Reflections on Nuclear Weapons and Nonproliferation
As we commemorate this horrible anniversary, all who hope for peace could take some small encouragement from the agreement on July 6, between Presidents Obama and Medvedev, to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia, even if they will still have, between them, enough warheads to blast, broil, and microwave every living thing on the planet, except for the mutant cockroaches. More encouraging is that President Obama has long had a vision of a nuclear-free world. An article in the New York Times of July 5 documents that, as early as his college years at Columbia, he wrote a paper on negotiating strategic arms reductions with the Soviets, and an article for the student newspaper advocating the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as “a powerful first step towards a nuclear free world.” We have a president (at last) who sees the problem and dreams of the solution. Can he make that dream real?
Ever since the United States became the first nuclear-armed country (and the only country ever to use those weapons), we have pursued a policy of nonproliferation, seeking to prevent the development of such arms by any other country. We saw ourselves at the time as the saviors and guardians of worldwide peace. As developers and custodians of this awesome weapon, we found it self-evident that no other country could be trusted to have it, since only we could be trusted to use it to make peace, not war. For the architects of the Bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evidence for this proposition: before we dropped it, the world was at war; after, the world was at peace. QED.
Leaders of other countries didn’t see it that way. By 1950, the Soviets had the Bomb. By 1960, so did Britain, France and China. Germany and Japan clearly could have done so, but as the losers of World War II, they prudently and discreetly put themselves under the American nuclear shield. In 1968, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was signed, and went into effect in 1970. At present, 189 states are signatories and thus committed to refrain from developing or spreading nuclear weapons. However, certain countries, whose governments saw a strategic interest or need, did not adhere to the treaty, and have developed nuclear weapons: Israel (neither admitted nor denied, but everybody knows), India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Western intelligence agencies appear to be convinced that Iran is developing such weapons, notwithstanding its adherence to the treaty and its assertions that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
Nonproliferation clearly has not worked, whether as US policy or as treaty. The Soviets insisted on going nuclear because the US had done so. The Chinese did it because both the US and the USSR had done it. India did it because China did. Pakistan did it because India did. The British and French did it to stake their claim to great power status. The Israelis did it, I suppose, as a Samson strategy: if an overwhelming Arab or Iranian attack were to come, the Israelis would bring down the whole house. I won’t even begin to analyze the motives of the North Koreans and Iranians. The point is, with all these nervous nuclear nations out there, the risk of nuclear war is higher now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The greatest danger is perhaps between India and Pakistan. Endless tensions over Kashmir are compounded by quasi-official Pakistani support of insurgents and terrorists in India, and the extreme fragility of the Pakistani regime. It is by no means impossible that Pakistan could come to feel so threatened by India that it would initiate a nuclear attack. India is pledged to no first use of nuclear weapons, but we may be sure that if it were attacked with such weapons by Pakistan, India would literally annihilate Pakistan. The scale of probable destruction in such densely populated countries beggars the imagination.
Similarly, North Korea might feel threatened enough to attack South Korea or Japan, while Iran could attack Israel, or Israel could attack Iran. Any of these eventualities would lead to regional nuclear war involving the United States, because of our strong treaty commitments to one of the parties.
A common element in most, if not all of these latter-day nuclear powers is a high level of paranoia among the people who set nuclear strategy: they are all seemingly convinced that enemies on every side are poised to attack, and are deterred only by nuclear weapons. Sound familiar? Sooner or later, deterrence won’t work. After all, it depends on the rationality of the very people who show symptoms of paranoia!
Nonproliferation simply hasn’t worked, and for a very basic reason. The United States, as the first nuclear power, never offered to disarm itself. The whole structure of the nuclear arms race is built upon the US as the first nuclear power. Remove that foundation, and the justification for other nuclear arsenals disappears. If we really want a world without nuclear weapons, we need to start at home. That must be the mission of the American peace movement.
Like the abolitionists, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, we must stand for what is right, even against long odds. By taking and holding that stand for the long run, we lower the odds against us and raise the prospect of our ultimate success. We owe that to those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we owe it to the Indians and Pakistanis, to the Iranians and Israelis who are at risk now; we owe it to our grandchildren.