Nuclear weapons are costly in many ways. They change our relationship to other nations, to the earth, to the future and to ourselves.
Many people, perhaps most, believe that the nuclear threat went away when the Cold War ended. But the threat remains. It is not only a threat to us, but a threat by us – a threat that puts civilization and the future at risk. Nuclear weapons put us at war with our inheritance from the past; and with the yet unborn people of the future who have no means of protection against us.
At the beginning of the Nuclear Age, Einstein warned: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
We are in a race against time to change our modes of thinking. The place to begin is with overcoming ignorance and apathy by recognizing our responsibilities to the past, the present and the future. A sane society would not have nuclear weapons. Nor would it have electricity generating plants that produce the fissile materials to make nuclear weapons. These plants are an invitation to nuclear weapons proliferation.
Nuclear weapons are not really weapons: they are instruments of mass annihilation. They expand our horizons from homicide to genocide to omnicide, the death of all. You do not make war nor preserve the peace with nuclear weapons. What you do, at best, is threaten indiscriminate mass slaughter.
As Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff, said about the bombing of Hiroshima, “I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation we’ve concluded that nuclear deterrence is a flawed theory and a poor justification for retaining nuclear arms. For one thing, nuclear deterrence requires rational leaders and not all leaders are rational at all times. For another thing, you cannot deter extremist groups that have no territory against which to threaten retaliation or whose members may be suicidal.
Nuclear weapons cost us in many ways. Let’s look first at what nuclear weapons cost us in financial terms.
One of the main reasons for using nuclear weapons against Japan was financial – as well as political. Jimmy Byrnes, Truman’s mentor in the Senate and his Secretary of State, thought that the Democratic Party would lose power in the 1948 elections if the public found out, which they surely would, that nuclear weapons created at considerable wartime expense were not used as soon as possible. He lobbied Truman to stick with terms of “unconditional surrender” and to use the nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.
In the mid-1990s a group of researchers at the Brookings Institution did a study of US expenditures on nuclear weapons. They found that the US had spent $5.8 trillion between 1940 and 1996 (in constant 1996 dollars).
This figure was informally updated in 2005 to $7.5 trillion from 1940 to 2005 (in constant 2005 dollars). Today the figure is approaching $8 trillion, and that amount is for the US alone.
There are currently nine countries with a total of over 20,000 nuclear weapons, spending $105 billion annually on their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. That will amount to more than $1 trillion over the next decade. The US accounts for about 60 percent of this amount.
The World Bank has estimated that $40 to $60 billion in annual global expenditures would be sufficient to meet the eight agreed-upon United Nations Millennium Development Goals for poverty alleviation by 2015.
Meeting these goals would eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality/empowerment; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop partnerships for development.
The US is now spending over $60 billion annually on nuclear weapons and this is expected to rise to average about $70 billion annually over the next decade. The US spends more than the other eight nuclear weapons states combined.
We are now planning to modernize our nuclear weapons infrastructure and also our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. This was part of the deal that President Obama agreed to for getting the New START agreement ratified in the Senate. It may prove to be a bad bargain.
The US foreign aid contribution in 2010 was $30 billion; in the same year, we spent $55 billion on our nuclear arsenal. Which expenditures keep us safer?
Another informative comparison is with the regular annual United Nations budget of $2.5 billion and the annual UN Peacekeeping budget of $7.3 billion. UN and Peacekeeping expenditures total to about $10 billion, which is less than one-tenth of what is being spent by the nine nuclear weapon states for maintaining and improving their nuclear arsenals.
The annual UN budget for its disarmament office (United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs) is $10 million. The nuclear weapons states spend more than that amount on their nuclear weapons every hour. Or, to put it another way, the nine nuclear weapons states annually spend 10,000 times more for their nuclear arsenals than the United Nations spends to pursue all forms of disarmament, including nuclear disarmament.
The one place the US is saving money on its nuclear weapons is where it should be spending the most, and that is on the dismantlement of the retired weapons. The amount that the US spends on dismantlement of its nuclear weapons has dropped significantly under the Obama administration from $186 million in 2009 to $96 million in 2010 to $58 million in 2011. In the 1990s the US dismantled more than 1,000 nuclear weapons annually. We dismantled 648 weapons in 2008 and only 260 in 2010.
The US has about 5,000 nuclear weapons awaiting dismantlement, which, at the current rate of dismantlement, will take the US about 20 years. There are another 5,000 US nuclear weapons that are either deployed or held in reserve.
Beyond being very costly to maintain and improve, nuclear weapons have changed us and cost us in many other ways.
They have undermined our respect for the law. How can a country respect the law and be perpetually engaged in threatening mass murder?
These weapons have also undermined our sense of reason, balance and morality. They are designed to kill massively and indiscriminately – men, women and children.
They have increased our secrecy and undermined our democracy. Can you put a cost on losing our democracy?
Uranium mining, nuclear tests and nuclear waste storage for the next 240,000 years have incalculable costs. They are a measure of our hubris, as are the weapons themselves.
Nuclear weapons – perhaps better called instruments of annihilation – require us to play Russian Roulette with our common future. What is the cost of threatening to foreclose the future? What is the cost of actually doing so?
Nuclear weapons were our first inter-continental killing devices. They have set the stage for our newest long-distance killing devices and helped lead us into the remote-control world of drones and targeted assassinations.
The US plans also to put conventional warheads on inter-continental ballistic missiles – a new Global Strike Force that will blur the edges between nuclear and conventional warfare.
Gandhi, when asked about the atomic bombings of Japan, said: “What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see. Forces of nature act in mysterious ways.” It is no longer too early to see what has happened to the soul of America. It is revealed through the wars we have initiated in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The American people – not all of us, but many – have become docile enablers of US wars. The president, regardless of political party, has become Big Brother, leading us from war to war to war. In a nuclear-armed world, this is not likely to end well for us.
Our challenge is to change our modes of thinking, to adhere to the global rule of law, to lead the way in abolishing nuclear weapons and war. If we fail to lead the way toward peace and a world free of nuclear weapons, we will continue to be an obstacle to change.
I will end with two quotations and three short questions.
The first quotation is by Hannes Alfvén, a Swedish Nobel Laureate in Physics: “The Earth is much too small a place to accommodate both plutonium and life.”
The second quotation is the final message before his death from peace activist Phillip Berrigan: “I die with the conviction…that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and the earth itself.”
The questions are these:
What has happened to our soul as a nation?
Are we really who we want to be?
What are we going to do about it?
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.