We are in the seventh decade of the Nuclear Age and there remain more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine nuclear weapons states. The list of countries possessing nuclear weapons is headed by the US and Russia, which between them have more than 95 percent of the total on the planet. These two countries still maintain a few thousand nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so. The other countries with nuclear weapons are the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

An important question that every concerned individual should ask is: Do these weapons make a country and its citizens more secure? The answer to this question is that they do not; nuclear weapons provide no physical protection against a nuclear attack. They do not and cannot provide physical protection against other nuclear weapons.

The Limits of Deterrence

These weapons of mass annihilation can only be used to threaten retaliation against an attacker. But the threat of retaliation, known as nuclear deterrence, is not foolproof. Deterrence relies upon beliefs and effective communications. For deterrence to work, a country’s leaders must believe in the intent as well as the capacity of an opponent to retaliate. Such a threat may be doubted since it implies a willingness to slaughter millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of innocent people.

Another issue with deterrence is that of rationality: whether an opponent will always act rationally, even in times of severe crisis. The evidence does not support the proposition that all political leaders are rational at all times. Another problem with deterrence is that the threat of retaliation is essentially meaningless when it comes to terrorist groups, since they are often suicidal and cannot be located to retaliate against.

Weapons of the Weak

There are many good reasons to doubt that nuclear deterrence makes a country more secure. One perceived exception to this may be that nuclear weapons provide added security for a weaker country in relation to a stronger one. For example, George W. Bush, early in his presidency, branded Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” He then proceeded to attack Iraq on the false charge that it had a nuclear weapons program, overthrow its leadership and occupy the country. With North Korea, a country suspected of having a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, Bush was much more cautious and engaged in negotiations. This has sent a message to Iran that it would be more secure with a nuclear arsenal. This is surely not the message that the US wishes to send to the world, nor to countries such as Iran.

For weaker countries, nuclear weapons may be thought of as “military equalizers.” They may make a stronger country think twice about attacking. But this is a dangerous game of Russian roulette. The greater the number of countries with nuclear weapons, the greater the danger that these weapons will be used by accident, miscalculation or design.

Because of the perceived power that nuclear weapons bestow upon their possessors, they may seem to some to be desirable, but in fact possessors of nuclear weapons are also targets of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can destroy cities, countries, civilization, the human species and most life on our planet. As Mikhail Gorbachev has pointed out, they are weapons of “infinite and uncontrollable fury,” far too dangerous to be “held in the hands of any mere mortal ever again, for any reason.” Nuclear weapons could cause irreversible damage, not to the planet which is capable of recovery despite the worst we can do to it, but to humanity and to the human future.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires the countries that were then in possession of nuclear weapons (US, Soviet Union, UK, France and China) to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament in return for other countries agreeing not to acquire nuclear weapons. This agreement on the part of the nuclear weapons states has not been kept and unfortunately the country that has been the principal obstacle to nuclear disarmament has been the United States.

Another aspect of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is that it refers to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy as an “inalienable right.” For many reasons, this moves the world in the wrong direction. The most important of these reasons is that nuclear energy provides a pretext for the creation of fissile materials for nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment and plutonium separation technologies. Once commerce is established in such bomb materials, the prospects of nuclear proliferation, even to terrorists, increase dramatically.

Changing Our Thinking

Nuclear weapons pose a unique existential challenge to humanity. If global warming is an “inconvenient truth,” nuclear weapons are an even greater and more acute problem for humanity. We need to shift our thinking if we are to confront the serious dangers to the human future posed by nuclear weapons. As Albert Einstein warned early in the Nuclear Age, “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The needed change in thinking will require a major shift in our orientation toward nuclear arms.

These weapons must be viewed as the immoral and illegal weapons that they are, as opposed to just another, albeit more powerful, weapon of war. The International Court of Justice considered the issue of the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons and unanimously concluded: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” People everywhere must understand that the weapons themselves are the enemy and must be committed to their elimination.

The Need for US Leadership

The United States, as the world’s most powerful country, must lead in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. The US, however, seems unmindful of this responsibility and continues to send exactly the wrong message by its reliance on nuclear weapons. Two distinguished former US diplomats, Thomas Graham Jr. and Max Kampelman, have called US leadership “essential”: “The road from the world of today, with thousands of nuclear weapons in national arsenals to a world free of this threat, will not be an easy one to take, but it is clear that US leadership is essential to the journey and there is growing worldwide support for that civilized call to zero.” US leaders must understand that for the country’s own security and for global security, nuclear weapons abolition is necessary, but won’t be possible without US leadership.

The Role of Citizens

The people of the US and other nuclear weapons states must put pressure on their governments to act on ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Pressure must come from below to change the thinking and the actions of political leaders. Among the steps that individuals can take to make a difference on this issue are the following:

  1. Learn more. Visit the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s website at www.wagingpeace.org.
  2. Keep abreast of the issues. At www.wagingpeace.org you can sign up for The Sunflower, a free monthly e-newsletter on current nuclear weapons issues.
  3. Share your knowledge. Tell your family and friends about the importance of current nuclear weapons issues and encourage their involvement.
  4. Communicate with the media. Follow the news and write letters to your local newspaper.
  5. Write your representatives in Congress. Sign up for the Turn the Tide Action Alerts at www.wagingpeace.org, and we’ll make it easy for you to communicate with your Congressional representatives.
  6. Support and build nuclear abolition organizations. It may take a village to raise a child, but it will take strong, committed and enduring organizations to assure we achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons for all the children of the world.
  7. Never give up. It will take extraordinary perseverance to achieve the goal. No one should give up because the task is difficult.

Each generation has a responsibility to pass the world on intact to the next generation. Those of us alive today are challenged as never before to accomplish this. Technological achievement does not necessarily make us stronger. It may simply make us more vulnerable, and our old ways of thinking may seal our fate. The alternative to waiting for a nuclear catastrophe to occur is to join others who are committed to preserving a future of the human species, and act to rid the world of this most terrible of all human inventions.

David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and has served as its president since 1982. He is a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.