Admiral Noel Gayler’s Call for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons

Bill Wickersham
Adjunct Professor of Peace Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia

C.B. Scott Jones
President, Peace & Emergency Action Coalition for Earth (P.E.A.C.E., Inc.)


Four-Star Admiral Noel Gayler

Admiral Noel Gayler, a World War II Navy pilot who served as the sixth director of the National Security Agency, and as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command in the 1970s, died on July 14, 2011 at the age of 96. He was one of several retired, high-ranking U.S. military officers who have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons from Planet Earth.

In December, 2000, Gayler published “A Proposal for Achieving Zero Nuclear Weapons” .  In that article, he said: “The argument for a nuclear component is no longer valid. The time is now for a concrete proposal that meets the problem. Process, as opposed to negotiating numbers, is the basic principle of the proposal that I suggest. It is nothing less than drastic: the continuing reduction to zero of weapons in the hands of avowed nuclear powers, plus an end to the nuclear ambitions of others.”

Recently, in response to Admiral Gayler’s passing, Dr. David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, California, outlined some of the common illusions surrounding the purported value of nuclear weapons which were included in Gayler’s proposal.  Those illusions include the following misconceptions:

  • Physical defense against nuclear weapons is possible;
  • Nuclear weapons can be used in a sensible manner;
  • Nuclear disarmament imperils our security; and
  • Nuclear deterrence is an effective defense.

Additionally, Krieger noted that  “Admiral Gayler’s proposal involves the delivery of all nuclear weapons to a central point where they would be irreversibly dismantled.”

Thus, the overarching concept of the Admiral’s proposal is that U.S. and world security will be effectively improved by the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. He concluded the article saying: “… it becomes evident that nuclear disarmament works to the advantage of every power.  Only in this way can the world be made safe from unprecedented murder and destruction.  It remains to take the necessary actions. They are feasible and imperative.”  As David Krieger has stated:  ” Admiral Gayler’s passing offers an appropriate moment to revisit his vision and proposal to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world.”

What weight should we give to the words of senior military officers such as Admiral Gayler? Relevant nuclear weapons experience and what they learned from it are important considerations. As an aircraft based fighter pilot in World War II, six days after Hiroshima was destroyed, Lieutenant Commander Gayler flew low over Hiroshima and wrote that he was stunned:  he saw nothing moving.  His wife later said that “It was imprinted on his mind, and he vowed to work to eliminate nuclear weapons.” Two years later he participated in Operation Sandstone, conducted at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, and watched the detonation of three new nuclear weapon designs, two of which were more than twice as powerful as those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Later, as an admiral he was Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. That organization was responsible to select targets around the world that would be destroyed by our strategic missile and aircraft delivery systems. To complete the cycle, he later was the Commander of all American military forces in the Pacific.  These included a number of military units that would attack the targets he earlier had a responsibility to select.

In an Op-ed article to the New York Times in 1976, Admiral Gayler wrote: “A very few persons go about the grim, necessary business of nuclear planning. Fewer still have seen a bomb tested; the light of a thousands suns, searing heat, immense shock, a wicked flickering afterglow manifesting in intense residual radiation. That’s a pity.  We and the Soviet Union have tens of thousands of weapons.  We had better control them.”

The book of life has now closed on this warrior as it has on most of the survivors who were far enough from ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become living witnesses of those events.  The effort underway to honor these survivors as a group for the Nobel Peace Prize has real potential to start a new program.  This will be to alert and to recruit multiple generations that have an unfulfilled responsibility to take final closure action to end sixty-years plus of living at extreme risk with nuclear weapons still at the ready to end civilization.

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