The first nuclear bomb detonation in July 1945 and the surprise attacks on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year ignited a global debate about the role, the morality, and the control of nuclear weapons that continues to this day.
Then as now, some judged that the catastrophic dangers inherent in nuclear weapons outweigh any justification for their existence or at least for large numbers of such weapons, leading them to seek meaningful nuclear restraints. Others considered nuclear weapons to be legitimate military and political instruments that guarantee national security by deterring threats or attacks. In an effort to maintain a technological edge or at least a balance of terror, they argued for an ever increasing array of nuclear capabilities. Still others, including much of the American public, have embraced some elements of both perspectives.
Since the bombings in Japan, nuclear weapons have not been used in a military attack. Yet they have left a trail of devastation, including: cancer victims from the fallout from atmospheric nuclear test explosions, contaminated workers and radioactive and toxic pollution from nuclear weapons production plants.
Although the U.S.-Soviet superpower competition that gave rise to the development, testing, and deployment of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear delivery systems ended nearly twenty years ago, many of the weapons and the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use persist.
Russia and the United States still possess nearly 20,000 nuclear bombs--more than 90 percent of the world total. In addition to the United States and Russia, there are now seven more nuclear-armed nations: the U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
In recent years, the overall number of nuclear weapons has declined and their use viewed as increasingly unacceptable. However, many U.S. and Russian weapons remain primed for quick launch, nuclear weapons material stocks remain insecure, some states continue to produce nuclear bomb material, a few states still refuse to ratify a global ban on nuclear testing, and some states retain the option to use nuclear weapons in conflicts that begin with conventional weapons. There is a risk that additional countries may utilize “peaceful” nuclear technologies to produce fissile material for bombs. Consequently, our nuclear anxieties persist, and the struggle to contain and eliminate the nuclear weapons danger continues.
As President Barack Obama said in an eloquent July 27 speech: “… together, we must strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by renewing its basic bargain: countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. A balance of terror cannot hold. In the 21st century, a strong and global regime is the only basis for security from the world's deadliest weapons.”
To back up his words with meaningful action, President Obama can and must direct the Pentagon to shed Cold War thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear targeting as it undertakes the congressionally-mandated Nuclear Posture Review that is due by the end of this year.
As I said in my July 29 address to a symposium sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, so long as the United States hangs on to these obsolete Cold War nuclear missions and implies the potential use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional, chemical, and biological threats, U.S. nuclear weapons will be more of a liability than an asset in addressing today’s highest national security priority: preventing the use of nuclear weapons and their proliferation to terrorists and additional states.
President Obama can and should immediately restrict the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to a core deterrence mission: maintaining a sufficient, survivable nuclear force for the sole purpose of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by another country against the United States or its allies.
However one feels about nuclear weapons and their role, it is essential that the devastating and horrific effects of just one nuclear detonation are clearly understood and that the experience and lessons of the people affected are not forgotten. Otherwise, the very motivation behind the decades-long effort to reduce and eliminate them, to deter and refrain from their use, and to stop their spread may diminish, and political leaders and military theoreticians may come to believe in the “usability” of these most terrible killing machines.
It is everyone’s task to understand the devastating power and tremendous human, environmental, and financial costs of nuclear weapons. It is everyone’s responsibility--especially the leaders of the world nations--to take action now to reduce and eliminate the chance nuclear weapons are used again.
On the occasion of the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Arms Control Today presents the following short, annotated photo essay to help recall and confront the consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war in ways that words cannot describe.