Published in Transcend Media Service on February 19, 2024.

Why the United States Should Lead the World on Nuclear Disarmament All the Way to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

For decades, Americans have been told that nuclear weapons ended World War II and that they have kept us safe ever since. This narrative ignores historical evidence suggesting that Japan was already close to surrendering and that nuclear weapon attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of the Cold War, rather than end of the hot one. This narrative also ignores the Cuban Missile Crisis, which in 1962 brought us to the brink of nuclear war that would have destroyed human civilization as we know it and possibly all of life on the planet. At that time, the United States and the Soviet Union had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads, most of which were vastly more powerful than the atomic bombs used in 1945. Had the two countries used just the weapons that were ready to launch – about 4,000 of them – estimates of deaths range from hundreds of millions of people to over a billion people. Nuclear winter, which we didn’t know about until a couple of decades later, would have ensued, further leading to starvation of many more around the planet, with potential planetary life-ending consequences. The world our ancestors survived in for thousands of generations would have been gone, irreversibly so.

But it wasn’t just the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were accidental drops of nuclear bombs over Canada in 1950, South Carolina in 1958, and North Carolina in 1961; a US and Soviet plane crash over Greenland in 1968 and a submarine crash in the Barents Sea in 1969; fires in missile silos in Arkansas in 1980 and in Wyoming in 2008, and false alarms in 1979 and 1983, all of which could have led to nuclear weapon use and possibly even nuclear war. The list goes on and on. Nuclear weapons do not keep us safe, they put us at unimaginable risk. Nuclear deterrence is simply an illusion of safety.

With more than 12,000 warheads in our world today, the possibility of accidental use of a nuclear weapon that leads to widespread nuclear war continues to loom large. But it’s not just accidental use that experts are worried about. The possibility of a miscalculation – a leader deciding to use a nuclear weapon because they perceive to be under attack when they are not – is arguably even more likely. There is also always the unhinged leader, or one who may be drunk, or one who may be losing their mental acuity due to age or for other reasons. In the United States, nuclear weapon use authorization is in the hands of the President and the President only. That is quite simply a terrifying prospect even when we might have a reasonable leader in power.

The only way that the United States could be not just beaten, but destroyed in a war on its own soil, is if nuclear weapons are used to attack us. Such a prospect makes us totally and completely vulnerable and not just to Russia and China. We are also in danger from North Korea, which has an estimated 30 nuclear warheads that can reach every corner of the United States, enough to destroy our nation. The question of whether or not North Korea would also be destroyed in the course of such a war is irrelevant and would be of little comfort to the survivors. How do you spend on the order of a trillion dollars on the military every year (more than the next ten countries combined) and end up being vulnerable to a country that ranks 56th in population and among the bottom 10% of states in GDP per capita?

If a major responsibility of a government is to keep its people safe and secure, then a succession of US governments since 1945 has not done a very good job. This needs to change. But failure in the past does not mean we have to keep failing. There are steps we can take now to ensure that our nation does not go the way of empires of the past. Because this time, we could also take humanity along with us.

The following is a good start for how to get back on track.

First, we need to address the actual and potential conflicts that could lead to nuclear war, including Ukraine, Gaza, and Taiwan. The way to address them is to seek a common ground with the parties that ends or prevents the killing and starts the healing. In the case of Ukraine, we need to restore our promise not to expand NATO to Ukraine and encourage Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table before it’s too late for them and for us. In the case of Gaza, we need to demand, like Reagan did of Begin, that Israel stop killing women and children by the thousands and agree to pursue a permanent solution to the conflict that assures Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination. US funding to perpetuate or fuel war and violence must end. And when it comes to Taiwan, we need to not turn Taiwan into another Ukraine, but rather push for a dialogue that sets the stage for a peaceful conclusion to the decades-long question of Taiwan’s status, agreeable to both China and Taiwan.

As President Kennedy stated in his American University Commencement Address in 1963, we need “not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women.” This should be our goal for all regions of the world. It is most critical for conflicts that can result in the end of humanity as we know it.

Once peace and trust have been restored in current and potential conflicts involving nuclear weapon possessors, we need to get to the negotiating table ourselves, starting with Russia. We need to reinstate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which we left in 2002, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which we withdrew from in 2019. Next, we need to get our missile bases out of Romania and Poland and pursue a new agreement with Russia to end all nuclear sharing arrangements. This would involve getting US nuclear bombs out of Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey (and not putting them in the United Kingdom) and Russia removing theirs from Belarus. Finally, we need to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and call all of the nuclear weapon possessors to the table to finally abolish and eliminate nuclear weapons. The last task is the most difficult, but good leaders have done difficult things before and we can do it again. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.

This plan puts the selfish interests of the US first and completely ignores the moral and ethical reasons as to why we should lead the world in nuclear disarmament. Those include the fact that we were the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only one to ever use them in military attacks on cities full of children and other civilians, and that we wrote the script for the nuclear testing era, which has devastated people around the planet, including our own citizens and those we were meant to protect. But let’s leave those arguments to the peaceniks and focus on self-preservation, morality be damned.

Once we do all of this, we can turn to the ongoing global threats of climate change, emerging infectious diseases, AI, etc., as well as our own challenges at home, like income inequality, lack of universal health care, gun regulation, immigration, and more. That’s the other side of the nuclear weapons coin – the enormous amount of spending on these omnicidal weapons means that we don’t have money for addressing other existential threats, nor adequate social spending.

US leadership on nuclear disarmament is sorely needed to sustain our country and to keep the world whole.