Documentary Advances Nuclear Free Movement

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The documentary Nuclear Tipping Point features interviews with four former U.S. government officials — all dedicated Cold War warriors when they were in office — who now advocate the elimination of nuclear weapons. Three years ago, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry wrote an op-ed arguing that it is time to begin ridding the world of nuclear weapons. That sparked a movement, and producers hope the film can take it further.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed column three years ago called "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons." What made the piece so unusual was not the topic, but the four authors: Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn. They were all committed Cold Warriors who helped shape America's nuclear arsenal. But the four have come to symbolize a shift in thinking about nuclear weapons. Today, a documentary about their efforts premieres in Hollywood, and NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the chance of nuclear war is almost zero. But the likelihood of a nuclear detonation in one of America's cities has risen substantially. This conviction has driven a quartet of former powerful officials - all firmly dedicated in the past to maintaining a large nuclear deterrent - now to seek a world free of nuclear weapons.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nuclear Tipping Point")

Mr. WILLIAM PERRY (Former Defense Secretary): As nations like Iran and Pakistan and North Korea get nuclear bombs, then the probability increases that one or more of those bombs will fall into the hands of a terror group.

Mr. HENRY KISSINGER (Former Secretary of State): Classical notion of deterrence was that there were some consequences before which aggressors and evildoers would recoil. In the world of suicide bombers, that calculation doesn't operate in any comparable way.

Mr. GEORGE SHULTZ (Former Secretary of State): And if you think of the people who are doing suicide attacks and people like that get a nuclear weapon, they are almost by definition not deterrable.

SHUSTER: William Perry was President Clinton's defense secretary. Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford, and George Shultz held the same officer during the administration of President Reagan. Along with Sam Nunn, the former Democratic Senator from Georgia, they all appear in "Nuclear Tipping Point." The film is narrated by Michael Douglas.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nuclear Tipping Point")

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): More states are acquiring nuclear weapons or developing the technology to build them. As we have seen, a terrorist organization would need no more than one or two of those weapons or the material to make them to throw our planet into chaos. The danger is very, very real. We are at a nuclear tipping point, and the actions being taken are not adequate to the threat.

SHUSTER: The four began to discuss this problem seriously in 2006, 20 years after President Reagan and then Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik at a summit where President Reagan famously proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons. It was a proposal that found few takers among the world's leaders. But now the four believe its time has come - urgently, in Kissinger's view.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nuclear Tipping Point")

Mr. KISSINGER: If the existing nuclear countries cannot develop some restraints among themselves - in other words, if nothing fundamental changes, then I would expect that the use of nuclear weapons in some 10-year period is very possible.

SHUSTER: The film was written and directed by Ben Goddard. It was produced with money from Warren Buffett and Ted Turner, supporters of Sam Nunn's group The Nuclear Threat Initiative. In a recent telephone interview, Nunn acknowledged that the threat is urgent, but the process of reducing nuclear weapons is painstakingly slow.

Mr. SAM NUNN (Former Democratic Senator, Georgia): We're in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and unless we accelerate that cooperation now, obviously, the dangers are going to grow. We're talking about reducing risk. We're talking about reducing the odds and doing everything we can to reduce the dangers.

SHUSTER: The current number of U.S. and Russian-deployed nuclear warheads is much reduced from Cold War levels. But further reductions have been stymied by the expiration last month of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The phrase former Secretary of State George Shultz uses to describe the current moment is careful urgency.

Mr. SHULTZ: Time is not on our side. And there are a lot of things that have to go forward. And we shouldn't wait around for the U.S. and Russia to further reduce our arsenals. It's not a U.S. initiative. It's not even a U.S.-Russia initiative. It's got to take the aspect of a global enterprise.

SHUSTER: Kissinger and his colleagues borrowed a metaphor from the civil rights movement to describe just how daunting the challenge is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Nuclear Tipping Point")

Mr. KISSINGER: We don't quite know what the mountaintop will look like. We don't quite know how to get to that mountaintop. And we won't make any proposals that we cannot justify, but we are determined to go up that mountaintop.

SHUSTER: "Nuclear Tipping Point" will be available to anyone who wants it as a DVD free of charge and eventually as a download. More about the film is available as of today at nucleartippingpoint.org.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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