Civil Rights for Minorities not a “Wedge Issue”

While I applaud Michael Lubell’s call for a renewed federal commitment to science R&D (Inside the Beltway column “The Task Ahead”, November 2010), I take strong exception to his characterization of immigration reform and gays in the military as “wedge issues” that are less urgent than funding for science.

As a past chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists and as an openly gay theoretical physicist in a 14 year interracial marriage, I believe that the advancement of civil rights for all minorities is no less vital to the long-term health of our society in general–and science in particular –than the vagaries of year-to-year federal funding decisions.

Ironically, the same issue in which Lubell’s column appeared also included an article detailing the continuing under-representation of African Americans and Latinos in physics (“Physics Lags in Minority Representation”). Perhaps the continuing pathetic state of minority representation in physics is closely tied to the insensitivity of some of our spokespersons to the importance of promoting human rights for minorities of all types.

I believe that the scientific endeavor in general, and that of physics in particular, can only be strengthened by ensuring that the climate of the scientific community embraces, supports, and promotes the contributions from a diversity of individuals. The creation of such a climate requires that the leaders of our community be attuned to the needs and challenges faced by minorities who seek to pursue a scientific career.

Michael Ramsey-Musolf
Madison, WI

Lerch Responds to Back Page Letters

Ed. Note: In January, we printed 2 responses to Irving Lerch’s October Back Page “Invisible Nukes.” The Back Page and the letters, by John Richter and Igor Kleyn, are available online. Richter stated that the US has no tactical nuclear weapons, and Kleyn advocated vigorous nuclear deterrence. A response by Lerch follows:

John Richter’s assertion is probably based on misconceptions and confusions. The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives promulgated by President George H. W. Bush in the wake of his September 1991 meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed to withdraw to the United States all ground-launched short-range weapons deployed overseas and destroy them along with existing US stockpiles of the same weapons (1); and cease deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on surface ships, attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft during “normal circumstances.” Implicitly, the United States reserved the right to redeploy these arms in a crisis.

In return, Gorbachev promised to withdraw the Soviet tactical arsenal from East-Central Europe to the Soviet Union (but he did not commit to decommissioning them). In the end, a small US arsenal remained committed to NATO forces because the NATO Council insisted that such weapons were needed to counter the Russian tactical arsenal which remained very large and ready for deployment.  To this day, between 150-200 weapons, manned by US units, remain on European soil.

Well before the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, US military planners were aware that the forward deployed nuclear armaments of the 1960s were unsustainable and vulnerable and therefore a whole new class of armaments were developed. These were largely to be warheads mounted on submarines (Tomahawk cruise missiles) and air-launched gravity bombs. Thus, instead of deploying these weapons at the Division and Corps level, they were held safely in the rear for release by theater commanders upon approval by the President. They are, nonetheless, tactical nuclear weapons.(2)

I’m sure it would come as a shock to NATO commanders to learn that there are no tactical weapons extant. It would also come as a shock to Administration negotiators who are responsible for discussing the status of these non-existent weapons in the next round of talks.

In any event, I am not as concerned with these weapons as I am with the integrity of the Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, Israeli, North Korean and perhaps Iranian arsenals and the very real possibility that terrorist organizations might get their hands on them.  But I must agree that the carriers in the gulf did not carry nuclear warheads; a force of accompanying submarines were assigned that role.

Igor Kleyn accuses me of disliking nuclear deterrence as a concept. Although I never mentioned deterrence, I did express my worry that many arsenals in the most unstable regions were vulnerable to security breaches.

We know the vulnerabilities of the Pakistani arsenal. My own experiences during the Vietnam era made crystal clear that it was insanity to position small nuclear weapons with forward deployed combat units where they would be vulnerable to capture or destruction. Thus removing the artillery shells and replacing them with missiles and bombs and moving them to the rear sounded both safer and saner. But we then set the stage for others to emulate us and thereby create a class of weapons whose very existence creates an unimaginable hazard to international stability.

My point was to do everything possible to prevent “government [that] hides in schools and sends women out to blow themselves up” from acquiring nuclear weapons. I welcome all comments, pro or con. Let’s keep the discussion rolling. But most important, let’s promote education and understanding of policies that shape our world.

Irving A. Lerch


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Editor: Alan Chodos