The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has been working to end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity and all life for 35 years. We were one of many nuclear disarmament organizations created in the early 1980s, in our case in 1982. Some of these organizations have endured; some have not.
We were founded on the belief that peace is an imperative of the Nuclear Age, that nuclear weapons must be abolished, and that the people of the world must lead their leaders to achieve these goals. As a founder of the organization, and as its president since its founding, it now seems an appropriate time to look back and reflect on the changes that have occurred over the past 35 years.
- War and Peace. Although there has not been an all-out world war since World War II, international terrorism may be viewed as a world war taking place in slow motion, and points to the continuing need to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. From a different perspective, those countries in possession of nuclear weapons may themselves be viewed as terrorists for their implicit, and sometimes explicit, threats to use nuclear weapons against their adversaries. Also, there have been many proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia (formerly Soviet Union).
- Dramatic reductions. While nuclear weapons have not been abolished, there have been dramatic reductions in their numbers. By the mid-1980s, there were some 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Now the number is under 15,000, a reduction of 55,000. This is positive movement, but there are still more than enough nuclear weapons in today’s nuclear arsenals to destroy civilization many times over and to send the planet spiraling into a new Ice Age.
- People leading. There are some signs that the people are leading their leaders on issues of peace and disarmament. One of these is the July 2017 adoption of the new United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty was spearheaded by non-nuclear weapon states in cooperation with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a campaign composed of more than 450 civil society organizations, including the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. ICAN was recognized for this achievement with the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
- Proliferation. In the early 1980s, there were six nuclear-armed countries: the U.S., Soviet Union (now Russia), UK, France, China and Israel. Now there are nine nuclear-armed countries, adding to the first six India, Pakistan and North Korea. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, although limited, raises the odds of nuclear weapons use. In addition to these nine nuclear-armed countries, the U.S. still keeps approximately 180 nuclear weapons on the soil of five European countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.
- Curtailing nuclear testing. In the early 1980s, there was widespread nuclear testing, but today nuclear testing is almost nonexistent. North Korea is the only country still conducting physical nuclear tests, although some countries, including the U.S., continue to conduct subcritical nuclear tests and computer simulation tests.
- Cold War. The Cold War ended in 1991, causing many people to think the dangers of nuclear weapons had ended, but this is far from the reality of the Nuclear Age, in which nuclear detonations could occur by accident or miscalculation, as well as by intention, at any time.
- Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 1995, the NPT was indefinitely extended, despite the failure of the parties to the treaty, particularly the five original nuclear-armed countries, to fulfill their Article VI obligations to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament.
- Ignorance. Many people alive today know little to nothing about the dangers of nuclear weapons, not having lived through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the frequent atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, the duck and cover drills that were conducted in schools, or civil defense drills. Many younger people do not recognize the seriousness of the continuing nuclear threat, or else believe that the threat is limited to countries such as North Korea or Iran.
- Thermonuclear monarchy. In the 1980s and still today, we live in a world in which very few people in each nuclear-armed country are authorized to order the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, these individuals hold the keys to the human future in their hands. This has been described by Harvard professor Elaine Scarry as “Thermonuclear Monarchy.”
- Survivors. The survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known as hibakusha, have grown older and fewer in number. Their average age is now above 80 years. They are the true ambassadors of the Nuclear Age, and their testimony remains critical to awakening people to the nuclear threat to all humanity, and to achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.
Over the past 35 years, there have been significant reductions in nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, but there are more nuclear-armed countries now than then. There is still widespread ignorance and apathy about nuclear dangers. Despite this, civil society organizations, including the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, are making progress by working with non-nuclear weapons states. The most recent example of this is the adoption by the United Nations of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The civil society organizations working in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons will be instrumental in encouraging countries to sign and ratify the treaty for its early entry into force, which will occur 90 days after the fiftieth ratification of the treaty is deposited with the United Nations.
Despite having gone more than seven decades without a nuclear war since the first atomic weapons were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are no guarantees that these horrendous weapons will not again be used, by accident or design, on any given day. The nuclear-armed countries continue to rely upon the human-created theory of nuclear deterrence to avert a nuclear war. This is a shaky foundation on which to base the future of civilization and of the human species. Although some progress has been made toward eliminating nuclear weapons, it is not sufficient. Far more people need to awaken to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and to demand an end to the nuclear era. We would be wise to listen to the hibakusha and abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us.
David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). His most recent book is Portraits: Peacemakers, Warmongers and People Between.