This article was originally published by Truthout.
Almost five decades ago, I first visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was 18 years after the atomic bombings flattened the cities, and the cities had returned to a kind of normalcy. At the memorial museums, though, a very different perspective on nuclear weapons was presented than that taught in American schools. It was the perspective from below the bombs – that of the victims – not the technological perspective of having created and used the bombs.
Nuclear weapons are not simply a technological achievement, as the West has tended to portray them. They kill indiscriminately – children, women and men. They are not weapons of war; they are tools of mass annihilation. No matter what we call them, they are not truly weapons, but instruments of unbridled mass destruction. Their threat or use is illegal under international law. Surely, their possession, like chemical or biological weapons, should be as well. They are immoral, as has been concluded by all the world’s great religions. And they have cost us dearly, in financial and scientific resources and in compromises of the soul.
Three decades ago, in 1982, we founded the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Its vision is a just and peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons. The Foundation’s mission is to educate and advocate for peace and a world free of nuclear weapons and to empower peace leaders. So we educate, advocate and empower – that’s what we do. We speak out. We are a voice of conscience. We advocate for sane policies and for leadership to achieve a world without nuclear dangers. Our goal is to educate and engage millions of people to move the world to nuclear disarmament and peace.
We challenge bad theory, such as the theory of nuclear deterrence, a theory that justifies reliance on nuclear weapons, but has many faults. For nuclear deterrence to work successfully, leaders of nuclear-armed states must be rational at all times and under all circumstances, particularly under conditions of stress when they are least likely to be rational. Also, nuclear deterrence cannot deter those who have no territory to retaliate against or who are suicidal. Thus, nuclear deterrence has no possibility of success against terrorist organizations. To see one of many ways that deterrence can fail, I encourage you to watch the 1964 movie, Fail-Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet, based upon the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.
The Foundation also challenges bad nuclear policies, including those that tolerate a two-tier structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” We believe that the ultimate consequence of this two-tier structure will be nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. We also advocate for nuclear policies that reduce risks and move us toward a world without nuclear weapons, policies such as security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states of: no first use of nuclear weapons; no launch on warning of nuclear attack; lowering the alert status of nuclear weapons; a comprehensive test ban treaty; and a fissile material cut-off treaty. These are all elements of the critical goal of nuclear weapons abolition and must be viewed in that context.
Scientists tell us that even a small nuclear war with an exchange of a hundred Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons, destroying cities and sending smoke into the stratosphere, could result in blocking sunlight and lowering the earth’s temperature, leading to massive crop failures and famine, resulting in some one billion deaths. This would be the kind of nuclear war that could occur in South Asia between India and Pakistan. A larger-scale nuclear war, fought with a few hundred thermonuclear weapons, the kind that could occur between the US and Russia, could destroy civilization and possibly cause the extinction of the human species and most other forms of complex life on the planet. We all share a responsibility to assure there are no small- or large-scale nuclear wars, but as long as nuclear weapons exist in any substantial numbers, the possibility of nuclear war also exists.
In October 1962, the world held its collective breath as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. The world was poised on the brink of a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev managed to navigate those dangerous currents, but many of their advisors were pushing them toward nuclear war. Decisions on all sides were made with only partial knowledge, which could have resulted in disaster. Robert Kennedy’s eye-witness account of the crisis, Thirteen Days, is sobering reading.
In 1982, the year the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was created, there was considerable concern in the world about nuclear dangers. There were more than 60,000 nuclear weapons, nearly all in the arsenals of the US and USSR. More than one million people gathered in Central Park in New York calling for a nuclear freeze. Of course, they were right to do so. The nuclear arms race was out of control, and the leaders of the US and USSR were not talking to each other. An uncontrollable nuclear arms race coupled with a failure to communicate were and are a recipe for disaster.
By 1986, the nuclear arms race reached its apogee with over 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, nearly all in the arsenals of the US and USSR. But by this time Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR and was talking about abolishing nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, who shared Gorbachev’s view about nuclear weapons, came heartbreakingly close to agreeing to abolish their nuclear arsenals at a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. Their attempt to find their way to zero nuclear weapons foundered on the issue of the Strategic Defense Initiative, now commonly referred to as missile defense. Reagan wanted it; Gorbachev didn’t.
So, in 1986 there were over 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Since then, we have made progress in substantially reducing nuclear arsenals to the current number of under 20,000 worldwide, having shed some 50,000 nuclear weapons. Of the 8,500 nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, about 3,500 are awaiting dismantlement and fewer than 2,000 are deployed, about the same number deployed in Russia. The US and Russia have agreed that they will each reduce their deployed strategic weapons to 1,550 by the year 2017. Neither country has conducted an atmospheric or underground nuclear weapon test since 1992 (other than underground subcritical nuclear tests in which the nuclear material does not reach the criticality necessary for a nuclear chain reaction).
We have made progress. We are now on relatively positive terms with Russia, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Through solid US negotiating, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed to give up the nuclear arsenals that the former Soviet Union had left on their territories and to give these weapons over to Russia for dismantlement.
A significant event occurred in 1996 when US Secretary of Defense William Perry met with the Russian and Ukrainian Defense Ministers at a former missile base in Ukraine to plant sunflowers. Secretary Perry said on the occasion, “Sunflowers in the soil instead of missiles will ensure peace for future generations.” We adopted the sunflower as a symbol of a nuclear weapons-free world. The sunflower symbolizes everything that a nuclear-armed missile is not, being natural, nutritious, healthy, beautiful, grounded in the earth and powered by the sun.
We have come a long way, but we haven’t reached the finish line, which is a world without nuclear weapons. The issue we face now is to educate decision makers and the public that the dangers of nuclear weapons have not gone away. There are still many flash points of nuclear danger in the world: India-Pakistan, North Korea, the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the UK and France, the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel and the incentive for nuclear proliferation this creates in the Middle East, and the relationship of the nuclear energy fuel cycle to nuclear proliferation.
The greatest problem related to nuclear weapons is not that Iran might develop such weapons. It is that the countries with nuclear weapons are not taking seriously enough their obligations to end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity and achieve nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons do not make their possessors more secure. When a country has nuclear weapons or seeks to acquire them, that country will also be a target of nuclear weapons. This goes for both the US and Iran, and for all other countries with nuclear weapons or seeking to develop them. Nuclear weapons turn cities and countries into targets for mass annihilation.
What shall we do to advance to zero? In the spirit of Gorbachev and Reagan, the US and Russia must lead the way. They still possess over 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. It was recently revealed that President Obama has requested a study of reductions of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to three levels: 1000 to 1,100 weapons; 700 to 800 weapons; and 300 to 400 weapons. This is significant. It is worth advocating for US leadership to reduce the US nuclear arsenal to the lower level, to 300 nuclear weapons, as a next step. But, of course, this would not be the desired end result. First, it is not low enough; it is not zero. It still would be more than enough to destroy civilization and potentially cause the extinction of complex life on the planet. Second, it is unilateral; it must be bilateral and moving toward multilateral.
At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we have never called for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Going down to 300 deployed strategic nuclear weapons would be a significant reduction, but it should be a joint endeavor with Russia. To get Russia to join us in this next step will require the US to move its missile defense installations away from the Russian border, so that Russia does not feel threatened by these defenses, particularly at lower levels of offensive weapons. US officials tell Russia not to worry about these missile defense installations, but the Russians are wary. It is easy to understand this, if one imagines the Russians placing missile defense installations on the Canadian border and telling the US not to worry. Missile defenses, if they are needed, must be a joint project, just as reductions in the numbers of offensive nuclear weapons must be a joint project.
The US and Russia must cooperate on continuing to pare down their nuclear arsenals for their own security and for global security. At the level of 300 deployed strategic nuclear weapons each, they would then be in a position of rough parity with the other nuclear weapon states and in a position to effectively negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. The number that matters most in the nuclear disarmament arena is zero. It is the most secure and stable number of nuclear weapons. It must be achieved carefully and in phases, but it must be achieved for the benefit of our children, grandchildren and all future generations.