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My Turn: Seventy years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world still flirts with nuclear annihilation

Last modified: 8/2/2015 12:16:32 AM
Aug. 6 and 9 mark the 70th anniversaries of the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

These actions, which killed 200,000 civilians, were ostensibly to force Japan to unconditional surrender, but were almost certainly unnecessary given that Japan was virtually defeated and suing for peace, and the Soviets were expected to declare war on Japan any day (agreed at Yalta, and done on Aug. 8).

Whether these terrifying events were calculated to tell the Russians their help was no longer needed and that only the United States was fit to manage the post-war recovery, that seems to have been the message received. It was, after all, the United States alone that emerged relatively unscathed from the war, with its economy and industry intact and with (at least from a Soviet perspective) the bomb menacingly on its hip.

And so it was that the conclusion of the most terrible war in human history ushered in the nuclear age and soon a terrifying nuclear arms race that would threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings – and even the existence of the human species itself. It was a new and perilous era. As Albert Einstein starkly put it: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our mode of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

It was the new thinking about the existential necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons, and eventually war itself, that Einstein and philosopher Bertrand Russell presented to the world in their 1955 Manifesto. Gradually, in fits and starts, that push moved scientists and their national leaders on both sides of the ideological divide in the direction of nuclear abolition and world peace: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”

And so the world, already deeply entangled in a nuclear arms race that threatened disaster, was given new hope and the beginnings of the way that would lead to the end of the Cold War 35 years later.

Four decades of Cold War and nuclear peril

In the early 1960s, the idea of controls on nuclear weapons began to be taken seriously after the super powers scared the bejesus out of themselves and everyone else over missiles in Cuba. The world got the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) outlawing nuke testing in the atmosphere, ending the buildup of radioactive fallout that would cause a half-million fatal cancers worldwide.

A few years later (1968), to prevent the dangerous spread of nuclear weapons, we got the vitally important Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing the weapons states (five at the time, 1968) to share nuclear technology with nonnuclear states strictly for peaceful uses and subject to international inspections. In exchange, the nonnuclear states insisted that the weapons must be eventually given up and required the nuclear states to negotiate “in good faith . . . on the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament . . . under strict and effective international control.”

But the arms race accelerated (with the help of underground testing, which was not yet banned): New lighter warheads and more accurate missiles with multiple warheads were developed, first by the United States and then by Russia. By the 1980s, the super powers’ stockpiles had swelled to 60,000 warheads, and nuclear war strategies were drawn up. Both sides feared first-strike “decapitation” with loss of ability to retaliate, and both adopted a “launch on warning” policy, i.e. to retaliate before actually being hit; and, in a crisis, if attack seemed imminent, to strike first – “use ‘em or lose ‘em,” as the slogan went.

Some militarists and politicos, especially on the U.S. side (for example, George H.W. Bush in the 1980 presidential campaign), even espoused the feasibility of fighting and winning a nuclear war.

This madness terrified everybody, and a worldwide peace movement sprang up as the international community demanded genuine arms control. (One million protested at the United Nations for a “freeze” on nukes.) Under pressure from the peace movement, President Reagan proposed not a mere freeze on nukes, but reductions – seemingly impractical at the time. But Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, took him up on it.

In 1987, the world got agreements to remove thousands of medium-range missiles from Europe and, soon after, thousands of tanks and troops. At Reykjavik, the two leaders held the world breathless as they nearly agreed to reductions to zero – but Reagan’s insistence on space-based missile defenses, banned by the 1972 ABM treaty, was the obstacle. But they did negotiate the START I treaty, which required almost a 50 percent reduction of their total 23,000 deployed weapons on intercontinental missiles and long-range bombers – a feat unimagined only a few years before.

The new thinking and cooperation on arms control, together with Gorbachev’s new openness (perestroika and glasnost), also made possible remarkable political reforms: the demolition of the Berlin Wall (1989), the collapse of European communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union (1991). The Cold War was over.

A new Cold War

Sadly, that remarkable achievement a quarter-century ago has been threatened recently by the civil conflict in Ukraine, brought on by an illegal U.S.-encouraged coup and an unlawful Russian intervention, itself the latest in a build-up of tensions that really began soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The first President Bush’s assurance to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward to Russia was violated by Clinton, and the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was unilaterally ended by President George W. Bush in 2002, raising old Russian fears of hostile encirclement, a new arms race in space and ABM defenses in Russia’s backyard to weaken their nuclear deterrent – all fears seemingly confirmed by U.S. deployment of sea-based missile defense systems in the Black Sea and preparations for land-based systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. And, of course, the United States’s unlawful war of aggression in Iraq – the regional effects of which have spawned ongoing crises – which has damaged relations with Russia and virtually the whole international community.

Apart from legal rights and wrongs, the real risk of escalation to a nuclear blunder in Ukraine demands military restraint on all sides. After all, New START notwithstanding, the two nuclear giants still have more than 2,000 warheads deployed atop intercontinental missiles and – unbelievable as it is 25 years after the end of the Cold War – still on hair-trigger readiness.

Another disturbing sign of a new Cold War was the U.S. nuclear war exercises last year at bases around the world involving air- and sea-based nuclear systems in long-range nuclear and conventional strike scenarios.

In Europe, exercises included nonstrategic (tactical) weapons (nearly 200 nukes, many of Hiroshima bomb size) now deployed at six air bases in five countries (Italy, Germany, Turkey, Holland and Belgium). Poland’s aircraft are not nuclear capable, but it and other NATO countries in the region (Czech Republic and Romania) have nonnuclear support roles for the nuclear strike missions. Some of the exercises took place (coincidentally, just after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine amid the civil conflict in the east), “to show the world that we have the capability to strike anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice,” as one proud U.S. Air Force pilot said.

New nuclear arms races 
and old dangers

Unfortunately, despite the important international agreement recently reached to thwart nuclear proliferation in Iran, the United States is now committed to “modernizing” (oh, how we love those euphemisms!) its nuclear forces over the next 30 years – to the tune of $1 trillion. Did we not learn over the past 70 years that weapon “modernizing” is contagious, and causes arms races? The planned “modernization” of all U.S. nuclear weapons and all their delivery systems, as well as new production facilities, will do more than rob the national coffers of funds for human needs, local and global.

Nukes are dangerous, as the Cold War revealed, although the public never knew the extent of the danger until recently. There were more than a thousand serious accidents over four decades, including dozens as frightening as the 1980 Arkansas Titan II missile calamity: The ICBM missile caught fire when a mechanic atop the missile dropped his wrench, puncturing the fuel tank. About eight hours later, the missile exploded, catapulting its 9-megaton warhead 1,000 feet into the air amid a huge fireball and toxic fumes. It landed a quarter-mile away, intact and, miraculously, without a thermonuclear detonation. The warhead, the largest ever in the U.S. arsenal (equal to 600 Hiroshima bombs), had long been unsuccessfully petitioned by its manufacturer to be retired as unsafe. This horror story and many others are recounted in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control.

And the horrors didn’t end with the Cold War.

In 1995, a Norwegian four-stage weather rocket was read by Russian radar as a U.S. sub-launched Trident missile heading toward Moscow. Russian retaliatory missiles were put on high alert, President Yeltsin was awakened, his launch-code bag opened (apparently a first in nuke history) and with 4 minutes left (of the 12 minutes allowed to verify before launch), the rocket was determined to be moving away from Russia.

Are nuclear weapons legal?

In addition to the onerous costs, new arms races and new dangers, these “modernization” plans are almost certainly unlawful: They violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Article VI), which binds the United States to negotiate the abolition of nuclear weapons.

It was precisely on these grounds that the Republic of the Marshall Islands brought suit against the United States in federal court and in the world court in April 2014, along with the eight other nations. The Marshall Islanders, not unlike the Japanese witnesses to Hiroshima, know a thing or two about the devastation and human suffering connected with nuclear weapons: Their islands were used as a U.S. atomic testing ground for 12 years at the end of World War II. Their lawsuits are ongoing in both courts.

Nuclear deterrence 
is immoral

And finally, although it’s not mentioned in official government circles, nuclear deterrence is morally indefensible. And here’s why: Nuclear deterrence, the policy of national defense via nuclear threat to retaliate against an aggressor and impose “unacceptable damage,” must be believable to work; potential attackers must believe the victim would actually retaliate with unacceptably damaging force. Thus, deterrence requires the preparation for, and the willingness to commit, the killing of large numbers of innocent human beings. (As International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War recently reported, even a small nuclear exchange involving “only” 100 Hiroshima-size weapons could immediately kill millions and initiate a protracted nuclear winter causing another billion deaths through global crop failure.)

This is a willingness to mass murder on a scale that makes even the worst atrocities of World War II pale in comparison.

On this 70th anniversary of the bomb’s disastrous debut, the inhumanity of the these weapons alone ought to motivate all of us to redouble our efforts to seek their abolition. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is once again close to midnight.

(Ray Perkins Jr. of Concord is professor of philosophy emeritus at Plymouth State University and vice president of the Bertrand Russell Society.)


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