There are many serious problems confronting humanity, but none looms larger than the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons. We have entered the seventh decade since nuclear weapons were created and used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During this period, the world has witnessed an insane nuclear arms race, in which the human species was threatened with annihilation. Despite the end of the Cold War more than 15 years ago, the threat has not gone away. The future of civilization, even the human species, hangs in the balance, and yet very little attention is paid to ending this threat. We are challenged, individually and collectively, to end this ultimate danger to humanity.


Nuclear weapons unleash the power inside the atom. The creation of these weapons demonstrated significant scientific achievement, but left humankind faced with the challenge of what to do with them. Albert Einstein, whose theoretical understanding of the relationship of energy and mass paved the way for nuclear weapons, was deeply troubled by their creation. “The unleashed power of the atom,” he prophesied, “has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

By 1955, ten years after the first use of nuclear weapons, both the US and USSR had developed thermonuclear weapons, thousands of times more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they had begun testing these weapons on the lands of indigenous peoples. Einstein continued his dire warnings. Along with philosopher Bertrand Russell, an appeal to humanity was issued called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, signed also by nine other prominent scientists. They wrote: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Other warnings from highly credible sources throughout the Nuclear Age sought to put the world on notice of the peril nuclear weapons posed to humanity. The most recent warning came from the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, also known as the Blix Commission after its chairman, former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, Hans Blix. Referring to weapons of mass destruction, the 2006 report stated: “So long as any state has such weapons – especially nuclear arms – others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain in any state’s arsenal, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. Any such use would be catastrophic.”

With the serious dangers that nuclear weapons pose to the human future, it is curious that so many warnings, over so long a period of time, have gone unheeded. There are still some 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Some 97 percent of these are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Seven other countries also have nuclear weapons: the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. There are also countries such as Japan that are virtual nuclear powers, possessing the technology and nuclear materials to develop nuclear arsenals in days or weeks.

What will it take to awaken humanity, and change its course? Many people think that this will not happen until there is another catastrophic use of nuclear weapons, but this would be an immense tragedy and a great failure of imagination. If we can imagine that another nuclear catastrophe is possible, shouldn’t we act now to prevent it?

Nuclear weapons are often justified as providing security for their possessors. But it is clear that nuclear weapons themselves cannot provide protection in the sense of physical security. At best, they can provide psychological security if one believes that they provide a deterrent against attack. The United States is currently spending tens of billions of dollars to develop a missile defense system. The only reasonable interpretation of this expenditure is that US defense planners understand that deterrence is not foolproof and that it can fail. Of course, missile defenses are far from foolproof as well and can also easily fail. In fact, most scientists not being paid by the missile defense program believe that missile defenses will fail.

The Shortcomings of Deterrence

Deterrence has many shortcomings. For it to be effective, the threat must be accurately communicated and it must be believed. In addition, the opponent must care about the threat enough to alter its behavior. Deterrence won’t work when the threat is unbelievable, or when the opponent is suicidal or not locatable.

If nuclear weapons cannot provide protection for a population, what other advantages do they offer? One possible answer to this question is prestige. Since the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council all developed nuclear weapons, it may seem to other states that nuclear weapons would contribute to their prestige in the world. This thought was given credence by the large-scale celebrations in the streets of India and Pakistan when these two countries tested nuclear devices in 1998.

Whatever prestige nuclear weapons may confer comes with a heavy price. Nuclear weapons are costly and possessing them will almost certainly make a country the target of nuclear weapons.

It seems reasonable to conclude that nuclear weapons serve the interests of the weak more than they do the powerful. In the hands of a relatively weak nation, nuclear weapons can serve as an equalizer. One has only to look at the difference in the way the US has treated the three countries that Mr. Bush incorrectly labelled as being part of an axis of evil: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The US invaded Iraq on the false charge of having a nuclear weapons program, is threatening Iran for enriching uranium, but has done little but bluster about North Korea, which is thought to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and recently tested long-range missiles, adding to the anxiety of many of its potential enemies.

From the perspective of a powerful state, the worst nightmare would be for nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of non-state terrorist organizations, whose members were both suicidal and not locatable. This could create the ideal conditions for these weapons to be used against a major nuclear power or another state. The US, for example, would be relatively helpless against a nuclear-armed al Qaeda. The US would not be able to deter al Qaeda. Its only hope would be to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon or the materials to create one.

Why Abolish Nuclear Weapons?

Nuclear weapons undermine security. Under current circumstances, with so many nuclear weapons in the world and such an abundance of fissile materials for constructing nuclear weapons, the likelihood is that nuclear weapons will eventually end up in the hands of non-state terrorist organizations. This would be a disastrous scenario for the world’s most powerful counties, opening the door to possible nuclear 9/11s.

In addition, nuclear weapons are anti-democratic. They concentrate power in the hands of single individuals. The president of the United States, for example, could send the world spiraling into nuclear holocaust with just one order to unleash the US nuclear arsenal. The undemocratic nature of nuclear weapons should be of great concern to those who value democracy and the participation of citizens in decisions that affect their lives.

Nuclear weapons should also be viewed in terms of their consequences. They are long-range weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction. They destroy equally civilians and combatants, infants and the infirm, men and women. Viewed from this perspective, these weapons must be viewed as among the most cowardly ever created. By their possession, with the implicit threat of use that possession implies, nuclear weapons also destroy the souls of those who rely upon them.

They are a coward’s weapon and their possession, threat and use is dishonorable. This was the conclusion of virtually all of the top military leaders of World War II, most of whom were morally devastated that the US used these weapons against Japan. Truman’s Chief of Staff William Leahy, for example, wrote about the use of atomic weapons on Japan: “I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Humanity still has a choice, in fact, it is the same choice posed in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. We can choose to eliminate nuclear weapons or risk the elimination of the human species. A continuation of the status quo, of reliance by some states on nuclear arsenals, is likely to result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons to others states and to terrorist organizations. The alternative is the elimination of nuclear weapons.

What Would It Take?

What would it take to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons? On the one hand, the answer to this question is “very little.” On the other hand, because of the resistance, complacency and myopia of the leaders of the nuclear weapons states, the answer may be a “great amount.”

To move forward with the elimination of nuclear weapons would require compliance with existing international law. The International Court of Justice concluded in 1996: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” In the decade since the Court announced its opinion, there has been little evidence of “good faith” negotiations by the nuclear weapons states moving toward any reasonable conclusion.

The negotiations that the Court describes as an obligation of the nuclear weapons states would need to move toward the end a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty setting forth a program for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons with appropriate measures of verification. With the political will to pursue these required negotiations, a treaty would not be a difficult task to achieve. What is lacking is the requisite political will on the part of the nuclear weapons states.

A Special Responsibility, A Tragic Failure

The United States, as the world’s most powerful country and the only country to use nuclear weapons in warfare, has a special responsibility to lead in fulfilling its obligations under international law. In fact, without US leadership, it is unlikely that progress will be possible toward nuclear disarmament. But rather than lead in this direction, the United States under the Bush administration has been the major obstacle to nuclear disarmament. It has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue dreams of “star wars,” has opposed a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and in general has acted as an obstacle to progress on all matters of nuclear disarmament.

The US has also pursued a double standard with regard to nuclear weapons. It has been silent on Israeli nuclear weapons, and now seeks to change its own non-proliferation laws to enable it to provide nuclear technology and materials to India, a country that has not joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has developed a nuclear arsenal. At the same time, the US has developed contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, five of which are non-nuclear weapons states, despite giving assurances that it would not use nuclear weapons against such states.

What is tragic is that the American people don’t seem to grasp the seriousness of their government’s failure. They are lacking in education that would lead to an understanding of the situation. Their attention has been diverted to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and they fail to see what is closest to home: the failure of their own government to lead in a constructive and lawful manner to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. “And thus,” in Einstein’s words, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

To bring about real change in nuclear policy, people must begin with a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and then they must speak out as if their lives and the lives of their children depended on their actions. It is unlikely that governments will give up powerful weapons on their own accord. They must be pushed by their citizenry – citizens unwilling to continue to run the risk of nuclear holocaust.

A New Story

We need a new story for considering nuclear dangers, a story that begins with the long struggle of humans over some three million years to arrive at our present state of society. That state is far from perfect, but few would suggest that it should be sacrificed on the altar of weapons of mass annihilation capable of reducing civilization to rubble.

The first humans lived short and brutal lives. They were both predators and preyed upon. They survived by their nimbleness, more of body than mind, doing well if they lived into their twenties. Enough early humans were able to protect and nurture their infants in their hazardous environments that some of the children of each generation could survive to an age when they could themselves reproduce and repeat the cycle.

Without these amazingly capable early ancestors, and those that followed who met the distinct challenges of their times and environments for many hundreds of thousands of generations, we would not be here. Each of our ancestors needed to survive the perils of birth, infancy, childhood and at least early maturity in order for each of us to have made it into the world.

On the basis of the pure physical capacity to survive, we owe a debt to our ancestors, but with this debt comes something more. We each have a responsibility for helping to assure the chain of human survival that passes the world on intact to the next generation. In addition to this, we share an obligation to preserve the accumulated wisdom and beauty created by those who have walked the earth before us – the ideas of the great storytellers and philosophers, the great music, literature and art, the artifacts of humankind’s collective genius in its varied forms.

All of the manifestations of human genius and triumph are placed in jeopardy by nuclear weapons and the threat of their use. Why do we tolerate this threat? Why are we docile in the face of policies that could end not only humanity, but life itself?

Those of us alive today are the gatekeepers to the future, but the assumption of power by the state has left us vulnerable to the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. The only way to be free of this threat is to be free of nuclear weapons. This is the greatest challenge of our time. It will require education so that people can learn to think about nuclear weapons and war in a new way. We will need organizational modes of collective action to bring pressure to bear on governments to achieve nuclear disarmament. Ordinary people must lead from below.

The Role of Citizens

Organizations working for nuclear disarmament – such as the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Abolition 2000, the Middle Powers Initiative and the Mayors for Peace – can help give shape to efforts to put pressure on governments. But the change that is needed cannot be the sole responsibility of interest groups. Without the intervention of large numbers of people, we will go on with business as usual, a course that seems likely to lead to nuclear proliferation and further catastrophic uses of nuclear weapons. This is not a distant problem, nor one that can be shunted aside and left to governments.

We who have entered the 21st century are not exempt from responsibility for assuring a human future. Japanese Buddhist leader Josei Toda called for young people to take the lead in pursuing nuclear disarmament. His proposal has great merit given the fact that it is their future and the future of their children that is imperiled by these weapons.

Change occurs one person at a time. Each of us must take responsibility for creating a world free of nuclear threat. Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead offered this hopeful advice: “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In the end, the necessary changes cannot be left to governments alone. It is up to each of us. What can we do? I have five suggestions. First, become better informed. You can do this by visiting the website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at Second, speak out, wherever you are. Talk to your family, friends, and other people around you. Third, join an organization working to abolish nuclear weapons, and help it to become successful. Fourth, use your unique talents. Each of us has special talents that can help make a difference. Use them. Fifth, be persistent. This is a tough job requiring strength and persistence.

In working for peace and a world free of nuclear weapons, you can be a force for saving the world. Being a nuclear weapons abolitionist will require all the courage and commitment of those who worked in the 19th century for the abolition of slavery. Abolishing slavery was the challenge of that time; abolishing nuclear weapons is the even more consequential challenge of our time

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is a leader in the global effort for a world free of nuclear weapons.