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Ray Perkins: We must relearn old nuclear lessons

  • Aug. 6 marks the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. AP



For the Monitor
Monday, August 06, 2018

Aug. 6 and 9 mark the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

The bombings, which killed 200,000 Japanese civilians, also marked the end of World War II several days later, although they were neither moral nor militarily necessary. Like much of what passes for truth in matters of war and peace, the A-bomb was not the “life saver” our military-industrial complex would have us believe.

As Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower later put it, “The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

But the bigger evil was emergence of a 45-year Cold War spawning thousands of thermonuclear weapons (some with the force of 1,000 Hiroshimas) – an “awful thing” that cannot only expunge cities but humankind itself.

Some, like Albert Einstein and philosopher Bertrand Russell, saw the coming existential threat and said so: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe” (Einstein, 1946). In 1955 the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (signed by nine Nobel laureates, including Einstein, who died a few days later) was presented to the world affirming the needed “new thinking” and posing a stark and inescapable question: “Shall we put an end to the human race or shall mankind renounce war?” The answer: Our common goal must be an end to war as a means of settling disputes, and the abolition of nuclear weapons is the first step.

The manifesto quickly led to important anti-nuclear organizations, such as the international Pugwash Conferences (1957), SANE (1957, later becoming Peace Action) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND, 1957).

Soon we got the first nuclear weapons treaties: the Partial Test Ban (1963) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) allowing member states nuclear technology (only for peaceful purposes) and requiring the weapon states to end the arms race and abolish all nukes “under strict and effective international control.”

Cold War ends (briefly)

The superpowers finally (20 years later) began reductions of their dangerously bloated nuclear stockpiles. The Cold War faded (1990), START was signed and stockpiles shrank by half.

Relations began to sour by the mid-1990s, and arms control cooled after Bill Clinton’s reckless expansion of NATO eastward (breaking George H.W. Bush’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev) and reviving old Russian fears of hostile encirclement. With Russia in economic collapse and few conventional forces, Boris Yeltzin revoked Russia’s nuclear “no first use” pledge.

In 2001, George W. Bush withdrew from the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and installed missile defenses near Russia, naturally seen by Vladimir Putin as a hostile move to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Relations worsened in 2014 as anti-Russian Ukraine rebels (with NATO-U.S. support) illegally forced Ukraine’s president out, prompting a fearful Russia to bring Crimea back into the Russian Federation (apparently contra Ukraine’s constitution, despite a strong Crimean vote). Crimea has Russia’s only warm-water military naval port (leased from Ukraine since 1991), linked to Russia’s vitally important Black Sea fleet. (Shades of Guantanamo? The Marshall Islands?)

New dangers despite ‘New START’

The 2010 New START treaty has stayed alive but expires in 2021. Renewal is unlikely given current U.S.-Russia nuclear “modernizations” – a renewed arms race. The U.S. and Russia each still have thousands of nukes – most of the world’s 14,000 total. The other seven nuclear states, including China, have fewer than 300 each (North Korea, 15).

Progress yes, but still a threat to all, given the risk of nuclear war and the little-understood consequences of using “only” a few thousand weapons, as Daniel Ellsberg – best known for his courageous exposure of the secret Pentagon Papers – has recently reminded us in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. His years at the Pentagon, and as nuclear weapons adviser to several presidents, revealed shocking discoveries that post-Cold War experts claim are still with us. I’ll mention the most disturbing:

The U.S. central nuclear plan since the 1960s has not been a retaliatory second strike but a pre-emptive first strike (learned at JFK’s request) expected to kill more than 600 million people from U.S. nukes alone, including 100 million NATO allies.

And those numbers didn’t include the effects from nuclear winter, a phenomenon caused by nuclear explosions, in which firestorms expel smoke/soot into the stratosphere, blocking the sun, lowering global surface temperatures and preventing crop growth with widespread starvation. (As Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War has recently shown, even a “small” exchange – 100 Hiroshima nukes between India and Pakistan – would cause a nuclear winter with 1 billion to 2 billion deaths.) Ellsberg says an exchange of a few thousand strategic nukes, which only Russia and the U.S. are currently capable of and likely prepared for, would kill not only 2 billion people but virtually the entire human race (98 to 99 percent).

Our electorate must take action

Those stockpiles must come down to, at most, a few hundred weapons. Donald Trump says he hopes to improve relations with Russia – a good thing, especially if it would lead to nuclear reductions for humanity’s sake. But we need the electorate’s help, and a new, relearned public understanding must occur before action can result.

We must get, and stay, informed. Let’s join a peace group with an informative newsletter – such as Peace Action or the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation – not only to vote wisely but to inform others, including our representatives, and to write letters to our local editors. I must include the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” – a great journal founded by concerned scientists of the Manhattan Project shortly after “that awful thing” atomized Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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