Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Military analysis.
May 7 2010 3:54 PM

Full Disclosure

Why President Obama revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Fat Man nuclear device.
"Fat Man" nuclear device model

In an underreported bit of news this week, the Obama administration revealed how many weapons are in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The number, which until now has been classified, turns out to be 5,113.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is now out in paperback. His 1983 book on the nuclear strategists,The Wizards of Armageddon, is still in print.He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

Two reasonable reactions to this disclosure might be: Why was this number classified in the first place? And why the hell do we need 5,113 nuclear warheads?

It's a good bet that President Barack Obama meant to prompt precisely these responses.

There were three reasons for declassifying the stockpile numbers.

First, Obama does seem to have a genuine interest in lifting the cloak off government secrets that have no rationale for remaining secrets. And, especially since the Cold War ended 20 years ago, there is no good reason for keeping this information secret.

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Second, Obama hopes to prompt reciprocation from other nuclear-armed countries, especially Russia; for how can Washington and Moscow negotiate further reductions in nuclear arms if it's still a big secret how many arms each side has? (None of the other eight nuclear powers has publicized this sort of data; one, Israel, which is thought to have about 200 nuclear weapons, has a policy of not publicly acknowledging that it has any.)

Third, Obama hopes (perhaps with excessive optimism) that the move will help keep non-nuclear countries from building nuclear weapons themselves.

It is no coincidence, in any case, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the disclosure—and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates released the numbers—at the start of the United Nations' conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Some active nuclear wannabes justify their aspirations by arguing that the big powers, especially the United States, aren't living up to their obligations under the NPT—so why should they? More to the point, some neutral countries are reluctant to criticize the wannabes because they believe the charge of superpower hypocrisy.

The NPT's key clause here is Article 6, which requires countries possessing nuclear weapons "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

The language is deliberately vague ("to pursue negotiations," not necessarily to negotiate; "measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race," not necessarily measures to stop the arms race). Still, by releasing the stockpile numbers, Obama means to show that the United States, by any reasonable standard, has been fulfilling its obligations.

He has released not just the current numbers but the numbers, year by year, dating back to 1962. (The numbers for 1949-61 were declassified, after much internal debate, in 1994.) And it turns out that in 1967, the year when the NPT was signed, the United States had 31,255 nuclear warheads. (This was the all-time high.) In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, we still had 22,217. Over the next four years, as the Cold War's demise sank in, the number was cut in half, to 11,511. For the next 10 years, this number stayed pretty much unchanged. Then, starting in 2004, the cuts resumed, winding down to the current 5,113.

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