A spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of nuclear war.

Does this sound like rhetorical exaggeration? Perhaps, but the leaking of the Nuclear Posture Review offers a sobering glimpse into the Dr. Strangelove mentality that now inhabits the White House.

For more than a half century the official policy of U.S. imperialism was to employ nuclear weapons only as a last resort and only when our nation’s survival was at stake.

This policy didn’t rest so much on our government’s concern for human life. Rather it was bowing to the fact that the nuclear arsenal of U.S. imperialism’s main cold war rival – the Soviet Union – was roughly equal to ours and was aimed at our cities, as ours was aimed at theirs. The use of nuclear weapons by one side ran the risk of retaliation by the other side with the probable outcome the annihilation of both sides.

Some called this nuclear doctrine “MAD” (Mutual Assured Destruction); others a “Balance of Terror.” Jonathan Schell, a thoughtful commentator on the arms race, describes it as “a desperate makeshift arrangement in a desperate situation.”

Nevertheless, and not forgetting Truman’s barbaric order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and not forgetting secret discussions of other administrations to use nuclear weapons in military action, such as Vietnam, this “desperate makeshift arrangement” kept in check imperialism’s Dr. Strangeloves, whose hands were close to the nuclear trigger.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the “balance of terror” that sustained the nuclear weapons race as well as provided a framework for the disarmament process is now outmoded. What is urgently needed is a new framework that will allow an orderly and speedy process of disarmament, eventually leading to the complete elimination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

But don’t expect the Bush administration to create such a framework, despite the lip service it may give to disarmament. It would be like expecting a gentle neck massage from Count Dracula.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the Bush administration is cynically exploiting people’s insecurities to make what should be unthinkable, thinkable and even morally justifiable.

Instead of nuclear missiles being a weapon of last resort, the Nuclear Posture Review makes them a weapon of first use and extends their use to many theaters of conflict.

In the chilling words of the Review, “Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities. The combination can provide the range of options needed to pose a credible deterrent to adversaries whose values and calculations of risk and gain and loss may be very different from and more difficult to discern than those of past adversaries.”

This represents a qualitative and dangerous change in nuclear doctrine.

Moreover, when combined with recent steps to abrogate the ABM treaty, construct a missile defense system, explore the weaponization of space and accelerate the development of mobile and precision conventional weaponry, the political math is simple: the Bush administration is seizing this moment to gain absolute military superiority over its friends and foes alike so that no one is capable of challenging U.S. imperialism’s drive to dominate the world for decades to come.

People and governments worldwide are understandably alarmed, even outraged, by this development.

Even the cautious New York Times editorialized, “If another country were planning to develop new nuclear weapons and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended to President Bush.”

The Bush administration is trying to assure the public that the changes make good sense, given the “international war against terrorism.” But it won’t be an easy sell.

In 1982 a million demonstrators converged on the U.N. to demand an end to the arms race, which had gotten a second wind from Reagan’s frenzied buildup of new weapons of mass destruction. The circumstances are different today, but the dangers to humanity and our planet are no less real. In fact, the new nuclear policy of the administration greatly heightens the possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be used to resolve conflicts.

To minimize this danger is not simply folly, but reflects a lack of appreciation for the dynamics of modern warfare, namely that limited wars can spin out of control. In a world in which weapons of mass destruction proliferate, this can lead to unforeseen and deadly consequences on an unimaginable scale.

The struggle against the nuclear war danger gives peace activists an opportunity to build a broad, multi-class, multi-form movement stretching across our land. Such a movement – accenting mass struggle, connecting peace to economic and democratic rights and linked to the peace majority worldwide – can restrain the warmakers, release resources for human development and bring peace to our world.

The author can be reached at swebb@cpusa.org