Nuclear weapons, which are instruments of genocide, incinerate human beings. The Peace Memorial Museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki display gruesome evidence of the atomic bombings of those cities; one can see walls where human shadows remain after the humans who cast those shadows were incinerated into elemental particles.

During World War II the Nazis put their victims into gas chambers and then incinerated them in ovens. While the Nazis took their victims to the incinerators, those who possess and threaten to use nuclear weapons plan to take these weapons, that are really portable incinerators, to the victims. Nuclear weapons eliminate the need for gas chambers. They provide a one-step incineration process — for those fortunate enough to die immediately.

The behavior of the Nazis leading up to and during World War II is universally condemned. The German people are often criticized for failing to oppose the atrocities of the Nazi regime. How much more culpable would be the citizens of the states that now possess nuclear weapons should these instruments of genocide be used again!

The German people lived in fear of the Nazis. The same cannot be said for the citizens of the nuclear weapons states, particularly the Western nuclear weapons states. Their silence in the face of their governments’ reliance upon these portable incinerators makes them virtual accomplices in planned crimes against humanity.

It is no excuse to say that these instruments of genocide exist only to deter an enemy. In the first place, there are no enemies among nuclear weapons states in the aftermath of the Cold War. More important, there is no justification for threatening to murder hundreds of millions of people in the name of national security. Deterrence is only a theory, and on many occasions, most famously the Cuban Missile Crisis, it has come close to breaking down.

The International Court of Justice has found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally illegal, and that it would be virtually impossible to use nuclear weapons without violating the laws of armed conflict and particularly international humanitarian law. The Court in 1996 reaffirmed that all nuclear weapons states have an obligation under international law to achieve nuclear disarmament “in all its aspects.”

Given the immorality and illegality of using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, where is the public outrage at the continued reliance upon these weapons by the governments of nuclear weapons states in the aftermath of the Cold War? Many people seem to believe that the threat of nuclear holocaust ended with the end of the Cold War, but this is far from the actual situation. Despite some bilateral phased reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, there are still some 36,000 nuclear weapons in the possession of the nuclear weapons states, with the largest number still stockpiled by the former Cold War enemies, the U.S. and Russia.

Worse yet, our nation’s foreign policy is still wedded to the threatened use of these weapons. In late 1997 President Clinton signed a Presidential Decision Directive reserving the right for the United States to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and giving the Pentagon increased flexibility to retaliate against smaller states that might use chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. or its allies. This Presidential Decision Directive was prepared in secret with no public discussion, and came to public light only because it was leaked to the press.

Another secret study that has recently come to light reveals a frightening approach to nuclear arsenals within the U.S. military command. The study, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” was prepared by the U.S. Strategic Command, and was released only after a freedom of information request by a non-governmental organization concerned with security issues.

The study states, “Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S. may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed.” It continues, “The fact that some elements (of the U.S. government) may appear to be potentially `out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”

In effect, this study by the U.S. Strategic Command says that the U.S. should not only continue to base its national security on threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons, but its decision makers should also act as though they are crazy enough to use them. One is left with the eerie feeling that these supposedly rational planners advocating irrationality may be just crazy enough to actually use these weapons if an opponent was crazy enough to call their bluff or appeared to them to do so.

Military leaders in the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states are not giving up their reliance upon their nuclear arsenals. There is little reassurance in their secret studies that argue for portraying themselves as “irrational and vindictive.”

A former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Lee Butler, has made many strong public pleas for nuclear weapons abolition since his retirement from the Air Force in 1994. He recently stated, “I think that the vast majority of people on the face of this earth will endorse the proposition that such weapons have no place among us. There is no security to be found in nuclear weapons. It’s a fool’s game.”

General Butler was also a member of a prestigious international commission organized by the Australian government, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This commission issued a report in 1996 stating, “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility. The only complete defence is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”

If the American people and the citizens of other nuclear weapons states want to end their role as unwilling accomplices to threatened mass murder of whole nations, they must make their voices heard. They must demand that their governments proceed with nuclear disarmament “in all its aspects,” as called for by the International Court of Justice.

If we fail to protest our reliance upon these instruments of genocide, and if these weapons are ever used, it will be “We, the People” who will stand culpable before history of even greater crimes than those committed by the Nazis. We will not have the excuse that we, like most Germans in the Nazi era, did not protest because we feared for our lives. It will be our indifference when we could have made a difference that will be the mark of our crime against humanity.