ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Most Americans support a strong nuclear weapons arsenal -- increasingly so over the last several years, say two University of New Mexico researchers who have surveyed public attitudes on the subject.
In back-to-back presentations at the recent Nuclear Security Decision-makers Forum in Albuquerque, the researchers said their surveys also show China has replaced Russia as the nation perceived by Americans to be the most threatening to the United States.
"We've found that the public values nuclear weapons quite highly," said Kerry G. Herron, associate director for security studies at UNM's Institute for Public Policy.
Institute director Hank Jenkins-Smith said that while Americans in surveys in 1993, 1995 and 1997 generally supported stable funding of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, last year's survey revealed much stronger support for increasing that funding.
Herron said the survey results conflict with many politicians' and nuclear weapons policy-makers' views that the public either is not interested in nuclear weapons or is generally opposed to them.
Jenkins-Smith said the survey supports the opposite conclusion: "Our problem wasn't in keeping people on the phone, but getting them off. Once you get people involved in this issue, they become very engaged."
He said support for nuclear weapons appears to be driven by Americans' concern about the political turmoil in Russia, China's saber-rattling in Asia, and the potential for nuclear terrorism by nations opposed to U.S. interests.
"There is a very consistent pattern here," Herron said.
The surveys, aimed at gauging public knowledge about and support for U.S. nuclear policy, were paid for by Sandia National Laboratories. But Herron said the labs have taken a "completely hands-off approach" to the surveys while continuing to finance them.
Herron said the two researchers will brief Sandia executives next month on the 1999 results. He declined to detail most of those results, which were conducted in the fall, until after the Sandia briefing, saying the lab paid for the research and is entitled to have the numbers first.
Generally, he said, Americans see more benefits than risks from nuclear weapons, though women are concerned more than men about the risks from the United States' own nuclear arsenal.
The 1999 data do show that more Americans see a need for nuclear weapons and more believe that funding should be increased to support nuclear weapons programs.
He said that in 1993, the survey found 63 percent favored the retention of U.S. nuclear weapons. That response rose to 79 percent last year.
And while 51 percent of those surveyed in 1993 believed that nuclear- weapons funding should decrease, last year 61 percent favored increased spending on them.
Herron said survey interviews suggest Americans are worried more about Chinese threats to invade Taiwan, terrorist incidents around the world and a generally more confusing and unstable world.
"The world is not perceived to be safer than in the Cold War," said Herron."
"The blush is off the rose in terms of the expectations of how Russia would evolve after the Cold War," he said, adding that instead of a single monolithic threat, Americans now worry about multiple sources for weapons of mass destruction.
However, the surveys do show a strong trend among Americans for a reduction in the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons from the current arsenal of about 7,000 warheads.
Herron acknowledged the survey results in some cases appear to run counter to reality.
He said interviews suggest many Americans mistakenly believe the United States already has a ballistic missile defense umbrella that defends the country against a nuclear missile attack.