We have to look reality in its ugly face. The drive for the elimination of nuclear weapons is not going well; indeed, it is going very badly. The campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons, pursued by INES, Pugwash and many other organizations, has not only come to a halt, but the use of these weapons may become a routine part of military strategy, according to the recently disclosed Nuclear Posture Review.

What is all the more worrying is the loss of support from the general public. This is evident, for example, from the results of a public opinion poll in the UK, which has been conducted systematically, every month, for the last 20 years. The graph presents the combined response to two questions: (1) What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today? (2) What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today? At one time, over 40 per cent put nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons as the most important issues, but the percentage of such answers decreased rapidly, and ever since the end of the Cold War has remained very low, at about 1 per cent. I do not have corresponding statistics for other countries, but from various indicators it would appear that the response in the US would be similar. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great majority of the people came to the belief that either the nuclear threat has disappeared altogether, or that the deterrent effect of existing nuclear arsenals will take care of the threat. Neither of these beliefs is justified, as should be obvious today, when two nuclear powers are poised for a military showdown over Kashmir.

To me the situation is reminiscent of that I experienced 40 years ago, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I do hope that, like that crisis, it will be resolved without a nuclear exchange. Should such a nuclear exchange happen, however, with the inevitable immense loss of life, hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, there would be such an upsurge of public opinion, that an agreement on the elimination of nuclear weapons would soon be reached.

My question is, why, oh why, do we have to wait for such a disaster to actually happen? Why could we not use our imagination, to take these steps now, to prevent it happening?

Clearly, we have not succeeded in putting this over to the public. I do not wish to diminish the past achievements of anti-nuclear organizations. Although it is impossible to provide concrete proof, I am convinced that these organizations deserve some credit for the fact that a nuclear war has been avoided so far. Mikhail Gorbachev told us so directly, but we cannot rest on past successes. Our job has not been done; and, although the prospects are bleak, we must pick ourselves up and resume our campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In this paper I am urging the renewal of a mass campaign, and I propose that it be based mainly on judicial and moral principles.

The revelations in the Nuclear Posture Review shocked us: it abandons the previous doctrine of nuclear weapons being viewed as weapons of last resort, and spells out a strategy which incorporates nuclear capability into conventional war planning. It is a major and dangerous shift in the whole rationale for nuclear weapons.

Actually, the revelations in the NPR should not have come as such a surprise. They are obviously much influenced by the events of September 11th, but in reality they are an egregious expression of the policy that has been pursued covertly by the United States ever since, or even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in contradiction to the official line of pursuing nuclear disarmament.

At the core of this duplicitous and hypocritical policy is the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Ironically, it was introduced by the scientists who initiated the atom bomb project.

The scientists in the UK who initiated the research ss myself among them — were humanitarian scientists: we pursued scientific research for its own sake but with the underlying expectation that it would be used for the benefit of humankind. The thought of working on a weapon of mass destruction would have been abhorrent to us in normal circumstances. But the circumstances were not normal: we knew that a war was imminent, a war between democracy and the worst type of totalitarianism, and we were afraid that it the bomb could be made, and was developed in Germany, it would enable Hitler to win the war and impose on the world the evil Nazi regime. At the time we thought that the only way to prevent this happening would be for us — the Western Allies — also to have the bomb and threaten its use in retaliation. I developed the concept of nuclear deterrence in the summer of 1939, even before the start of World War II.

It took me a little while to appreciate the fallacy of the deterrence concept. Our aim was to prevent the use of the atom bomb by anybody; we hoped that the threat of using it in retaliation would do the trick. This might have worked with a rational leader, but Hitler was not rational. I am convinced, though cannot prove it, that if Hitler had had the bomb, the last order from his bunker in Berlin, would have been to drop it on London, in the full knowledge that this would bring terrible retribution upon Germany. This would have been in the spirit of his philosophy of Götterdämmerung.

At it happened, this thesis was never put to the test: Hitler was defeated by conventional weapons, before the atom bomb was manufactured in the United States. But the fact remains that the concept of nuclear deterrence was used from the very beginning, and has been with us ever since. Its variant, extended deterrence, i.e. the threat to use nuclear weapons even against a non-nuclear attack, is — in my opinion — the greatest obstacle to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

By July 1945, when the first bomb was ready for testing, many scientists who initiated the Project were strongly opposed, on moral grounds, to the use of the bomb on civilian populations. They used this moral argument in their petitions to the US President and government.

The petitions were rejected. The politicians and the military leaders had their own ideas about the bomb; moral scruples hardly figured in them. The desire to bring the war to an end was undoubtedly an important factor, but perhaps even more important was to demonstrate to the world — and, particularly, to the Soviet Union — the newly acquired military might of the United States, and this required such use of the bomb that would utilize its devastating power to the maximum effect.

That the Soviet Union was thought of as the main enemy became evident soon after the end of the War, but I personally happened to find this out much earlier, directly from the mouth of General Leslie Groves, the head of the whole Manhattan Project. In a casual conversation, at a private dinner in Los Alamos which I attended, he said: “You realize, of course, that the main purpose of the Project is to subdue the Russians.” The date of this event, March 1944, is significant. This was the time when the Russians were our allies, in the common fight against Hitler. Thousands of Russians were dying every day, holding back the German forces at Stalingrad, and giving time for the Allies to prepare for the landing in France.

Two months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in October 1945, General Groves outlined his views on the US policy on nuclear weapons in a blunt statement:

“If we were truly realistic instead of idealistic, as we appear to be (sic), we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied, and in which we do not have absolute confidence, to make or possess atomic weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons we would destroy its capacity to make them before it has progressed far enough to threaten us.”

Fifty-seven years later, this realism is spelled out in the NPR.

The “idealistic” sentiment lamented by General Groves was the worldwide reaction to the destruction of the two Japanese cities, a reaction of revulsion, shared by the great majority of people in the United States. From the beginning, nuclear weapons were viewed with abhorrence; a moral stand that evoked an almost universal opposition to any use of nuclear weapons; I believe this is still true today. This feeling found expression in the United Nations in the very first resolution of its General Assembly. The Charter of the United Nations was adopted in June 1945, two months before Hiroshima, and thus no provision is made for the nuclear age in the Charter. But when the General Assembly met for the first time in January 1946, the first resolution, adopted unanimously, was to set up a Commission, whose terms of reference were to:

“… proceed with the utmost despatch and enquire into all phases of the problem, and … make specific proposals … for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

The United States government could not openly oppose this objective, but it tried its best to kybosh it. The campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons began in the United States immediately after Hiroshima and was spearheaded by the scientists from the Manhattan Project. They set up working parties which studied specific proposals for the control of atomic energy in all its aspects. The outcome was the so-called Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which recommended the creation of an International Atomic Development Authority with the power to control, inspect and licence all nuclear activities; it also made specific proposals, such as:

“Manufacture of atomic bombs shall stop;

Existing bombs shall be disposed of pursuant to the terms of the treaty.”

The Acheson-Lilienthal Report was the basis for the Baruch Plan which expounded the official stand of the US Government, and was presented to the UN Atomic Energy Commission, in June 1946.

It began in apocalyptic language:

“We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead. That is our business.

Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which, seized upon with faith, can work our salvation. If we fail, then we have damned every man to be the slave of Fear. Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect World Peace or World Destruction.”

Fine words, strong sentiments, but alas not followed by deeds.

The Baruch Plan incorporated certain conditions to the treaty which were obviously designed to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union, such as the removal of the right of veto by the permanent members of the Security Council. And sure enough, the Baruch Plan was rejected by the Soviets and the UN Atomic Energy Commission ended in failure.

This pattern of dissembling has characterized the nuclear policy of the United States government ever since. On the one hand, the US government feels obliged to pay lip-service to the policy of nuclear disarmament leading to the abolition of nuclear weapons, bowing to the pressure of world opinion expressed in resolutions adopted year after year by large majorities of the United Nations General Assembly. This has led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which all but four members of the United Nations are now parties. Under the terms of the NPT, the 182 non-nuclear countries have undertaken not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the five overt nuclear states have undertaken to get rid of theirs. There was some ambiguity in the formulation of the relevant Article VI of the NPT, which provided the hawks with an excuse for the retention of nuclear weapons until general and complete disarmament had been achieved. But — again under pressure of public opinion — this ambiguity was removed two years ago in a statement issued after the 2000 NPT Review Conference. This statement, signed by all five nuclear-weapon states, contains the following:

“…an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.”

Thus, the United States and the other official nuclear states — China, France, Russia and the UK — are formally and unequivocally committed to the elimination of all nuclear arsenals. The creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world is a legal commitment by all signatories of the NPT.

On the other hand, there is the de facto nuclear strategy of extended deterrence, which implies the indefinite existence of nuclear arsenals.

Since the end of the Cold War, the actual US nuclear strategy has been increasingly orientated towards the use of nuclear weapons, along the lines originally advocated by General Groves. Immediately after the end of the Cold War, the US policy, supported by many NATO countries, envisaged the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort only; this means against an attack with nuclear arms. But the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, under the Clinton Administration, for the first time made explicit mention of the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. The current Nuclear Posture Review goes further still, it makes nuclear weapons the tool with which to keep peace in the world.

If this is the purpose of nuclear weapons, then these weapons will be needed as long as disputes are settled by recourse to military confrontations, in other words, as long as war is a recognized social institution. Such a policy is unacceptable in a civilized society on many grounds: logical, political, military, legal, and ethical. In this paper I am mainly concerned with the last two, legal and moral.

US nuclear policy is self-defeating on logical grounds. If some nations — including the most powerful militarily — say that they need nuclear weapons for their security, then such security cannot be denied to other countries which really feel insecure. Proliferation of nuclear weapons is thus the logical consequence of the US nuclear policy. The USA and its allies cannot prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other countries while retaining them for themselves. The policy of extended deterrence undermines the non-proliferation policy.

There is yet a further aspect of the logical argument which strikes at the very basis of deterrence. This is the assumption that both sides in a dispute think and behave rationally; that they are capable of a realistic assessment of the risks entailed in a contemplated action. This would not be the case with irrational leaders. I mentioned this earlier in relation to Hitler. Even a rational leader may behave irrationally in a war situation, facing defeat; or may be pushed into irrational action by mass hysteria, or when incited by religious fanaticism or nationalistic fervour. This is exactly the situation facing us today. Deterrence would certainly not apply to terrorists, who have no respect for the sanctity of human life.

The policy of extended deterrence is unacceptable on political grounds. It is highly discriminatory in that it allows a few nations — in practice, one nation — to usurp to themselves certain rights, such as policing the world by imposing sanctions on nuclear proliferators, or directly threatening them with military action: such action should be the prerogative of the United Nations. Indeed, it goes against the very purpose of the United Nations, an organization set up specifically for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The policy of extended deterrence also means a permanent polarization of the world, with some nations being offered protection by a powerful nuclear state; while others may be protected by another nuclear state, or have no protection at all.

The policy is not credible on military grounds in relation to terrorist attacks. As the events of September 11th have shown, a major threat to security comes from terrorist groups, a threat which includes the use of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. The thousands of nuclear weapons still in the arsenals are useless against terrorists for the simple reason that terrorist groups do not usually present an identifiable target, unless the killing of thousands of innocent people is seen as collateral damage and thus acceptable. At the same time, the very existence in the world of nuclear weapons, or nuclear-weapon-grade materials, increases the threat, because these materials may be acquired by the terrorists, in one way or another.

Extended deterrence is unacceptable on legal grounds. The United States, together with 186 other nations, that is 98 per cent of the UN membership, have signed and ratified the NPT. After the clarification at the 2000 Review Conference, the situation is perfectly clear: the policy of extended deterrence, which requires the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons, is in direct breach of the legally binding Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a sine qua non of a civilized society that nations fulfil their legal commitments and adhere to international treaties.

But above all, the nuclear deterrent is not acceptable on ethical grounds. The whole concept of nuclear deterrence is based on the belief that the threat of retaliation is real, that nuclear weapons would be used against an act of aggression; otherwise, the bluff would soon be called. George W. Bush must show convincingly that he has the kind of personality that would enable him to push the button and unleash an instrument of wholesale destruction, harming not only the alleged aggressor but mainly innocent people, and potentially imperilling the whole of our civilization. I find it terrifying to think that among the necessary qualifications for leadership is the readiness to commit an act of genocide, because this is what it amounts to in the final analysis. Furthermore, by acquiescing in this policy, not only the President, but each of us, figuratively, keeps our finger on the button; each of us is taking part in a gamble in which the survival of human civilization is at stake. We rest the security of the world on a balance of terror. In the long run this is bound to erode the ethical basis of civilization.

This erosion has probably already set in. Here I have to tread with caution, because I can only speak as a layman who has been observing events over many years. It seems to me that people cannot go on for decades living under the threat of instant annihilation, without this having an effect on their psyche. I cannot help the feeling that the increase of violence in the world — from individual mugging, to organized crime, to groups such as al-Qaeda — has some connection with the culture of violence under which we have lived during the Cold War years, and still do. I am particularly concerned about the effect on the young generation.

We all crave a world of peace, a world of equity. We all want to nurture in the young generation the “culture of peace,” which we keep on proclaiming. But how can we talk about a culture of peace if that peace is predicated on the existence of weapons of mass destruction? How can we persuade the young generation to cast aside the culture of violence, when they know that it is on the threat of extreme violence that we rely for security?

I do not believe that the people of the world would accept a policy that is inherently immoral and is bound to end in catastrophe, a policy that implies the continued existence of nuclear weapons. But the resolutions for nuclear disarmament, passed every year by large majorities in the General Assembly, are completely ignored by the nuclear-weapon states, which in practice means the United States government.

In saying this, I have made a distinction between the US government and the US people, because I am convinced that the latter share with the great majority of people all over the world an abhorrence of the use of nuclear weapons.

There are groups within the US community, such as the military-industrial complex identified by President Eisenhower, with vested interests in pursuing a policy based on the continuing possession of nuclear weapons by the United States. The influence of these groups on the Administration may wax and wane, but it appears to be particularly strong in the Administration of George W. Bush, with its main characteristic of unilateralism.

The defeat of Communism in the Cold War, and the triumph of the open market economy, gave a great fillip to the capitalist system, despite its ugly faces of greed and selfishness. Profit making has become a main driving force for those groups, and protection of property a necessary upshot. The most powerful country in the world, economically, technologically, and militarily, feels the need for even greater security by seeking more protection against an attack from outside, and by the suppression — if need be, with military means — of the acquisition of greater military power by countries seen as an enemy. A ballistic missile defence system — which may include nuclear interceptors — is considered necessary to prevent any missiles reaching the territory of the USA. But even with a defence system 100 per cent effective, which is technically unlikely, the possession of a few thousand nuclear warheads is still considered necessary to deter other countries from acquiring these means of protection for themselves.

It is in the interaction with other countries that the unilateralist tendencies are so pernicious. The interests of the United States must come first and foremost. International treaties, even those already agreed to, can be ignored or unilaterally revoked, if they do not serve these interests. During the first year of the George W. Bush Administration we have seen a whole string of steps along the unilateral path: abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); refusal to sign the Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention; withdrawal from the Kyoto Agreement on the Environment; opposition to the International Criminal Court; etc. etc.

These negative measures, which weaken international treaties and agreements, are accompanied by steps designed to increase the military strength of the USA. They include a considerable increase in military expenditure, particularly in the nuclear field. They include the decision not to destroy mechanically the warheads which were due for dismantlement in accordance with the START agreements. These have now been replaced by the treaty that has been signed in Moscow today, a treaty that has been hailed as a momentous step towards world peace, but is nothing of the kind. Any reduction of weapons of mass destruction is of course, greatly welcome, but in this case the reduction is illusory. The warheads withdrawn from the arsenals under the Bush-Putin treaty — over the unnecessarily long period of ten years — will be kept in storage as a reserve force, which could be quickly activated; either side having the right to withdraw from the treaty on 90 days notice.

The steps also include the development of new and greatly improved warheads, a programme that started covertly under Clinton and now continues more overtly under Bush.

In the early 1990s — after the end of the Cold War — there was a period of goodwill when both sides agreed to take measures to reduce the enormous nuclear arsenals. As part of this, the United States Government decided to halt the production of new nuclear warheads and to end nuclear testing.

There is a general assumption that new nuclear weapons cannot be developed and made militarily usable without their being tested. Hence, the great importance of the CTBT, which was signed by President Clinton, but its ratification was rejected by the then Republican majority in the Senate. Initially, this was thought to be a rather petty vengeance against Clinton, which would soon be rectified, but since then it emerged that the main reason was the perceived need for further testing of new, or modified old warheads.

The retention of a nuclear arsenal necessitates an infrastructure to ensure the safety and reliability of the warheads in the stockpile, as well as the capability to resume testing at short notice. An adequate core of scientists and engineers would be employed to carry out these tasks. This was the origin of the Stockpile Stewardship management Program which began in 1994, with a budget recently increased by the Bush Administration to $5.3 billion.

The Stewardship Program includes the task to “maintain nuclear weapon capability; develop a stockpile surveillance engineering base; demonstrate the capability to design, fabricate and certify new warheads.” This brief is broad enough to allow the scientists to do almost anything as long as it does not openly entail nuclear testing and the actual production of new nuclear warheads. Considering the role which scientists played in the nuclear weapons establishments during the Cold War, it is a fair assumption that they will go to the limit of their brief.

The development of new warheads is not allowed, but this obstacle can be circumvented by taking an old weapon and introducing a number of modifications, each of which is permitted under the terms of the Program but which in the end produces a more usable weapon, although eventually it would have to be tested, to give the military people confidence in the improved product. With President Bush’s contempt for international agreements, there can be no doubt that he will authorize new nuclear testing, when he decides that this would be in the interest of the United States, as was confirmed in the opening statement to the Preparatory NPT Review Conference that was held a few weeks ago.

There are persistent rumours, reported in articles in reputable journals, that work in Los Alamos has resulted in the development of new warheads. Most of the military research in the national laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, is carried out in secrecy, making it impossible to say how reliable these rumours are, but they seem credible. Certainly, there is much more activity going on in Los Alamos, with new buildings being erected, as I have seen myself during a recent visit to Los Alamos (although I did not go into the tech area). And, of course, we know that much more money has been allocated for research there.

The persistent rumours are about the development of a new nuclear warhead, of a very low yield, almost overlapping the yields of conventional high explosives, but with a shape that will give it very high penetrating power into concrete, a “bunker-bursting mini-nuke,” as it has been called. The additional property ascribed to it is that it is a “clean” bomb, in the sense that the radioactive fission products are contained. This claim needs to be treated with caution; considerable doubt has been expressed about the prevention of the release of radioactivity.

But the main worry about this bomb, even if its attributed characteristics should prove to be correct, is the political impact. If it is “clean,” and its explosive yield can be made so low as to be within the range of that of conventional explosives, then the distinction between the two types of weapon will become blurred. The chief characteristic of a nuclear weapon is its enormous destructive power, which classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction, unique even in comparison with the other known weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological. This has resulted in a taboo about the use of nuclear weapons in combat, a taboo that has held out since Nagasaki. But if at one end of the spectrum a nuclear bomb can be manufactured which does not differ quantitatively from ordinary explosives, the qualitative difference will also disappear, the nuclear threshold will be crossed, and nuclear weapons will gradually come to be seen as a tool of war, even though their main characteristic, of potentially the existence of the human race, will still remain. The Nuclear Posture Review makes this a real possibility; the situation has become even more dangerous.

The wording of the Nuclear Posture Review was no doubt strongly influenced by the events of September 11th. These events came as a terrible shock to the people of the United States. Having never been subject to an attack on the American Continent they suddenly found themselves vulnerable; the “splendid isolation” was breached; a near panic ensued on a mere rumour of an attack with a biological weapon.

In the campaign that I am urging, to put the nuclear issue back on the public agenda, we should make use of the very arguments and tactics employed by President Bush in the actions against terrorism. In order to be able to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda following the September 11 attacks, he had to build up a coalition of many countries for the military campaign in Afghanistan, even though the military burden was carried almost entirely by the United States. He also had to build up a moral case for the campaign, by presenting the terrorists as evil men, in contrast to the coalition who are the virtuous people.

By calling for help from other countries President Bush acknowledged the failure of his own unilateralist policy. An example of this is the event that took place today in Moscow; despite his contempt for international agreements, President Bush felt obliged to sign a new international treaty. Even though this treaty is a sham, we should exploit this in our efforts to put the elimination of nuclear weapons back on the agenda. No Man is an Island, particularly in a world which — thanks largely to the fantastic progress in technology — is becoming more and more interdependent, more and more transparent, more and more interactive. Inherent in these developments is a set of agreements, ranging from confidence-building measures to formal international treaties; from protection of the environment to the clearance of mine fields; from Interpol to the International Criminal Court; from ensuring intellectual property rights to the Declaration of Human Rights. Respect for, and strict adherence to, the terms of international agreements are at the basis of a civilized society.

Without this, anarchy and terrorism would reign, the very dangers the coalition was set up to prevent.

In line with this the world community has the right to call on the US government to take the following steps immediately:

  • ratify the CTBT;
  • retract its notice to with draw from the ABM;
  • reject any notion of weaponization of space;
  • take its nuclear weapons off alert;
  • adopt a no-first-use policy;
  • all this in preparation for the implementation of its commitment to nuclear disarmament, under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

An even stronger argument towards the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world should be based on the moral objections to nuclear weapons. President Bush insists that the campaign against terrorists, following the September 11th events, has a strong moral basis; a “moral crusade” he called it initially, and although this was quickly dropped, because of its unfortunate historical connotations, it is still presented as a struggle between good and evil, with the USA being on the side of the angels. But such a claim can be sustained only if the US policies and actions are demonstrably guided by ethical considerations. The hypocritical policy of preaching one thing and practicing just the opposite hardly comes under this category. The use of nuclear weapons, and even the threat of using them, is generally viewed as highly immoral; a moral stand is completely incompatible with the readiness by the President to push the nuclear button. If the United States is to insist in calling itself a leader of a campaign based on moral principles, then it should denounce any use of weapons of mass destruction; and it should implement the policy of their total abolition to which it is in any case committed legally.

A campaign for abolition, based on moral principles, will be seen as a fanciful dream by many, but I trust not by INES, an organization committed to ethical values. You will not submit to a policy which may result in the deaths of many thousands or millions of people, potentially threatening the very existence of the human species.

The situation is grim; the way things are moving is bound to lead to catastrophe. If there is a way out, even if seemingly unrealistic, it is our duty to pursue it. Arguments based on equity and morality may not cut ice with hardened politicians, but they may appeal to the common citizen. If we can bring to the notice of the general public the grave dangers inherent in the continuation of current policies, at the same time pointing out the long-term merits of policies based on equity and morality, we may succeed in putting the nuclear issue back on the agenda of public concern.

A colossal effort will be required, a sustained collective campaign by INES, Pugwash, and other kindred organizations. I hope that they will find the courage and the will to embark on this great task, to restore sanity in our policies, humanity in our actions, and a sense of belonging to the human race.


*This paper has been presented by Sir Joseph Rotblat on 24 May 2002 at the occasion of the INES seminar “New Security Challenges: Global and Regional Priorities” in Bradford, UK. The seminar was organized by INES together with Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Department of Peace Studies of the University of Bradford.