The Nuclear Elephant in the Room: Why No One Talks About the U.S. Nuclear Threat

By |2013-02-13T22:43:53-08:00February 9, 2007|

Imagine a scene where a family is anxiously gathered in their living room to discuss a growing problem with their neighbors. It seems that one of their more troublesome neighbors has been threatening them, and lately set off a large explosion to validate the threat. Yet another of their neighbors has been threatening them with malicious mischief, and making ingredients for high-explosives in blatant contempt for the law. The neighborhood is in danger of spinning out of control. Several neighbors have been actively making and demonstrating explosives in contempt of the neighborhood’s determination to disallow such dangerous and threatening activities.

The family discussion centers on what to do about these aggravating neighbors, and several strategies are on the table. One suggests legal action to confiscate or render the neighbors’ high-explosives inoperative. Another suggests a punitive stealth attack to ruin the neighbors’ explosives making capabilities. These strategies involve serious risks, because existing laws prohibiting the creation of high-explosives may not be applied or obeyed, and any one-sided attacks will demand extreme measures that will implicate the family in illegal violence. The family has importantly decided that it cannot speak to these troublemakers directly, but must rely on other neighbors to negotiate an acceptable surrender from their foes. The situation is at an impasse.

In our imaginary scene, one brave family member chimes in to remind everyone that this family is the original inventor and user of the high-explosives in question. Not only that, the family has, on numerous occasions, demonstrated its neighbor-threatening destructive capabilities by exploding scary weapons, first in the atmosphere and then below ground, in public displays designed to intimidate. The family has built and hoarded an enormous hidden arsenal of high-explosives that no one, even most family members themselves, is allowed to know about or discuss. The not-so-secret past of this family, our courageous protagonist reminds, includes the well-known destruction of two of their neighbor’s homes, and the incessant, often-exhibited threat of destroying the entire neighborhood at their whim. He suggests that, just perhaps, the threatening posture of his own family may have created the situation with the neighbors, and by admitting and changing its behavior the family may finally win a much desired peace in the neighborhood.

These brave observations, instead of presenting an eye-opening epiphany to the family, are greeted with silence, then derision, and then outright criticism. The brave observer is now regarded as a traitor. His assertions are unwelcome and prohibited from discussion. Family members whisper that he must have gone crazy, or that his idealism has gotten the better of him, or that he has a secret agenda to destroy the family.

No one will acknowledge the truth — that the threat now posed by their neighbors originates with this family and is perpetuated by their own exclusive-minded threatening. This truth is the obvious and commanding reality that cannot be discussed, the proverbial “elephant in the room”. The family behaves as if this prominent actuality doesn’t matter and, for solving their current problem with the neighbors, they regard it as irrelevant.

Before we leave this too-obvious analogy, it should be mentioned that the family has currently concluded the sale of its explosives-making technology to another neighbor it regards as “friendly”. In the past, the family has encouraged and helped several of its “friends” to make and store high-explosives, despite the overwhelming consensus of the neighborhood — including generations of this family — that such explosives are dangerous and unwelcome. The utter hypocrisy and immorality of such activities is lost on the family members, who cannot discuss or even acknowledge the “elephant in the room”.

Unfortunately, this analogy is not a mere abstraction. The Bush Administration has imposed its famous love of secrecy on all matters pertaining to U.S. production, storage, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The American people, whose “security” is asserted as the reason for the enormous U.S. nuclear arsenal, are now prohibited from knowing about the size, content, deployment, or status of this world-threatening arsenal built in their name, even in historic terms. (Note 1)

The imposition of a secretive “security” regime regarding nuclear weapons is nothing new. It has been employed since the beginning of the nuclear age to both ensure the unfettered development of nuclear weapons and to silence knowledgeable critics. One only has to regard the history of Robert Oppenheimer’s purge from the nuclear establishment, or the sneering persecution of Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, to understand the current reluctance of scientists and media professionals to speak openly about the threat implied by American nuclear weapons. The nuclear “security” regime is notoriously good at keeping its secrets, oversensitive to criticism, and vindictive towards its critics.

Nevertheless, over decades of daunting challenges, the persistent efforts of anti-nuclear advocates finally brought the United States, in 1968, to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and embrace its vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. With its endorsement of the treaty, the United States acknowledged its responsibility to cease proliferating, and to negotiate “in good faith” for the elimination nuclear weapons from the world. The achievements of the NPT have largely been ignored and abandoned by Bush II’s Administration. (Note 2)

The recent demonstration of nuclear capabilities by North Korea, and the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons implied by Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, have laid bare the sanctimony and bad faith of the United States in its nuclear proliferation policies.

Although the single nuclear explosion recently orchestrated by North Korea stands in stark contrast to the 1,054 nuclear tests conducted by the United States, none of our political leaders seem able to grasp the contradiction inherent in their stern admonishments that North Korea’s nuclear explosions are illegal, immoral, and must not be allowed.

In the sensationalized U.S. media reports surrounding the North Korean nuclear explosion, scant mention is made of the numerous U.S. nuclear weapons targeting Pyongyang. Even though North Korea has demanded that such U.S. threats cease as a prerequisite for meaningful talks about abandoning their nuclear weapons program, the posture of the Bush II administration is that the threat posed by American nuclear weapons is inviolable and cannot be negotiated, even as a topic of discussion. Although President Bush allowed himself to say that U.S. policy sought “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”, no admission or explanation of the United States’ role in amplifying nuclear tensions there has been forthcoming.

The uranium enrichment activities undertaken by Iran, ostensibly for “peaceful” nuclear power generation, are the source of urgent diplomatic threatening. Iran, a NPT signatory, has endorsed, defended, and offered to strengthen the NPT. Nevertheless, the Bush II administration’s profitable sale of nuclear enrichment technology to India, with no credible pretense that such technology will be used for “peaceful” purposes, is lauded as a wonderful step forward in U.S./India relations. India has steadfastly refused to sign or endorse the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.S. Congress, which approved the deal, is, again, unable to make the link between the proliferation of nuclear technology to India and U.S. obligations under the NPT. The impending threat posed by Iran’s disdain for international opinion and obligations under the very same treaty is regarded as an international crisis, demanding sanctions or worse; while the sale of nuclear enrichment technology to India, a nuclear “rogue state” in NPT terms, is regarded as a blessing.

There is a black-out in effect for the U.S. news media regarding the number one contention of the Iranians regarding their nuclear ambitions — that their sworn enemy, Israel, has, for decades secretly built and amassed nuclear weapons to threaten the region, especially Iran. The furtive secret of Israel’s nuclear capabilities has been hypocritically approved by, and may even have been abetted by, the United States. The U.S., following Israel’s policy, has staunchly denied the existence of well-known Israeli nuclear capabilities, and prevents any discussion of this important concealment in international forums or Arab/Israeli negotiations. Israel has never signed, and does not endorse, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On Bush’s watch, “atomic weapons have been revalued – not quite to the point of legitimacy, perhaps, but certainly upward, as sources of influence, national pride, and anti-American defiance.” The posture of this Administration regards the NPT as irrelevant, and argues, “it is time to embrace an updated system of the deterrence and threats of massive retaliation that prevailed during the Cold War.”

The solution to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation is to engage the imagination and will of the world’s people who stand to win their future, or lose it catastrophically, depending on the outcome of the project of making nuclear weapons illegitimate. These “people” are not only North Korean dictators or Iranian zealots, Russians, Israelis, or Pakistanis, but United States citizens. The international project of making nuclear weapons illegitimate — active since the first days of the Nuclear Age — is currently embodied in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The unique position of the United States, as both the inventor, single user, and chief propagator of these world-threatening weapons, makes this nation especially responsible to ensure that they are never used again.

Until Americans can recognize our own role in this dangerous situation, and come fully and honestly to grips with our responsibility to change our own awareness and behavior, “the elephant in the room” will continue to prevent any meaningful change. To turn away from this responsibility, to continue to erode the decades of positive work manifested in the NPT, to willingly fail in our critical duty, would be far more irrational and irresponsible than any calculation made by North Korea or Iran. It is time to acknowledge the brave and discerning actions of those who seek to bring the people and government of the United States, reluctant though they may be, to an honest recognition of their own accountability.

It is time to challenge all the citizens of the world to stop denying it is we ourselves who created this life-threatening situation and perpetuate it; and it is also we who have the power and ability to change it. If we can simply awaken to our true responsibility, “the elephant in the room” will disappear –really, and not just by our denying it. Only by changing ourselves can we hope to change the world.


1. NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE (Vol. 12, #33; 24 August 2006): According to a report released in August, 2006 by the National Security Archive (NSA), the Pentagon and the Energy Department have reclassified as national security secrets historical data relating to the size of the American nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
The NSA report details for the public the number of Minuteman missiles (1,000), Titan II missiles (54), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (656) in the historic U.S. Cold War arsenal – information that had previously been public through the administrations of four Secretaries of Defense in the 1960s and 70s but is now blacked out. Security classifiers have also redacted from documents deployment information relating to the number of American nuclear weapons in Great Britain and Germany — information that was first declassified in 1999. Also blacked out — details regarding the nuclear deployment arrangements with Canada, even though the Canadian government has declassified its side of the arrangement.

2. Consider the sanctions imposed under the authority of the NPT, and the real accomplishments of its police force, the IAEA, in Iraq, where, after years of a rigorous inspection regime, and in spite of militant arguments by the Bush Administration to the contrary, Iraq was found to be free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

3. Coll, Steve (October 23 2006). “Nuke Rebuke”. The New Yorker, p 31.

4. Ibid.

James Dinwiddie is a member of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.