The conventional wisdom that nuclear weapons keep their possessors safe, though it may be widespread, is neither true nor rooted in wisdom. The fact is that nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for any country to possess – let alone use – and that the U.S. and other countries have been playing nuclear roulette with them for nearly seven decades.
Nuclear weapons have come close to being detonated by accident or design on numerous occasions during the nuclear age. U.S. and Russian leaders have come close to “retaliating” to false warnings of nuclear attack on several occasions, acts which would have set in motion full-scale nuclear wars. Planes carrying nuclear weapons have had mid-air collisions and crashes that have released their bombs. It is far more likely that the world has benefited by great good fortune than it is that the weapons have kept us safe.
Nuclear deterrence is only a hypothesis about human behavior. It is a hypothesis that requires all leaders playing the deadly-serious nuclear game to behave rationally at all times, and we know that all leaders do not act rationally under all circumstances. Do we really want to gamble that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will always behave rationally? But this may be said about many, perhaps all, leaders of nuclear-armed states. Here, for example, is a conversation recorded in the White House on April 25, 1972, between President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger:
Nixon: How many did we kill in Laos?
Kissinger: In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen [thousand] …
Nixon: See, the attack in the North [Vietnam] that we have in mind … power plants, whatever’s left – POL [petroleum], the docks … And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
Nixon: No, no, no … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Chrissakes.
The possession of nuclear weapons models behavior that other countries will see fit to emulate. If the most powerful nation on Earth insists that it “needs” nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t every country “need” them? If the rationale is “because they deter nuclear attack,” then we should give nuclear weapons to everyone and thereby ensure the peace.
The truth is that each new country that develops a nuclear arsenal adds to—not reduces—the global threat. Since the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970, four additional countries have developed nuclear arsenals: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. More countries may well join them, responding to the continued nuclear posturing of the original five nuclear-armed countries: U.S., Russia, UK, France and China.
An additional impetus to nuclear proliferation is the failure of the original nuclear weapon states to fulfill their obligations under the NPT to pursue negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament. The Marshall Islands, a small Pacific island country, has brought lawsuits against all the nuclear “Goliaths” to hold them to account for breaches of their nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT and/or customary international law.
Conventional wisdom also has it that the more powerful the nuclear arsenal, the safer are its possessors. But this is not true for two reasons. First, a country that possesses nuclear weapons will be targeted by nuclear weapons. Second, the use of a powerful nuclear arsenal could thrust the globe into a new ice age and thus be suicidal for the attacking country, even without retaliation.
It is commonly believed that nuclear weapons “ended the war in Japan” and saved (American) lives during World War II. That, too, is a myth. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, published in 1946, concluded that, even without the atomic bombs, and even without the Soviet Union entering the war in the Pacific, the fighting would have ended in 1945 without an Allied invasion of Japan. Japan had put out feelers to surrender, and the U.S. had broken Japan’s secret codes and knew about its desire to surrender, but we went ahead and bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest ranking member of the U.S. military at the time, wrote in his memoir that the atomic bomb “was of no material assistance” against Japan, because the Japanese were already defeated. He went on to say that, in being the first to use the bomb, the U.S. “had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
Nuclear weapons not only do not keep their possessors safe, but the secrecy and consolidation of power they require undermine democracy, and have been a major reason for consolidation of power in the executive branch of government and the creation of an “imperial presidency” in the U.S. Further, these weapons and their delivery systems have drained trillions of dollars in resources from meeting basic social needs. In addition, the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be illegal under international law and the possession of these instruments of mass annihilation undermines the very fabric of international law. Finally, there is no moral justification for threatening the populations of cities, countries, continents and, in fact, the whole planet. The development and possession of nuclear arsenals has made us bad stewards of the planet and its various forms of life, including human life, now and in the future.
There is another, painfully obvious, way that nuclear weapons jeopardize our safety: Through the middle of the last decade, the U.S. had spent $7.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The annual figure now is $50 to $60 billion for the U.S. and $100 billion for all nuclear-weapons states. That $100 billion a year is a figure roughly equivalent to the cost of achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Which investment would make the world a safer place?
Nuclear weapons are relics of the Cold War. What possible scenario would require any country to keep hundreds, or even thousands, of nuclear weapons, ready to fire on a few moments’ notice? It’s time to wake up, shake off our apathy and ignorance, challenge conventional wisdom, and take a stand for a nuclear weapons-free planet now, before it’s too late. The U.S., as the most powerful country on the planet and the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, should lead the way in convening these negotiations.
David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and has served as its president since 1982. He is the author of many books and articles that challenge the conventional wisdom that nuclear weapons keep us safe. Find out more at www.wagingpeace.org and www.nuclearzero.org.
This article was originally published by The Moon Magazine.