I want to thank the many commenters on my essay, “Nuclear Abolition: The Road from Armageddon to Transformation.” The comments were thoughtful, intelligent and sometimes passionate. Taken together, they give me hope that change is possible and humanity may somehow find a way through the current threat that nuclear weapons pose not only to human life but all complex life on our planet.
I will begin with the question: What are nuclear weapons? I remember some lines from a poem by American poet Robert Bly written during the Vietnam War. Bly wrote, “men like Rusk are not men: / They are bombs waiting to be loaded in a darkened hangar.” In the same way as Bly poetically removed “Rusk,” the then U.S. Secretary of State, from the category of “men,” I would argue that nuclear weapons are not really “weapons” in any traditional sense. Rather, they exist in their own category, defined by their omnicidal threats and capabilities as “instruments of annihilation” or “world-ending devices.”
Most of the comments recognized, either implicitly or explicitly, the unique destructive power of nuclear weapons and how they put us at the edge of Armageddon. Ian Lowe argued that “nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to human civilization.” Lowe went on, “The subsequent development of fusion weapons gave the power-crazed the capacity to murder millions and raised the specter of destroying human society.” Of course, it is not only the “power-crazed” that have this capability with thermonuclear weapons. It could be any nuclear-armed leader, even the most ordinary, who could stumble into nuclear war. There have been many close calls, more than enough to sound the alarm and keep it blaring.
Steven Starr found, “Launch-ready nuclear arsenals represent a self-destruct mechanism for humanity, and they must be recognized as such.” He continued: “Such recognition will make it politically impossible to justify their continued existence.” I doubt, though, that awareness alone would make it possible to abolish nuclear arsenals. Thus far, it hasn’t been sufficient to change the world, although brilliant scientists like Einstein, Szilard and Pauling did their best to raise such awareness. More recently, Daniel Ellsberg has made the case that nuclear arsenals constitute “Doomsday Machines,” threatening the future of humanity. Nonetheless, continued attempts to raise awareness of nuclear dangers and consequences of nuclear war should be an important part of any project seeking to bring about transformative change toward abolishing these weapons.
Some of the commenters saw nuclear arms as a symbol, others as a symptom. Roger Eaton saw them as “a symbol that we live in a dog-eat-dog world.” He went on: “They tell us we cannot trust others and that cooperation only works if we are calling the shots.” John Bunzl expressed the view that the weapons are more of “a symptom of humanity’s failure to cooperate than a cause.” Arthur Dahl found that the weapons “are only the most egregious symptom of the lack of trust between States.” These perspectives on what nuclear weapons represent have important implications for those who hold them on how to approach their abolition. In Eaton’s case, it is a call for “human unity.” In Bunzl’s case, it is a call for more cooperation among states. In Dahl’s case, the symptom requires enough trust among states sufficient to create mechanisms of global governance.
In my view, it is not sufficient to think of nuclear weapons as symbols or symptoms, although they may be these as well. Nuclear weapons, regardless of what they symbolize, are the problem. They are humankind’s most acute problem and they must be eliminated as a matter of urgency. The question is how. Before turning to this question, I will first examine some gender issues that were raised in the commentary, an aspect of the discussion that I found to be very rich.
Anna Harris first raised the question of the disproportionate number of men responding to the issue of “nuclear Armageddon.” She wrote: “What is lacking, to put it bluntly, is the ability to talk about feelings, which is something women seem to have developed more, and without which this whole discussion becomes one of control and numbers which renders it to me almost totally meaningless.” I agree with Anna’s call for bringing the passion of one’s feelings into the abolition project, and I understand the “unspeakable rage” that she reports feeling. Little is gained by a focus on control and numbers, which has been the principal approach of the leaders of nuclear-armed states. I believe there is only one number that truly matters when it comes to nuclear arms, and that number is zero. This is in line with Richard Falk’s warning about the dangers of focusing on the “arms control” and the managerial aspects of nuclear armaments, as opposed to the far more critical focus on their abolition.
Miki Kashtan followed up on Harris’s post, arguing that “nuclear arms are the tragic and horrifying extension of patriarchy.” She went on, “I don’t see that we can use patriarchal means to solve problems that patriarchy created.” This is a strong point and may be at least part of the answer to what Einstein meant when, early in the Nuclear Age, he famously said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
Susan Butler also came in behind the comments of Anna Harris’s concerns about the importance of feelings. Butler argued, “Feelings are the basis of the moral compass…. It is feelings that tell us what to do, what’s important, and what we care about.”
Finally, on the gender issue, Judith Lipton weighed in, stating, “Males and females can push buttons with launch codes. The reality of nuclear war is so painful that young or old, male or female, we watch cat videos rather than saving our poor planet.” In this way, she reminded us that we are all in this together, gender differences related to feelings notwithstanding. The truth is that most citizens of the planet are distracted by more immediate concerns than nuclear Armageddon and have an insufficient awareness of nuclear dangers to play an effective role in pressing for their elimination. There can be no doubt, though, that bringing feelings and passion to the endeavor is an important project for both men and women. Both are needed.
What needs to be done to abolish nuclear weapons? There are obviously no easy answers to this question. If there were, the goal would have been accomplished already. We continue to live in a world in which a small number of leaders in a small number of countries with nuclear arms are holding the world hostage to their perceptions of their own national security. A starting point would be to shift the public perceptions of nuclear weapons providing for their security. One way to do this is to debunk nuclear deterrence, as did David Barash, who concluded, “In short, deterrence is a sham, a shibboleth evoked by those seeking to justify the unjustifiable.” Aaron Karp also challenged nuclear deterrence theory, quoting from a 1999 essay in Resurgence, “Death by Deterrence,” written by General George Lee Butler, a former head of the U.S. Strategic Command.
Katyayani Singh pointed out one important difficulty in changing public perceptions, “We cannot expect our political leaders to pursue nuclear disarmament when public opinion is in favor of nuclear armaments.” This may not be universally true, but seems to be the case in both India and Pakistan. Singh suggested rightly that education, media and cinema are tools for raising consciousness on the nuclear issue. Of course, they can also be tools for maintaining the status quo.
Other commenters discussed the importance of building trust among states and of increasing cooperation among them. Some commenters, including Andreas Bummel and Chris Hamer, argued that it would be necessary for states to cede some of their sovereignty to international organizations and that strengthened international institutions would be needed. Bummel wrote, “What is required…is to relinquish sovereignty in this domain and to accept a global authority that would provide for enforcement and collective security.” Hamer also argued for campaigning “for a global parliament, which would be able to deal with all the extremely serious global problems which confront us….” That is, as a global parliament, it would be a global decision-making body.
The creation of new global institutions present us with a chicken and egg dilemma: can we afford to wait for such new institutions to form and be accepted given the urgency of the nuclear dangers confronting the world? Or, on the other hand, can we afford not to seek to create such new institutions, given the same urgency of nuclear dangers? What we can say with certainty is that national security is threatened, not enhanced, by nuclear arms, and it would be wise to shift the focus from national security to global security.
Yogi Hendlin found it a shortcoming in my essay that I did not discuss “how nuclear power generation schemes and nuclear weapons have worked as industries hand-in-hand.” Although I did not address it in my essay, I fully agree with Hendlin’s premise that nuclear power reactors and research reactors have often been a façade for developing nuclear weapons. Nuclear power has other serious problems, in addition to those related to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation. These include there being no adequate plan for long-term storage of high level radioactive wastes, which, in some cases, will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years; a history of serious reactor accidents, such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima; being potential targets for terrorists at any time or enemies in time of war; they are capital intensive; and, for all of the above reasons, starting with their relation to nuclear weapons proliferation, an extremely poor alternative to truly safe renewable energy sources.
I will conclude with three important quotes with which I strongly agree and which I believe carry deep seeds of wisdom.
The first is a quote, offered by Judith Lipton from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
The second quote is by Richard Falk: “In such a time [as ours], it is itself an act of will to keep the flames of hope and possibility from being snuffed out.”
The third is a quote offered by David Barash from ancient Jewish wisdom: “It is not for you to finish the task, but neither is it for you to refrain from it.”
We must not lose sight of the fact that, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, with nuclear arms, everything could change in a moment’s time. That is the dangerous nature of the Nuclear Age. It is only by our commitment and acts of will that we may be able to keep hope alive, protect our world, and pass it on intact to future generations. We may not finish the task, but we must accept the challenge and engage in it with passion if we are to create the awareness, trust, cooperation and institutional framework to achieve the goal of nuclear zero.
I appreciate the work of the Great Transition Initiative, and the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and to receive yours in return.