There are many serious problems confronting humanity, including climate change, infectious diseases, poverty and pollution, but none poses a more pervasive and urgent threat than the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons. There are still some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Twelve thousand of these are deployed, and some 3,500 are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. Nuclear weapons are a delicately balanced “Sword of Damocles” hanging over our human future.

We have seemingly failed to learn the lessons made evident by the atomic destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nine nuclear weapons states remain poised to inflict such mind-numbing devastation again, but on a far greater scale. The current nuclear weapons states show no signs of giving up their reliance on nuclear weapons and, as a result, other states may seek to join the nuclear club. The spread of nuclear weapons to additional states will only increase the risks of nuclear catastrophe.

We are now in the seventh decade since nuclear weapons were created and used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the outset of the Nuclear Age, the world has witnessed an insane nuclear arms race, which has threatened the human species with annihilation. Despite the end of the Cold War more than 15 years ago, this threat has not gone away. The future of civilization and even the human species hangs in the balance, and yet, among the world’s major problems, very little attention is being paid to ending this threat. We are challenged, individually and collectively, to address and end this ultimate danger to humanity. This is surely one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we share a common responsibility to meet this challenge and pass the world on intact to the next generation.


Nuclear weapons unleash the power within the atom. The creation of these weapons demonstrated significant scientific achievement, but left humankind threatened as never before and 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 the creation of these weapons. “The unleashed power of the atom,” he stated, “has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein, who died in 1955, lived long enough to see the onset of the nuclear arms race and the development and testing of thermonuclear weapons.

By 1955, ten years after the first use of nuclear weapons, both the US and USSR had developed thermonuclear weapons, potentially thousands of times more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nuclear arms race had begun. The US and USSR had begun testing nuclear weapons on the lands and in the surrounding waters of indigenous and island peoples, demonstrating little concern for the health and well being of the native peoples affected. Along with philosopher Bertrand Russell, Einstein issued an appeal to humanity called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which was additionally signed also by nine other prominent scientists. The Manifesto stated: “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.” It was a stark warning.

Other warnings from highly credible sources throughout the Nuclear Age sought to put the world on notice of the peril nuclear weapons pose to humanity. Warnings came from soldiers and scientists, politicians and literary figures. A notable warning was issued by a high-level group of eminent personalities in 1996 in the Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The Report stated:

“The Canberra Commission is persuaded that immediate and determined efforts need to be made to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to it. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons is immense. Any use would be catastrophic.

“The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility. The only complete defense is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”

One of the members of the Canberra Commission was General George Lee Butler, who had served as the commander-in-chief of the United States Strategic Command. In this capacity General Butler had been in charge of all US strategic nuclear weapons. After retiring from the US Air Force, General Butler devoted himself to the abolition of nuclear weapons. He argued, “What is at stake here is our capacity to move ever higher the bar of civilized behavior. As long as we sanctify nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of conflict, we will have forever capped our capacity to live on this planet according to a set of ideals that value human life and eschew a solution that continues to hold acceptable the shearing away of entire societies. This simply is wrong. It is morally wrong, and it ultimately will be the death of humanity.”

In 2006, another expert commission, the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, also known as the Blix Commission after its chairman, former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, Hans Blix, issued a report, echoing the Canberra Commission Report. Referring to weapons of mass destruction, the Blix Commission 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.” The Blix Commission Report continued:

“The accumulated threat posed by the estimated 27,000 nuclear weapons, in Russia, the United States and the other NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] nuclear-weapon states, merits worldwide concern. However, especially in these five states the view is common that nuclear weapons from the first wave of proliferation somehow are tolerable, while such weapons in the hands of additional states are viewed as dangerous….

“The Commission rejects the suggestion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy. Governments possessing nuclear weapons can act responsibly or recklessly. Governments can also change over time. Twenty-seven thousand nuclear weapons are not an abstract theory. They exist in today’s world.”

In May 2007, the Founding Congress of the World Future Council issued “The Hamburg Call to Action.” In this document they warned: “Nuclear weapons remain humanity’s most immediate catastrophic threat. These weapons would destroy cities, countries, civilization and possibly humanity itself. The danger posed by nuclear weapons in any hands must be confronted directly and urgently through a new initiative for the elimination of these instruments of annihilation.”

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. Some 97 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. These must be the countries that lead the way, working with the seven other countries that also have nuclear weapons: the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. They must also work with the more than 35 nuclear capable countries that could choose to develop nuclear arsenals – countries that possess the technological capability of developing nuclear weapons. Some countries, such as Japan, are virtual nuclear powers, possessing the technology and nuclear materials to develop nuclear arsenals in weeks or months.

Awakening Humanity

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. This would, of course, 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?

Throughout the Cold War, humanity lived with the danger of Mutually Assured Destruction, which has the appropriate acronym of MAD. Today MAD has an additional meaning, Mutually Assured Delusions. It is delusional to think that nuclear weapons protect us. Despite the official justifications that nuclear weapons provide security, it should be clear to those who think about it 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. But belief in and of itself does not make a person or a society safe, certainly not from nuclear dangers. The belief itself is a well-promoted delusion.

The United States is currently spending tens of billions of dollars to develop a missile defense system, which its proponents argue is capable of defending against nuclear attacks by rogue states. 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 themselves are far from foolproof, and many experts believe that they will not work as promised in real-world conditions. In fact, most scientists not being paid by the missile defense program and the industry benefiting from it believe that missile defenses will not be reliable. Like the French Maginot Line, they are a defensive barrier that is unlikely to provide security. Missile defenses may be thought of as a “Maginot Line in the sky,” a highly touted and expensive defensive system with a very low probability of actually providing defense.

The Shortcomings of Deterrence

The United States government bases its need for nuclear weapons in the 21st century on deterrence. The US Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and State released a joint statement in July 2007, “National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century.” The statement begins, “A principal national security goal of the United States is to deter aggression against ourselves, our allies, and friends. Every American administration since President Truman’s day has formulated US national security policy in much the same terms, making clear to adversaries and allies alike the essential role that nuclear weapons play in maintaining deterrence.” What the statement fails to state is who is being deterred, why nuclear weapons are critical to deterrence, and whether the US wouldn’t make its citizens and the world safer by negotiating the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Reliance on deterrence is dangerous. Deterrence is a theory about human behavior and it has many shortcomings. For it to be effective, a threat of retaliation must be accurately communicated and it must be believed. Such a threat is likely to increase an opponent’s military might rather than to reduce conflict. In addition, deterrence won’t work when an opponent is suicidal or not locatable. This is surely the case against non-state extremist actors, groups such as al Qaeda.

Should Nuclear Weapons Confer Prestige?

If nuclear weapons cannot provide protection for a population, and almost certainly guarantee that a state possessing them will become a target of other states’ nuclear weapons, 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 idea was given credence by the large-scale celebrations in the streets of India and Pakistan when these two countries tested nuclear devices in 1998.

Even the capacity to make nuclear weapons by enriching uranium or separating plutonium appears to attract attention and is perceived to bestow prestige. Although there is no clear evidence that Iran seeks to develop nuclear arms, its uranium enrichment program has brought it under intense international scrutiny. This is reflective of current nuclear double standards, in which some countries, such as Iran, are highly criticized for developing nuclear technology, while others, such as India, seem to increase their status in the international community for having developed and tested nuclear weapons.

Reflecting the positive view of his country’s nuclear capacity, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil stated in July 2007, “Brazil could rank among those few nations in the world with a command of uranium enrichment technology, and I think we will be more highly valued as a nation – as the power we wish to be.”

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

Weapons of the Weak

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 labeled 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 negotiated with North Korea, which has tested long-range missiles and is believed to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons.

From the perspective of a powerful state, even one heavily armed with nuclear weapons, the worst nightmare would be for nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of a non-state extremist organization, 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. It could only hope to be able to prevent al Qaeda from obtaining a nuclear weapon or the materials to create one, or locate and destroy the weapon before it was detonated.

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, there is a reasonable likelihood that nuclear weapons will eventually end up in the hands of non-state extremist 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 or small cabals. The president of the United States, for example, could send the world spiraling into nuclear holocaust with an 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 and their delivery system are also extremely expensive. The US alone has spent over $6 trillion since the onset of the Nuclear Age. The Soviet Union bankrupted itself and broke apart after engaging in a nuclear arms race with the United States for over 40 years. The funds currently expended for nuclear arsenals could be used far more constructively.

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 aged; the healthy and the infirm; men, women and children. Viewed from this perspective, these weapons must be seen 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 distraught that the US used these weapons against Japan. Truman’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, for example, wrote this about the use of atomic weapons on Japan: “My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we 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.”

Humanity Has a Choice

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 extremist organizations. Ultimately, it will lead to their use. Richard Garwin, a leading US atomic scientist who helped develop thermonuclear weapons, believes that there is a 20 percent per year probability of nuclear weapons being used on a US or European city. This is a dangerous probability. The alternative is to pursue the path of eliminating nuclear weapons.

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 scant 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 creation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty setting forth a program for the phased and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons with appropriate means 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 leaders of nuclear weapons states. To achieve the requisite political will, the citizens of the nuclear weapons states, and particularly of the United States, must make their voices heard.

A Special Responsibility, A Tragic Failure

The United States, as the world’s most powerful country and the only country to have used 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; withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue missile defenses, space weaponization and increased military dominance; 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, in its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review the US called for contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, five of which were at the time thought to be non-nuclear weapons states.

It is tragic 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 or to accept the logic of Mutually Assured Delusions.

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 civilization. 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 our major cities 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 clever and 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. Our human 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. Our responsibility extends not only to each other and to the future, but to preserve and protect the rich legacy we have received from the past – from Socrates to Shakespeare; from Homer to Hemingway; from Beethoven to the Beatles; from Michelangelo to Monet.

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 management of power by the nuclear-armed states 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; citizens must lead their political leaders.

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. Fifty years ago, 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. But we must ask: How do we educate young people to care and to believe that they can make a difference in what must seem an often indifferent and terribly dangerous world? How do we empower young people to live with integrity as citizens of the world and press for the changes that are needed to assure their future?

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 to eliminate nuclear dangers cannot be left to governments alone. For the most part, governments have failed to come to grips with the nuclear dangers that threaten humanity. Most governments have not even tried. They have lived with double standards, engaged in insane nuclear arms races, lived under “nuclear umbrellas,” and continued to rely upon nuclear weapons against the security interests of their own people.

It is up to each of us to play a role. What can we do? There is no panacea, no magic wand. Change requires recognizing that this is not someone else’s problem, but a shared problem of humanity. It requires rolling up our sleeves and becoming active.

I have five suggestions for those who would like to contribute to ending the nuclear threat to humanity. First, become better informed. You can do this by visiting the website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at as well as many other informative websites focused on nuclear disarmament. Second, speak out, wherever you are. You can raise these issues with your family, friends, and other people around you. Third, join an organization working to abolish nuclear weapons, and help it to become more successful. By becoming active in an organization working for nuclear disarmament you can help the outreach and effectiveness of the effort. 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. Even if desired results don’t come about quickly, we must remain committed and not give up.

By 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.

[Please note this related upcoming event: “The Challenge of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons” Conference, San Francisco, September 8-9.]
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( and a councilor on the World Future Council.