Future historians, looking back at our time, may be perplexed at humanity’s tepid collective response to nuclear weapons. Of course, if there are future historians, it will be a positive sign, for it will mean that humanity has survived the nuclear threat that has confronted the world since the onset of the Nuclear Age in the mid-twentieth century.

Nuclear weapons, a human invention, make possible the end of civilization and the human species, along with most other life on the planet. In light of this threat, humanity has done very little to safeguard its future. Why, future historians may ask, has humankind been so slow and ineffective in its response to a threat of this magnitude? By examining this question now, we may encourage greater awareness of the threat and creative initiatives for overcoming the most serious dangers of the Nuclear Age.

While nuclear weapons were created secretly in the US nuclear weapons program, the Manhattan Project, since then the threat has not been hidden, but rather quite open. In his first speech to the public after the use of the atomic bomb to destroy Hiroshima, US president Harry Truman thanked God that the bomb had come to America rather than to its enemies and prayed for divine guidance in its use. Since the use of the bomb and the ending of the Second World War appeared to have a causal relationship, many celebrated the advent and use of nuclear weapons.

Others, grasping the destructive power and potential of nuclear weapons, after hearing of Hiroshima, immediately warned humanity of the peril it now faced. Albert Camus, the great French writer and existentialist, wrote in Resistance: “Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only battle worth waging. This is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments – a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.”

Within four years of the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States, the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons. In less than a decade from the destruction of Hiroshima, both the US and USSR went from fission bombs to fusion bombs, increasing the power of nuclear weapons a thousand-fold. Many scientists warned against the leap to thermonuclear weapons, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project, but their warnings went unheeded.

A seminal warning of scientists, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was issued in 1955. It concluded: “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.”

More than 50 years later, we live in a world of nuclear double standards, with one set of rules for the nuclear weapons states and another set of rules for the rest of the world. With the Bush doctrine of preventive war demonstrated against Iraq, it is little wonder that other countries named by him as part of the “Axis of Evil,” North Korea and Iran, would be interested in acquiring nuclear arms. In the case of these countries, the likelihood is that they seek nuclear weapons to deter a pre-emptive US attack against them, and would themselves be deterred from using their weapons by threat of retaliation.

The longer states cling to nuclear deterrence for their security and the more states that acquire nuclear weapons, though, the more likely it is that nuclear weapons or the materials to make them will end up in the hands of terrorist organizations. Such organizations will not be subject to deterrence because they will not be locatable to retaliate against. This means that nuclear weapons will have more value and will be more likely to be used in the hands of terrorists than in the hands of states. This is the paradox of nuclear weapons: In addition to being immoral and illegal, they are more likely to undermine than enhance the security of powerful states.

Most people, including the leaders of the nuclear weapons states, do not appear to understand this, and thus they cling tenaciously to these weapons that may prove to be the source of their own destruction. National leaders of the nuclear weapons states justify these weapons in terms of deterrence, but without being able to articulate who it is that they are deterring. In the end, they rationalize the weapons as necessary in the event that conditions were to change in the future. They fail to grasp that the only safe number of nuclear weapons in the world is zero. And they seem to believe that these weapons enhance their prestige in the world, because they are weapons possessed by powerful and once-powerful nations, including all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The only way in which this situation may change is by education and advocacy within the nuclear weapons states. The United States, as the strongest nuclear power and as the only country to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, has a special responsibility to lead the way toward a world free of nuclear weapons, but its leadership shows little inclination to do so. The Bush administration has shown contempt for international treaties to control and reduce nuclear arms and to prevent their proliferation. Among these treaties are the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which it has abrogated; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which it refuses to submit to the Senate for ratification; and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament and is at the heart of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

The US is following a breathtakingly hypocritical path with regard to nuclear weapons. It tells other nations not to develop these weapons, but seeks new designs for its own nuclear arsenal to make its weapons more reliable and serve specific functions, such as “bunker-busting.” It threatens sanctions against Iran for its uranium enrichment program, while promoting a nuclear deal with India, a known nuclear proliferator, which would provide India with US nuclear technology and allow India to have international safeguards on only some of its nuclear reactors and thereby increase the size of its nuclear arsenal even more rapidly than it is already doing. It threatens North Korea for developing nuclear weapons, but turns a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Our dilemma today is that there appears to be no way for the vast majority of humanity, which favor a world free of nuclear weapons, to bring pressure to bear on the leadership of the US and other nuclear weapons states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons are cowardly because they kill indiscriminately and from a vast distance, but it is equally true that a significant percentage of humanity lacks the will and courage to confront the leaders of the nuclear weapons states about abolition of these weapons.

The words “nuclear weapons” are flat and dull, and do not convey the horror that is the weapons themselves. People may not act unless they can empathize with the victims and potential victims of these weapons. Perhaps we have become flat and dull people, living only within the bubble of nationalism and losing touch with our humanity. To achieve change, more and more people are going to have to wake up to the great threats of the Nuclear Age and make the abolition of nuclear weapons a high priority in their lives.

Once individuals do wake up, there is much they can do to educate themselves about nuclear weapons issues. A starting point is the website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, www.wagingpeace.org. At that website, one can find extensive background information on nuclear weapons issues; sign up for a free monthly e-newsletter, The Sunflower, which provides regular updates on key nuclear issues; and join the Turn the Tide Campaign to receive regular action alerts to change US nuclear policy. To become involved internationally, visit the website of the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (www.abolition2000.org) and the Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign to Eliminate Nuclear weapons by the year 2020 (www.mayorsforpeace.org).

Once you become educated on these issues, you can start spreading the word, changing from a passive member of a polity to an active force for peace. To abolish nuclear weapons, so essential for our common future, will require more from all of us and far less tolerance of political leaders who think that “business as usual” will get us through the Nuclear Age unscathed. A commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons is a commitment to all life, including a future not yet born. It is nothing less than a solemn responsibility that all living humans share to pass the world on intact to future generations. We must not shirk that responsibility.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org), and a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.