakers to question what was gained from prior investments in reducing threats and so limit appropriations for new ones. This is a major problem, since remedial efforts over short periods of time are insufficient; reducing the nuclear threat requires success over the long haul.

Most important, fear-based strategies lead to wasteful spending and costly errors in judgment. Dire warnings of impending nuclear dangers during the Cold War led the United States and the Soviet Union to produce a staggering 125,000 nuclear warheads and test an average of one nuclear weapon per week between 1962 and 1989. The cost of building, operating, and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 1945 to 1991 was approximately $5 trillion. Likewise, excessive anxieties have led to wars that did not extend American ideals or defend U.S. national interests. The misguided and poorly executed war in Vietnam killed almost 60,000 U.S. troops. The 2003 war to oust Saddam Hussein, justified as a mission to keep WMD out of the hands of Washington's foes, has cost the lives of over 4,000 U.S. military personnel, perhaps 100,000 or more Iraqis, and more than $1 trillion. These costs have far exceeded any presumed benefits. The fact that a major attack has not occurred on U.S. soil since Saddam was ousted has little to do with George W. Bush's war of choice, which has fueled anti-American extremism in the Middle East. Rather, it has everything to do with cooperative threat-reduction programs and improved intelligence coordination among U.S. agencies and between the United States and foreign intelligence services.

THE NUCLEAR LOCKBOX

Contemporary nuclear dangers pale in comparison to those of the decade of the 1990s, when a weakened Russian leadership presided over massive, poorly guarded nuclear stockpiles. As Boris Yeltsin jockeyed with Mikhail Gorbachev for the Kremlin's leadership in 1991, no one could be sure who would control Russia's nuclear codes or whether the military chain of command would remain intact. At the time, the Soviet Union was believed to possess more than 29,000 nuclear warheads, as well as 600 tons of highly enriched uranium and 100 tons of plutonium -- enough raw material to make 64,000 additional nuclear weapons. Even the overseers of these vast stockpiles did not have accurate counts of the weapons and the material in their possession, making theft difficult to detect. To make matters worse, Russia faced grave economic hardships during the 1990s, when its GDP fell by 40 percent. (By contrast, the United States' GDP fell by 30 percent during the Great Depression.) Poverty -- especially among nuclear scientists and military officials -- increased the risk of theft, diversion, or covert sales of nuclear weapons and bomb-making material.

In response to these grave circumstances, the U.S. Congress endorsed the programs launched by Nunn and Lugar in 1991 to stop the proliferation of dangerous weapons and materials from Russia and the former Soviet republics. Washington provided specialized equipment to help with transportation and to increase security around sensitive sites; trained scientists who had previously worked on WMD programs for alternative careers; aided in the dismantlement of Soviet missiles, submarines, and bombers; and blended down highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear power reactors -- which provided electricity to those former Soviet republics that agreed to relinquish their inherited nuclear arsenals (all eventually did). These cooperative threat-reduction programs were effectively implemented by the Clinton and Bush administrations, and they have since been expanded to include over 300 sites in the former Soviet Union and 113 other countries. As a result of U.S. assistance, radiation detectors and other monitoring devices have been installed at border crossings in Central Asia and at ports from Pakistan to the Philippines in order to screen shipping containers before they leave shore. Weapons-grade nuclear materials have been transported to central storage sites and flown out of potential danger zones.

These cooperative threat-reduction programs are the most creative initiatives to reduce nuclear dangers since the field of arms control was conceived in the early 1960s. Unlike the strategic modernization programs and arms control treaties that were so politically contentious during the Cold War, cooperative threat reduction enjoys broad bipartisan support. These post-Cold War remedies cost a pittance compared to the alternatives -- the development of next-generation nuclear weapons systems or cleaning up after a mushroom cloud.

. . . BUT FEAR ITSELF

The world is dangerous enough as it is; threat inflation is not required for threat reduction. Politicians and proliferation experts can warn citizens without alarming them. All of the policies that successfully prevented a nuclear catastrophe from occurring during the Cold War -- containment, diplomacy, deterrence, conventional military strength, and arms control agreements -- can be employed even more effectively today.

Many conditions for success are already in place. Cold War hot spots -- such as Berlin, Cuba, and Taiwan -- have cooled down, and the Middle East is no longer a flashpoint for great-power confrontation. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are approximately 20,000 fewer nuclear weapons in Russia today than there were in the former Soviet Union when the Cold War ended. No permanent member of the UN Security Council has tested a nuclear weapon in over a decade, and the importance of these weapons in major power politics has never been lower. With patient and persistent diplomacy, nonproliferation has become a global norm, with very few exceptions.

For the first time since the atomic age began in 1945, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as India, Israel, and Pakistan, face a common enemy -- nuclear terrorism. This common enemy provides a basis for collaboration in fighting proliferation. Cooperative threat reduction, rather than spreading fear and inflating threats, will be the key to averting a nuclear catastrophe in the twenty-first century.

Nitze, the man who repeatedly warned of impending nuclear disasters, also offered the perfect mental antidote to scaremongering. He advised U.S. officials to "try to reduce the dangers of nuclear war within the relevant future time period as best you can; you just get depressed if you worry about the long term." The best counter to nuclear pessimism is, Nitze advised, to "work the problem" methodically and persistently, day by day. As Obama administration officials seek to moderate public anxiety about nuclear terrorism without letting down their guard, they would be wise to heed Nitze's advice. The threat is very serious, but the U.S. government knows how to reduce nuclear dangers, and it is making headway. Washington's worst nuclear nightmares did not occur in the past, and they can be prevented in the future.

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  • MICHAEL KREPON is Co-Founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Diplomat Scholar at the University of Virginia, and the author of Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living With the Bomb.
  • More By Michael Krepon