Nuclear weapons were born in the crucible of war. Their parents were fear and science.
The Manhattan Project, under the military leadership of General Leslie Groves and scientific leadership of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was the first significant harnessing of the insights of physicists to the military ends of mass annihilation.
The Manhattan Project scientists feared that Germany would succeed in developing an atomic bomb, and that an Allied bomb would be needed to deter Germany from using its bomb. While the Germans never succeeded in developing a Nazi nuclear weapon, the Allied scientists did succeed and almost immediately used two atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Only one Manhattan Project scientist left the project as a matter of conscience. Joseph Rotblat, a Polish born physicist, withdrew in late 1944 when he came to understand that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic weapon. Rotblat was a beacon of scientific integrity. After the war he was a leader in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which brought together scientists from East and West. Fifty years after the first use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences shared the Nobel Peace Prize. On his 90th birthday in 1998, Rotblat declared that his short-term goal was the abolition of nuclear weapons and his long-term goal was the abolition of war.
Prior to World War II, the French built a concrete and steel structure along the French border with Germany to prevent the invasion of France. It was called the “Maginot Line,” named after the French Minister of War André Maginot who promoted it. But, when World War II came, the Maginot Line did not prevent the Germans from going around the French fortifications to invade and occupy France. The Maginot Line has become a term of derision that reflects strategic failure of unsuccessful reliance on technology to defend a country.
For a very long time I have thought of missile defenses as a Maginot Line in the Sky, a high-tech defensive system designed to shoot down incoming missiles, but one highly likely to fail under real world conditions. Now, I take one further step in my thinking to recognize that nuclear deterrence itself is a Maginot Line in the Mind. Nuclear deterrence is no more than a theory that the threat of nuclear retaliation will prevent a nuclear attack, a theory that is located in the mind, not in reality. Nuclear deterrence theory requires rational opponents, a condition that may not be present in the real world where all political leaders are not rational at all times. It also requires a territory to retaliate against, and thus cannot work against terrorist organizations that have no territory. Irrational leaders and nuclear-armed terrorists can simply circumvent this Maginot Line in the Mind.
This means that nuclear weapons cannot and do not protect their possessors. They do not make their possessors safer or more secure. If they did, missile defenses would not be needed. Nuclear deterrence threatens vengeance in response to an attack – massive retaliation that is both illegal and immoral. Rather than safeguarding the future, nuclear weapons threaten to foreclose the future for human beings and other forms of complex life.
These weapons could be used by accident or design. The US and Russia each keep some 1,000 thermonuclear weapons on high-alert status, ready to be fired with a few moments notice. This is no way to live. As John F. Kennedy said, “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.”
The only way to be secure from nuclear threat is to abolish nuclear weapons. This must be the cry that rises from humanity if we are to survive the Nuclear Age. Some say that humanity has never given up a powerful weapon of its own accord. In fact, countries have agreed on a Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention to eliminate these weapons.
Now, we must continue to advance and agree upon a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This would be to the advantage of all nations and peoples, providing an opportunity to eliminate the Maginot Line in the Mind and move from Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to Planetary Assured Security and Survival (PASS).
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.