As a person who has believed ever since August, 1945 that nuclear disarmament was the single most important condition for the longrun survival of civlized life on earth, I was much encouraged a few days ago by several strong reactions to the contents of the US “Nuclear Posture Review” which had been leaked to the press on March 9. The “posture” includes contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against seven states, to which plans The New York Times replied with an editorial beginning: “If another country were planning to develop new nuclear weapons and contemplating pre-emptive strilkes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended” by the Pentagon planning papers. The Washington Post, while reiterating its constant support for current American military actions, concluded its editorial by saying “The Bush administration is right to focus more of its strategic planning on deterring rogue states, but developing new nuclear weapons for that threat is neither necessary nor sensible.”

Robert S. McNamara, who was US Secretary of Defense during the first stages of the Vietnam War, immediately criticized the posture review on several grounds: that the US has scrapped the ABM treaty in order to build a new missile shield in space; that the above-mentioned contingency plans undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by targeting several non-nuclear countries with our nuclear arms; that the review “appears to set forth a forty-year plan for developing and acquiring new nuclear weapons,” and that the nuclear testing of such new weapons would “fly in the face of vital US non-proliferation commitments.” Finally, not to limit my examples to the immediate reaction against the Nuclear Posture Review, I would mention that The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in the US has been circulating since the beginning of this year an appeal to “commence good faith negotiations to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention requiring the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons, with provisions for effective verification and enforcement.” This appeal carries the signatures of such widely admired world figures as Muhammad Ali, former President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, and Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba of Hiroshima.

In the balance of the present article I would like to assess the possibilities for real disarmament. But first a caution: the momentum of President Bush’s “war against terror”, and the advice of all his important counselors with the partial exception of Colin Powell, is strongly in favor of new weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear, developed hopefully with allied approval, but unilaterally if such approval is not forthcoming. The editorial reactions I have cited above do not call for disarmament of any kind. They reflect dismay at the failure of the administration even to realize how dangerous for the US itself are these rejections of international obligations and readiness to extend nuclear competition and militarize outer space as well as the long suffering earth. They thus call for a modicum of common sense restraint.

The administration favors a certain disarmament on its own terms. In order to free up nuclear resources, plus the scientific and technical talent to create more sophisticated, precise new weapons, the US proposes a large voluntary reduction in the thousands of missiles now on alert in US and Russian bases. This is to be done without signing scraps of paper, and with the missiles kept in storage just in case some unpredictable change in the international atmosphere might require us to be able quickly to alert them again. The Russians, who have recovered their sense of humor since the demise of communism, have referred to this as a “nuclear warehouse” policy.

A more difficult obstacle lies in the fact that American public opinion, as reflected in the behavior of the US Senate, does not like to accept international obligations. The Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty because it would, quite obviously, limit the country’s ability to create and test new weapons. Many legislators have nothing good to say for the United Nations as such, and will have nothing to do with a proposed international tribunal for the trial of war crimes. They feel no embarrassment whatever in saying that they will not permit any American soldier to be tried by such a tribunal. Their forbears conquered the American West without having to apply any Geneva conventions to captured Indian braves, and they declare that the captured Taliban and Al Quaida fighters are not legitimate prisoners of war (another psychological throwback to their forbears’ attitude towards the Indians).

Actually there already exists a very practical basis from which to initiate real nuclear disarmament. In 1970 the existing -and still the principal- nuclear powers (the EEUU, Russia, the UK, France, and China) sponsored a Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which they asked all the rest of the world to forego the development of nuclear weapons, in return for which the nuclear group itself undertook a solemn obligation to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their own nuclear arsenals. Without any unnecessary sarcasms and finger pointings, without any reference to other treaties never ratified by the Senate, the nuclear “club” could now take the initiative to fulfill that obligation.

There are also several practical circumstances which should make it possible for the leaders of all nations to recognize the increasing importance of nuclear disarmament for the survival of civilized life. Since 1970 (as well as before) there have been accidents at nuclear plants releasing dangerous quantities of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and eventuallly into the soil and water on which millions of people depend. There has been no way to hide these facts. Regardless of governmental secrecy, seismographs all over the world have detected every single nuclear test and every single nuclear accident in the years since 1945. There have also been at least nine very little publicized sinkings of nuclear submarines with consequent poisoning of the ocean waters. In addition, the safe disposal of radioactive wastes from well controlled civilian activities is a completely unsolved problem, of which political elites are surely aware even if they avoid public discussion of the subject. Where, and in what quantity, potentially endangering whose homes and lands, are to be buried the hundreds of tons of nuclear waste which include elements that will remain radioactive for several centuries? By what right do we deliberately endanger the health of these future generations? Without hurting anybody’s religious or ideological sensibilities, the delegates to a disarmament conference could mutually assume the obligation to reduce as far as it may still be possible, these health hazards.

Another relevant circumstance is the fact that, in contrast to the situation in 1970, we no longer live in a bi-polar world. At that time, the EEUU and the USSR were so overwhelmingly powerful that, since the two of them could destroy each other 100 times over, and were aware of that fact, the rest of the world could relax in the assurance that such pragmatic leaders as Nixon and Brezhnev would be careful not to start a nuclear war. But today we live in a world of strongly revived religious differences, of militant nationalisms, of less ideological debate but more fear, hatred, and jealousy based on the increasing inequality between prosperous and poor societies, and the fact that this increasing inequaltiy is so obvious on the TV screens seen by almost everyone. This situation must lead all sane persons to realize that no small group of powers such as the nuclear club of the 1970’s can hope to restrict the spead of nuclear arms. In that sense I can agree that the ABM treaty is “outdated”, but not for the purpose of eliminating it so as to feel free to create all kinds of monstrous new weapons.

Thue only sane policy is to recognize that either we get rid of nuclear weapons or their eventual use, whether by intent or by accident, will inevitably kill millions of persons and poison the living conditions of the survivors and successors. We need a world disarmament conference for as many years as it may take to negotiate comprehensive, verifiable, permanent disarmament of all the existing stocks of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.