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My Turn: Let us abandon our nuclear weapons



For the Monitor
Sunday, January 28, 2018

Outside my window is a hawthorn tree covered with bunches of red berries supporting dollops of new snow. Every year in the middle of January, 30 or 40 Canadian robins will flock to its branches. After two or three days, the birds will move on, every berry eaten, leaving the branches empty, colorless and grey. Thus will be the end and the beginning of New England’s life cycle: barren branches soon bursting with buds announcing spring, the shade of green leaves softening the summer heat, followed by speckled leaves and emerging berries of frosty fall nights.

Over breakfast and coffee on a recent Sunday, the dependability and joy of this view was overshadowed with two articles in the Concord Monitor. The first was a report of the missile alert mistake in Hawaii that sent the population scrambling for cover. The second article reported plans to increase the number of long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads on Trident submarines.

These articles followed earlier news reports that over the coming years the Pentagon plans to spend another $1 trillion to build a new generation of nuclear bombs and delivery systems. All of this is in the context of the debate over the wisdom of a president being able to make the unilateral decision to launch a nuclear attack.

There also is congressional legislation being offered to control the use of nuclear weapons. Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu have introduced HR 669 and S. 200, “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017.” It “prohibits the President from using Armed Forces to conduct first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.”

Markey and Rep. John Conyers have introduced S. 216 and HR 4140, “No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017.” It seeks “to prohibit the introduction of Armed Forces into hostilities in North Korea without declaration of war or explicit statutory authorization and for other purposes.”

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, prohibits all but five states – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – from possessing nuclear weapons. However, India, Israel and Pakistan also possess nuclear weapons but are not signatories of the NPT.

The reality is that these proposed congressional bills and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty leave the United States with approximately 2,122 deployed nuclear weapons. They include 470 ICBM warheads, 1,152 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 300 bombs and 200 air-launched missiles. Also, there are 2,530 more nuclear warheads on reserve and 2,530 awaiting dismantling. Many of these U.S. warheads have explosive yields 20 to 40 times larger than those of the warheads that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These numbers do not include the nuclear weapons held at the ready by the six other countries known to possess them.

The reality is that “half of 1 percent of the explosive power of the deployed nuclear arsenal can create nuclear darkness. One hundred Hiroshima-size weapons exploded . . . would put 5 million tons of smoke in the stratosphere and drop average global temperatures to Little Ice Age levels. Shortened growing seasons could cause up to 1 billion people to starve to death.” A nuclear war would result in “widespread damage to human health, agriculture, and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Killing frosts would reduce growing seasons by 10 to 40 days per year for 5 years. Surface temperatures would be reduced for more than 25 years due to thermal inertia and albedo effects in the ocean and expanded sea ice. The combined cooling and enhanced UV would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.” And my hawthorn tree would be a leafless, berryless, spiky skeleton.

I write this not to create fear. I write to suggest that for the past 73 years we have been living as a nation with a psychological blind spot: living with the belief that we can use nuclear weapons to protect life. We are like a person with a bomb strapped to their body believing that setting it off will kill the enemy but save the individual who explodes the bomb. Our nation is tied to nuclear weapons. We do not see that the emperor wears the clothes of death.

The Union of Concern Scientists calls on the United States to lead a global effort to prevent nuclear war by “renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first; ending the sole, unchecked authority of any president to launch a nuclear attack; taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; canceling the plan to replace its entire arsenal with enhanced weapons; and actively pursuing a verifiable agreement among nuclear armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.”

These methods to prevent nuclear war are important to support. However, they divert from the reality that any use of nuclear weapons: response strike, first strike or threatened strike; will not save us. Believing that possession of nuclear weapons contributes to our safety is a national psychosis. The use of nuclear weapons is a suicidal mission contributing to the death of the world. There are no winners.

Our national leaders need to focus on the realistic humanitarian choice of eliminating all of our nation’s nuclear weapons, now. This will free up the $1 trillion currently planned for nuclear weapons. This money could be used for foreign long-term development and humanitarian aid. In 2015 the United States allocated 26 billion to development and humanitarian foreign aid. Imagine what an additional $1 trillion would do for U.S. relationships with people in need around the world. We would not only be refusing to be complicit in the mutual assured destruction of the world, we would also be contributing to the health, nourishment, and safety for the people of the world.

At the least, we would not be participating in our own nuclear destruction and at best, other peoples and nations would be reluctant to destroy a country committed to the well-being of all people.

How would that be for money well spent? And perhaps, just perhaps, other nuclear weapons nations would follow the U.S. lead. Then perhaps, just perhaps, my hawthorn tree will stand laden with berries to feed those robins for another cold New England winter.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)