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September 5, 2000
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Citizens believe world is more dangerous today than during Cold War

Public continues to support the US nuclear deterrent, survey shows.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Believing the world is a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War, the US public in a recent survey said it believes nuclear weapons continue to help maintain national security and supports maintaining the quality of the stockpile. At the same time, however, people believe the nation’s stockpile could be smaller and still be a credible deterrent.

They also believe China has now replaced Russia as the primary state-level nuclear threat to the US. Looking to the future, the public expects China to be a rising threat to the US as compared with Russia.

These are among the findings in a 1999 nationwide survey of public opinion conducted by the Institute for Public Policy (IPP) at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Nearly 1,500 respondents were surveyed during in-depth telephone interviews. The Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories sponsors the survey.

This project to study US public opinion about nuclear security issues began in 1993 when the IPP conducted the first in the series of biennial surveys. Volume I of “Mass and Elite Views on Nuclear Security: US National Security Surveys 1993-1999,” published this summer, deals with surveys of the general public; the soon-to-be-published Volume II is based on opinions voiced by 50 specialists in national security issues. Although Volume I emphasizes the results from the 1999 survey, it compares the findings to earlier findings in 1993, 1995, and 1997.

The full text is on the Web at http://www.cmc.sandia.gov/survey.htm. (Note to reporters: A limited number of paper copies are available to the media; see media contact at end of release.)

Nuclear weapons ambivalence
Responders showed some ambivalence from two questions concerning the postulated worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. About 69 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “If all nuclear weapons were eliminated, the world would be safer because wars would be less likely to destroy civilization.” But 84 per cent conceded that “Eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide cannot be achieved, because knowledge about them is too widespread, and the US cannot prevent others from acquiring them.”

A majority of respondents favor a smaller nuclear stockpile, but agree that nuclear deterrence is justifiable and prevents large conflicts like World Wars I and II. They also believe possessing nuclear weapons maintains US status and influence in the world community.

“When we began these surveys in the early 1990s, it was apparent we were entering a period of major change and uncertainty in our nuclear weapons responsibilities,” says Roger Hagengruber, Sandia’s Senior VP for Nuclear Security and Arms Control. “Nuclear testing was halted, as was all new nuclear weapons development. We had increasing and encouraging relationships with the former Soviet Union. In this environment, we felt it would be valuable to us in thinking about our future responsibilities to sample evolving public attitudes.

“This was the genesis of the public opinion poll,” continues Hagengruber. “We have now had the unprecedented opportunity to watch what our ultimate customers (the public) think about questions that bear on our missions and their expectations.”

The series of studies is believed to be the most comprehensive over-time measurement and analysis of attitudes about nuclear security since the end of the Cold War. The four surveys completed to date include more than 11,000 participants. These show that, in the aggregate, the American public exhibits greater understanding of nuclear security and greater stability in their views about nuclear weapons issues than many experts and policy makers might expect, Hagengruber says.

The study indicates that the American public does not perceive the post-Cold War security environment to be safer or more benign than that, which existed during the Cold War. Analysts suspect that even though the old Soviet Union is no more the unpredictability of today’s international relationships, the rise of ethnic conflicts, the growing spread of weapons of mass destruction, the perceived increasing likelihood of terrorism involving mass casualty weapons, and the expected growth in Chinese capabilities are combining to make a security environment that looks dangerous to the public.

Surprising growth in support
“When we began this project in 1993, we expected to measure a decline in the perceived value of the US nuclear arsenal,” says UNM’s Kerry Herron. “Instead, our evidence shows the importance the general public attaches to US nuclear weapons capabilities is growing, and that valuation also is reflected in public willingness to invest more, not less, in nuclear security.”

Herron says it’s important that public valuation of nuclear weapons not be confused with preferences for numbers of nuclear weapons. “None of our data indicates that the public wants more nuclear weapons or that they don’t support further reductions to levels of 1,500 to 2,000,” he says. “Eight out of ten respondents would prefer the US to have fewer nuclear weapons, but this does not mean zero, even in the context of mutual and verifiable reductions.”

All surveys since 1993 have concentrated on nuclear weapons issues, but UNM decided to ask several questions about public support for a national ballistic missile defense system in the 1999 survey. Somewhat surprisingly, about 63 percent of respondents believed mistakenly that the US already had a system for shooting down long-range ballistic missiles launched against the US.

When informed this is not the case, respondents showed an overall preference for building such a system to defend the US. However when asked to consider alternatives to missile defenses or the possible consequences of building defenses — such as an accelerated arms race — opinions were more divided.

The cost for developing ballistic missile defense systems was not part of the questioning.

Sandia hopes to do at least one more biennial survey in the series next year.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Media contact:
Larry Perrine, lgperri@sandia.gov, (505) 845-8511

Technical contacts:
Sandia, Clyde Layne, cblayne@sandia.gov, (505) 844-5246
UNM, Kerry Herron, kherron@swcp.com, (505) 277-1397
UNM, Hank Jenkins-Smith, lhjsmith@unm.edu, (505) 277-1099

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