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Will Pope Francis call for Nuclear Abolition?

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on August 30, 2015 at 2:19 am

  • Women participate in a memorial ceremony in Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, the 70th anniversary of the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Ira Helfand hopes Pope Francis will call for the abolition of all nuclear weapons when he addresses Congress in September and Helfand has reason for cautious optimism.

The Springfield, Mass., physician is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It was awarded a Nobel Peace prize in 1985 “for spreading authoritative information and raising awareness of the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war.”

Helfand has worked for years to raise consciousness regarding the devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear war. In this context, he and John Pastore, a Boston cardiologist, sat down with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley in June to share details of recent studies that show even a limited nuclear exchange would lead to the starvation of some 2 billion people. By far, the greatest impact of such a nuclear exchange would be on the poorest people of the planet.

Helfand and Pastore said that O’Malley, taken by the findings, said he would pass the information on to Francis whom he was to meet in Rome three days later.

Pastore, a Catholic who has focused on eliminating nuclear weapons his entire adult life, explained: “We are trying to re-introduce moral considerations into the nuclear weapons discussions. They’re almost always viewed strictly as military or technical challenges. But nuclear weapons have enormous moral dimensions. We know this and so does Pope Francis.”

Pastore acknowledges that Francis has made economic disparities and climate change as his top social justice concerns. “Nuclear weapons have to do with both,” he said.

While the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a non-partisan federation of national medical groups in 63 countries, has attempted to draw attention to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear war, it was in 2012 and 2013 that new climate studies showed that even a limited nuclear exchange, such as one involving 100 relatively small devices between India and Pakistan, would have enormous climate change consequences. Helfand took the conclusions of these studies and put together a report his group has spread across the globe. It is called “Nuclear Famine.”

It takes the work of several peer-reviewed studies done by atmospheric scientists Alan Robock of Rutgers University, Brian Toon of University of Colorado-Boulder, and Richard Turco of University of California, Los Angeles, who have found that if India and Pakistan each exchanged fifty 15 kiloton-size bombs — a tiny fraction of the size of the warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals — they would create immense firestorms that would quickly envelope the planet with layers of dense stratospheric smoke.

That black smoke would continue to circle the earth and remain in the stratosphere for a decade or more. It would block and prevent a large fraction of sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface. The sharp reduction of warming sunlight would shorten growing seasons that would reduce food crops, in turn, causing the starvation of up to 2 billion people, mainly those living in the poorest counties.

“The report underscores the urgent need to move with all possible speed to the negotiation of a global agreement to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war,” Helfand toldNCR.

Helfand spoke in December 2014 in Rome at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. Sitting on stage next to the Dalai Lama and other laureates, he called the consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange “catastrophic.”

Any nuclear exchange involving the major nuclear weapons holding nations, he told the laureates, would send global temperatures plummeting.

“There would not be a frost-free day in the northern hemisphere,” he said. “These conditions have not existed on the planet for the past 18,000 years. Food production would stop and the vast majority of the human race would starve to death. It is possible we would become extinct as a species. This is not some nightmare I have cooked up. This is a danger we face every day that these weapons continue to exist sitting on missiles that can be launched in a few minutes time.”

Describing the impact of a limited nuclear exchange, Helfand told NCR: “This would not be the end of the human species, but it would be the end of civilization as we know it. No civilization has withstood a shock of this magnitude.”

He spoke of his frustrations to wake up the nation to pressing nuclear war issues. He said the “Nuclear Famine” report has faced a virtual “media blackout.”

“If the press talks about nuclear weapons at all, it’s only in the context of Iran and North Korea. I think this is an enormous disrespect to the public.”

“O’Malley appeared very concerned,” Helfand said. “The cardinal said he would return to Rome three days later and would immediately share the information with Pope Francis.”

That’s why Helfand and Pastore are pleased — and moderately hopeful — that Francis will say something about nuclear weapons while in the U.S.

Helfand, Pastore and Robock told NCR they think Francis can make a decisive difference in waking up the American public to the nuclear dangers.

Helfand acknowledges treaties have reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the global arsenals to around 16,000 warheads. Rather than being assured by this, he expresses worry that disarmament efforts have stalled and the nuclear weapons holding nations are moving ahead to modernize their weapons and weapon delivery systems.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “These weapons can never be used. To use them would mean assured self-destruction.”

Robock, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, told NCR that his research reaffirmed his belief that nuclear weapons pose the “greatest and most immediate threat to humanity.”

“As long as we have these weapons they can be used by some irrational person, by some terrorist, by miscalculation, or by accident,” he said. “The threat is real. Only by abolishing them can we rid ourselves of this threat.”

The Vatican has long opposed nuclear weapons, but Francis has made their abolition a key element in his global social concerns.

In December 2014, the Vatican submitted a paper at a conference in Vienna, calling for total nuclear disarmament.

In January, addressing the Vatican diplomatic corps, Francis said nuclear disarmament and combating climate change are at the top of his diplomatic agenda. He has prayed the Iran nuclear weapons agreement would be “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”

In August, speaking in St. Peter’s Square, Francis recalled the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago. He said those events still arouse “horror and revulsion” worldwide, adding they serve “as a lasting warning for humanity to reject forever war and ban nuclear weapons.”

Pastore called Francis’ appearance before Congress Sept. 24 an “enormous opportunity,” saying the pontiff can take the issue of nuclear weapons from the level of “an often bloodless academic argument,” to the level of “immediate, pressing moral concern. Once Catholics in the parishes and others wake up, only then can there be a change of course of public policy.”

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher and can be reached at tfox@ncronline.org.]

Marshall Islands seek nuclear abolition

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on August 26, 2015 at 7:47 am

Read Robert Koehler’s inspiring article:  http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/08/13/wedge-nuclear-disarmament

Richard Rhodes: Twilight of the Bombs

In Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on August 18, 2015 at 12:55 am

By Richard Rhodes

 

The Twilight of the Bombs

Prepared for delivery at Independence, Missouri, on 9 August 2015, the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan

 

Seventy years ago today, in the last days of a terrible war, at 11:02 a.m. on August 9th, 1945, an American B-29 bomber attacked the city of Nagasaki, Japan, with a single bomb of a new kind.

Nagasaki had not originally been the bomb’s intended target, but two other targets with higher priority had been obscured by cloud cover. With terrible and accidental irony, the atomic bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, exploded 1640 feet above the Nagasaki factory that made the torpedoes used to attack the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the event that decided an outraged United States to enter the war.

Fat Man, though limited compared to modern nuclear weapons, was the most powerful weapon yet exploded, with a blast yield equivalent to 21 thousand tons of TNT. But it was less a weapon of blast than a weapon of fire. Its fireball, which heated and expanded to a maximum diameter of a half mile and a maximum temperature of 300,000 degrees Celsius, flashed down on the Japanese city and initiated a mass fire, igniting everything combustible up and down the narrow valley where the city ran down to the sea. Within hours, Nagasaki was a burned-out, smoking ruin. Fire more than either blast or radiation caused most of the deaths at Nagasaki, as it had at Hiroshima three days earlier. About 36,000 people died that day. More died later of burns, wounds and radiation poisoning.

Not human beings alone died in Nagasaki. Something else was destroyed as well: that shared life Hannah Arendt called the common world. Destroyed, that is, were not only men, women and thousands of children, but also restaurants and inns, laundries, theater groups, sports clubs, sewing clubs, boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, love affairs, trees and gardens, grass, gates, gravestones, temples and shrines, family heirlooms, radios, classmates, books, flags, courts of law, clothes, pets, groceries and markets, telephones, personal letters, automobiles, bicycles, horses—120 war horses—musical instruments, medicines and medical equipment, life savings, eyeglasses, city records, family scrapbooks, monuments, engagements, marriages, clocks and watches, public transportation, street signs, parents, works of art. “The whole of society,” a Japanese study concludes, “was laid waste to its very foundations.”[1]

Here, today, is not the time and place to debate the morality of those first atomic bombings. My challenge is farther: I’ve been asked to amplify a statement I made near the end of the fourth and final volume of my quartet of histories of the nuclear age. After more than thirty years of studying the impact on the world of the discovery of how to release the essentially unlimited energies contained in the atomic nucleus, I wrote in that final volume, The Twilight of the Bombs, that “If not in my lifetime, probably in the lifetime of my children, and certainly in my grandchildren’s lifetimes, weapons of mass destruction will be outlawed….In time, possession of a nuclear weapon will be judged a crime against humanity. Such a judgment would only codify what is already an evident fact.”[2]

So. Let’s see what we can make of that.

###

There are nine nations in the world today that possess nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Four nations that once possessed them have given them up: South Africa, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The CIA has estimated that some thirty to forty other nations are technically capable of assembling a nuclear arsenal within a period of only a few years or less but have chosen not to do so. That roster includes every nation with an advanced scientific and technological base and access to plutonium or highly-enriched uranium: Japan, all of Western Europe, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and many others—a long list. Ninety-three nations are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; subtract the five legacy nuclear powers on that list and you have 88 nations that have pledged not to develop nuclear weapons. Almost the entirety of the southern hemisphere is an agreed nuclear-weapons-free zone. Nine such zones in total encompass 56 percent of the Earth’s land area and 60 percent of its 195 nations as well as Antarctica, the world seabed and outer space. Which is to say, under various solemn treaties and other legally-binding agreements, we are about halfway along toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.

If half the world wants to eliminate nuclear weapons, what about the other half? Why do the nuclear powers continue to field their dangerous arsenals? Russia and the United States together possess more than 90 percent of the approximately 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. (That number, by the way, is down sharply from the world nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War, which counted more than 70,000 nuclear weapons.) Russia clings to its nuclear arsenal of 7,300 weapons in part because its military is weak—smaller in size than the U.S. military and with outdated, vulnerable weapons systems—and nuclear weapons are a cheap equalizer. We claim to hold our approximately 4,800 nuclear weapons primarily for deterrence, not for war-fighting.[3]

Deterrence, as you know, is a theory that evolved in the wake of the realization, early in the nuclear era, that there would be no defense against nuclear weapons—that we are naked to our enemies, and they to us. President Ronald Reagan dreamed of a perfect shield of defensive armaments that would protect us from nuclear attack, but his Strategic Defense Initiative was just that: a dream. Instead of defense, the idea emerged early on that if an arsenal of nuclear weapons could be protected from destruction in an enemy first strike—in a bomb-proof missile silo or in a nuclear submarine hidden deep beneath the sea—and thus be available to attack and destroy the enemy in turn, then no rational leadership would choose to attack in the first place, understanding that it must inevitably also be destroyed. That’s what “mutual assured destruction” meant, the words that form the notorious acronym M-A-D, MAD. The nuclear mandarins who rationalize maintaining nuclear arsenals large enough to destroy the human world invoke deterrence theory to justify their support of nuclear overkill.

A refinement of the deterrence doctrine came along later that claimed the opposing nuclear forces had to match up at every level to be credible: if the Soviet Union had bombers, then we must have bombers; if Soviet land-based missiles, then American land-based missiles; if Soviet nuclear submarines, then American nuclear submarines. This convenient refinement allowed all three of our military services to justify dividing the nuclear-weapons budget among them, which they have done. Before that division occurred, in the late 1950s, the Air Force controlled all our nuclear weapons, and by a process of bootstrapping had managed to claim no less than 47 percent of the entire defense budget. By bootstrapping I mean the Air Force controlled targeting in the 1950s, which in turn dictated the number of bombs, which in turn determined the number of aircraft needed to deliver them. That’s how it won 47 percent of the defense budget. The other services woke up to the danger, the nuclear mandarins supplied the credibility theory, and the pie was soon divided, giving us army atomic cannon too heavy for European backroads, a small atomic artillery shell capable of being fired from a recoilless rifle mounted on the back of a Jeep, nuclear air-to-air antiaircraft rockets, navy nuclear torpedoes and depth charges and other such lethal rickrack.

The one condition all these varied weapons had in common was that they were designed for nuclear war-fighting. At the same time, at the highest levels of our military and government, everyone understood that introducing nuclear weapons into a conventional conflict would almost certainly escalate that conflict to full-scale nuclear war. As one of the nuclear mandarins confessed privately to the clinical psychologist Steven Kull, “Strategic weapons are political artifacts first. And when they cease to be political artifacts, then they’re entirely irrelevant, entirely without a purpose….The only existence that these weapons have that has any meaning is in political terms. And perception is the only relevant category.” Another mandarin, whom Kull calls a “prominent strategic analyst,” explained the game even more bluntly. “Let’s put it this way,” he told Kull. “All roads in the strategic equation lead to MAD”—that is, mutual assured destruction. “All the other ones [the analyst continues]…are games, are window dressing, and they are window dressing for upmanship….But when you take away all these layers…at the bottom of the thing, basically, is MAD, and no one likes it.”[4]

McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, summed up the fundamental nuclear impasse in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1969:

In light of the certain prospect of retaliation [Bundy wrote], there has been literally no chance at all that any sane political authority, in either the United States or the Soviet Union, would consciously choose to start a nuclear war. This proposition is true for the past, the present and the foreseeable future….In the real world of real political leaders [Bundy continues]…a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.[5]

 

You have probably heard discussion during this 70th-anniversary year of the success of nuclear deterrence. It’s true that no nuclear weapon has been exploded in anger since Nagasaki. I would argue that deterrence has worked not because of MAD, but because we and the Soviet Union, and now we and Russia, China and Russia, India and Pakistan and so on, have been self-deterred. We were self-deterred almost from the beginning, when President Truman decided not to release a third atomic bomb for shipment out to Tinian Island and possible use against Japan—a decision he made because, he said, “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’”[6] We and Russia have been self-deterred largely from fear of loosing the nuclear genie, fear of entering that unknown region which would open on the other side of the nuclear taboo. As the physicist Robert Oppenheimer wrote in 1946, invoking Henry James’s dark horror story: “The atomic bomb was the turn of the screw. It has made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond, there is a different country.”[7]

If nuclear use, in a world of multiple nuclear powers, is a different country; if despite a world-destroying arsenal we are naked to our enemies—“two scorpions in a bottle,” as Oppenheimer also wrote, “each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life”[8]; if the theory of deterrence is a fig leaf laid over 70 years of unsustainable dumb luck, and the real story since 1945 is a story of close calls, freak accidents and near misses; if all these caveats are true, then why have we persisted in pretending that our nuclear weapons protect us? Why has President Obama recently proposed spending half a trillion dollars across the next decade, and another half-trillion in the two decades after that, to modernize those weapons and their delivery systems—new submarines, new bombers, new land-based mobile missiles? Why are China and Russia, both signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as we are, and therefore pledged to work actively toward eliminating nuclear weapons, modernizing their arsenals as well?

These are larger questions than I have time to answer, but they demonstrate that, far from moving toward nuclear zero as President Obama pledged to do in Prague in 2009, we are still mired in nuclear denial.

So my next question is, Why? If all roads lead to MAD—lead, that is, to an escalating eruption of holocaustal nuclear exchanges and to world-scale climatic effects with the potential to cause the starvation of the entire population of the Earth—why do the nuclear powers persist in maintaining their deadly arsenals? Retired Air Force General Charles Horner, who commanded our nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War and into the 1990s, gave one answer: “There are many people,” he said at a press conference, “who are just unwilling to step out of the Cold War…. There are a lot of people who cannot give up the idea of a nuclear security blanket surrounding them.”[9]

During the Reagan era, the psychologist Stephen Kull, whom I mentioned earlier, reached a more nuanced conclusion. Kull interviewed at length a number of high-level nuclear policymakers, both military and civilian, working through their justifications for maintaining a nuclear arsenal to see if they made sense. Let me quote one paragraph from Kull’s book Minds at War, which is subtitled, significantly, Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers. (Keep in mind that Kull is discussing the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, a somewhat different set of conditions from those that obtain today, but not so different that his conclusions are invalid):

 

But why [Kull writes], if the logic is so dubious, the costs so high, and the benefits so questionable, does the United States play along with the illusion and continue the arms race? Many suggested answers to these questions stress the sheer momentum of the arms race, the defense establishment’s opposition to any letup, and the financial interests of defense industry contractors. Other theories point to the presence, in the Pentagon and especially among Reagan appointees, of an influential group of hard-liners who still hope to win the arms race and somehow bring about the end of the Soviet system. Yet none of these ideas explains why the country as a whole continues to support the arms race. [Kull goes on:] Perception theory suggests that the public supports the arms race because it does not understand the realities of nuclear weapons. Apparently, however, the public does grasp nuclear realities. In a…poll published in September 1984, 90 percent of respondents agreed that “we and the Soviets now have enough nuclear weapons to blow each other up many times over”; 89 percent agreed that “there can be no winner in an all-out nuclear war”; and 83 per cent agreed that even “a limited nuclear war is nonsense.” These days, even teenagers grasp these realities with apparent ease.

At the same time [Kull continues], 71 per cent of those polled agreed that the United States should continue to develop “new and better nuclear weapons.” Why does the public continue to support an arms race it knows is pointless, and leaders who actively obfuscate the realities of nuclear weapons? What can Americans hope to achieve by fooling themselves into believing that building more nuclear weapons makes them more secure?

Perhaps the answer is this: Americans hope to get relief from the overarching and terrible fact that they face an extraordinary threat to their survival and there is nothing they can do about it.[10]

 

Kull was writing as a psychologist who found that the defense policymakers whom he interviewed, when pushed into the logical corner that their illogical arguments led them to, all fell back on the same justification for maintaining a world-destroying nuclear arsenal. Which was, that it made the American people—and by extension the Russian people, the Chinese people and so on—feel safer. The clearest statement Kull found came, of all places, from a Soviet colonel in an anonymous interview with the magazine Détente. Let me read a portion of it to you:

 

Colonel X [comments]: All of us, more or less, know that nuclear war would be the end. All our theoreticians say that there is no way of preventing nuclear war from escalating to the global level, that you cannot win a nuclear war. That is our general theoretical position.

But from a professional military point of view, such a position is impossible. Can a professional military man say that nuclear war is inconceivable? No, because some fool of an American president may really start a nuclear war. A professional military man must consider what to do in that event.

[The interviewer asks:] What difference does it make what you do in that event?

[Colonel X responds:] Ah, you can say that. Mr. General cannot say that.

[The interviewer continues:] I’m still confused.

[And Colonel X responds:] Consider the point of view of another professional, the doctor who knows that his patient is suffering from an incurable disease. He cannot for that reason abandon further efforts….To make no plans for [a nuclear war]…would be openly to proclaim our helplessness. It would be psychologically wrong.[11]

 

The essential fact, then, and the barrier that stands in the way of rational consideration of the fundamentally changed political conditions that followed from the discovery of how to release nuclear energy, is the fact of universal vulnerability. The first obligation of every government is to protect the people it serves. The careers of politicians and military leaders depend on doing so. With nuclear weapons in the world, they are unable to meet that requirement. So they pretend to do so and we pretend to believe them. They may believe sincerely in what they do. We may believe sincerely that they are succeeding. But at some level of awareness, they know they aren’t and we know—we should know—that we’re kidding ourselves.

 

 

The supreme irony of this collective neurosis, this seeming nuclear double-bind, is that the solution has stared us in the face since the beginning—since 1945 and even before. If nuclear weapons make us vulnerable, the solution is to accept that collective vulnerability and work together internationally to outlaw and eliminate them. Understand me: I am not talking about unilateral disarmament. I’m talking about international nuclear disarmament. What Mikhail Gorbachev, and Germany’s Willi Brandt and Sweden’s Olof Palme before him called “common security.” Brandt’s adviser Egon Bahr explained the concept most succinctly: “Security [Bahr wrote] can now only be achieved in common. No longer against each other but only with each other shall we be secure.” If that sounds idealistic, consider that it was the operating principle of the West German program for reuniting a divided Germany, by working with the Soviet Union rather than against it—and it worked.

But how are we to do that? What do we need to do to make such a seemingly millennial vision a reality?

I wish I could chart a clear path from here to there—from 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world to none. I can’t. No one can. As the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, “It’s very difficult to predict, especially the future.” What I can do is, first, mention some trends and possibilities, and, second, tell you why I’m confident we will get there, one way or another—why a world without nuclear weapons is inevitable, one way or another.

 

 

Let’s dispense, first of all, with the argument that we can never eliminate nuclear weapons because the technology can’t be uninvented. Of course it can’t, short of the destruction of modern civilization. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be outlawed and foreclosed. Indeed, one obvious consequence of eliminating nuclear weapons is that the knowledge would still be available from country to country to reconstitute them. That’s something that would have to be policed to prevent breakout—one requirement for nuclear elimination will be continuous worldwide monitoring and physical inspection on demand as well as airtight accounting for fissile materials, for highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. That’s the downside. The upside is that nations in conflict in a post-nuclear world would have to think twice before moving from diplomacy to conventional war, knowing that reconstituting a nuclear arsenal would still be possible if all else failed—but on a timetable of months rather than minutes, the months necessary to rebuild a nuclear capability from scratch. So a world without nuclear weapons would still be a world where the knowledge of how to build them would work to keep the peace.

Another development pressing the nuclear powers toward action is increasing understanding of the global climatic effects of even a so-called small nuclear war. The same group of scientists who identified the phenomenon of nuclear winter in the late 1980s, minus their deceased colleague Carl Sagan, took another look at that phenomenon in 2007 using the much more sophisticated computer model of the atmosphere that had been developed in the interim to study global warming. They discovered, first of all, that nuclear winter would be even worse following an all-out, 5,000-megaton nuclear war than their earlier model had predicted—a temperature drop of 20-30 degrees worldwide for two decades or more—essentially the equivalent of the K/T boundary event 65 million years ago that followed the impact of a 10-kilometer asteroid on the edge of the Yucatan peninsula and starved the dinosaurs and most other large life forms to extinction.

Then the nuclear-winter scientists wondered what a “small” regional nuclear war would look like. They plugged in the numbers for a hypothetical nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 50 Indian Hiroshima-scale bombs exploded over Pakistan’s major cities and 50 Pakistani Hiroshima-scale bombs exploded over India’s major cities. That’s a total yield of only one-and-a-half megatons. We have single weapons in our arsenal with higher yields than that, as do the Russians. But cities are full of combustible materials, which would ignite in mass fires; in consequence, even so small a war would produce some 20 million prompt deaths in the two countries from blast, fire and radiation. And the mass fires would also generate a pall of soot, smoke and smog that would slowly spread around the world in the following months and drop the mean temperature worldwide by 2 to 3 degrees. Two to three degrees may not seem like much, but it would be enough to return the Earth to the conditions of the Little Ice Age of the 18th century, when crops failed throughout the temperate zones, resulting in mass starvation in Europe and Asia. The consequences today would be catastrophic: as many as 2 billion people would starve to death. Which means that the nuclear powers have now been put on notice before the world that their arsenals threaten a humanitarian disaster beyond any previous disaster in human history.

Another phenomenon pressing on nuclear strategy is widespread condemnation of collateral damage in war. With the increasing prosperity of the world and the consequent decline in the number of children per family, with the increasing visibility of killing through professional and amateur digital media, parents who produce only one or two children don’t want those children sacrificed in war, nor do many of us enjoy watching the horrors of war unfold before our eyes in our living rooms. Drone war is a direct consequence of these changes, and collateral damage is becoming scandalous as well as ineffective in situations such as Afghanistan where we are trying to win hearts and minds. Thus we read of a plan to retrofit some of our nuclear weapons with precision-guidance kits, much as we did with our conventional bombs in the late 1990s, in time for the first Gulf War. What’s the logic of directing a nuclear warhead to fall within a few feet of a target? That we can use a 50-kiloton warhead instead of a 350-kiloton warhead and thereby reduce collateral damage. Absurd, I know—50 kilotons is three and a half Hiroshimas—but that’s the stated logic of the retrofit. Meanwhile, the Air Force is developing a new generation of conventional ICBMs with terminal precision guidance such that they will strike within three feet of their target across six thousand miles, and therefore don’t need a nuclear warhead at all. Freeman Dyson, the physicist and former British bomber strategist, wrote earlier this year that “Military leaders in all countries have learned that nuclear weapons are not very useful. They are effective for murdering huge numbers of people in a short time, but not for winning real battles in wars. For almost all situations in local wars, nuclear weapons are too big and the targets are too small.”[12]

When I started thinking about how a nuclear-weapons-free world could be policed, ten or fifteen years ago, one possibility I considered was citizen whistleblowing. Professionals in the security field were skeptical. Last fall, however, the advisory group of distinguished scientists that meets several times a year to explore ideas and problems for our government—the Jasons, as they’re called—published a paper titled “Open and Crowd-Sourced Data

for Treaty Verification.” It concludes: “Rapid advances in technology have led to the global proliferation of inexpensive, networked sensors that are now providing significant new levels of societal transparency. As a result of the increase in quality, quantity, connectivity and availability of open information and crowd-sourced analysis, the landscape for verifying compliance with international treaties has been greatly broadened.”[13] A study from the National Academy of Sciences makes a similar point: “In support of a regime prohibiting nuclear weapons [it concludes], technical means of verification could be supplemented by national and international laws making it a crime for any individual knowingly to participate in the development, production, acquisition, transfer, or use of nuclear weapons, together with measures designed to increase the probability of “leaks” or “whistle blowing” by those who may be aware of such activities.”[14]

 

 

I could multiply examples, but my point is obvious. Nuclear weapons are as useless as they are dangerous, which makes the immense cost of their upkeep and security less and less acceptable to military leaders and to responsible elected officials.

How difficult will it be to negotiate outlawing nuclear weapons? Most discussions of the problem describe it as extremely difficult. Someone who has been intimately involved for many years in actually negotiating arms limits and reductions, including the 1995 permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, argues otherwise. The Australian diplomat Richard Butler, whose country appointed him to be its permanent representative on disarmament and who also served as Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations, told me forcefully, “We could do it in a morning. All the nuts-and-bolts stuff might take another five or ten years.” Butler is immensely frustrated by the delay. “For fifteen or twenty years now,” he says, “we have not lacked clear knowledge of the nature of the problem, of its urgency, and of the steps that can be taken to solve it. What we’re confronted with, however, is political cowardice—politicians kicking the can down the road. ‘We agree with you,’ they say, ‘but we have a few rednecks among our constituents. Can we do it after the next election?’ However one skins the cat,” Butler concludes, “it comes down to this: As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will proliferate, they will be used, and any use will be catastrophic. We know exactly what needs to be done.”[15]

 

 

Ultimately, as I said earlier, we will eliminate nuclear weapons one way or another: we will agree to remove them from the arsenals of the world or we will eliminate the human world by exploding those arsenals, burning it down and freezing it in nuclear holocaust. Harry Truman’s representative Bernard Baruch said much the same thing to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission at its first session in June 1946: “We are here,” Baruch told the commissioners, “to make a choice between the quick and the dead.”[16]

To many leaders, from ignorance or naïveté or fear or cavalier denial or political cupidity, that stark choice has seemed deferrable, if not actually optional. It has been deferrable only at the risk of all our lives. It is not optional. Why not? Because knowledge of how to release the vast energies stored in the nuclei of atoms is knowledge of the physical world, knowledge of how the world actually works, not how we would like it to work. Much of what we believe about the way the world works is not based on scientific evidence. When such evidence comes along, it can challenge and ultimately change our beliefs. Niels Bohr had a name for this process. He thought it was the fundamental purpose of science: not “power over nature,” Bohr said, but something subtler and even more relentless: what he called “the gradual removal of prejudices.”

People believed for many centuries that the earth was the center of the universe. Science demonstrated that in fact the earth revolved around the sun and the sun was a minor star out on the fringes of an ordinary galaxy. People believed for many centuries that disease is a punishment from God. The discovery of microbes has gradually removed that prejudice and made possible the prevention, treatment and cure of most of the terrible epidemic diseases of past centuries. People believed for many centuries—some people still believe—that humankind is a separate, special creation. Darwin marshaled evidence confirming that we humans are mammals and primates and evolved along with the other mammals and primates. The dust from that removal still hasn’t settled.

The closing days of World War II marked a similar turning point in human history, the point of entry into a new era when humankind for the first time acquired the means of its own destruction. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy, and its application to build weapons of mass destruction, has gradually removed the prejudice on which total war was based: the insupportable conviction that there is a limited amount of energy available in the world to concentrate into explosives, that it is possible to accumulate more of such energy than one’s enemies and thereby militarily to prevail. So cheap, so portable, so holocaustal did nuclear weapons eventually become that even nation-states as belligerent as the Soviet Union and the United States preferred to sacrifice a portion of their national sovereignty — preferred to forego the power to make total war — rather than be destroyed in their fury.

Yet we have been reluctant to accept the logical consequences of that lesson, preferring sophistry and denial. The prejudice persists that major war is possible even in a nuclear world—or, worse, an inversion of that prejudice which argues the sophistry that sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy the human world are somehow preventing that destruction.

We still confront a choice between the quick and the dead. The only way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them from the arsenals of the world. There is no other choice. That’s why I believe we will outlaw them. Or we will use them and eliminate ourselves along with them. I don’t expect to be around to see that day, but my children may be, and my grandchildren almost certainly will be—one way or the other.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

[1] Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 733.

[2] Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), p. 381.

[3] Numbers of nuclear weapons: “Nuclear weapons: Who has what at a glance.” Arms Control Association factsheet (online).

[4] Quoted in Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly (New York: Vintage, 2007), p. 113.

[5] McGeorge Bundy, “To Cap the Volcano,” Foreign Affairs 48(1), October 1969.

[6] “President Harry Truman’s Diary,” www.NuclearFiles.org, 10 Aug. 1945. The quoted excerpt is from Vice President Henry Wallace’s diary.

[7] Robert Oppenheimer, “The Atom Bomb and College Education,” The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, University of Pennsylvania, summer 1946.

[8] Robert Oppenheimer, “Atomic Weapons and American Policy,” Foreign Affairs, July 1953, p. 529.

[9] Conference Proceedings: Nuclear Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament in the Post-Cold War Security Environment. Presented Wednesday, April 7, 1999 at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. 31 Case W. Res. J. Int’l L. 679.

[10] Steven Kull, “Nuclear Nonsense.” Foreign Policy 58 (Spring 1985), 28-52.

[11] Steven Kull, Minds at War (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 290.

[12] Freeman Dyson, “Einstein as a Jew and a philosopher,” NYRB, 7 May 2015, pp. 14-16.

[13] Jasons, “Open and Crowd-Sourced Data for Treaty Verification,” JSR-14-Task-015, (McLean VA: The Mitre Corporation, October 2014), p. 65.

[14] National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington: National Academies Press, 1997), p. 90.

[15] Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs (New York: Vintage, 2010), p. 378.

[16] Bernard Baruch, Speech Before the First Session of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, Hunter College, New York, 14 June 1946 (online).

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