The Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) presents a felicitous opportunity for us to consider anew the problem of nuclear weapons. While the prospect of nuclear annihilation hangs over us perpetually like the sword of Damocles, most of us choose the serenity of inattention. Admittedly, the past few weeks have brought an uptick in nuclear-related anxiety, courtesy of the online ravings of the former star of NBC’s The Apprentice. Still, there is a widespread sense, at least among Americans and our Western allies, that a nuclear exchange is virtually impossible in the modern era. We dimly recall that there were some rather hairy moments during the Cold War — a standoff over Cuba — but the other fellow blinked and we muddled through somehow. Though there’s plenty of bluster on both sides of the North Korean crisis, it’s nowhere that bad now, we assure ourselves. Consequently, there is little questioning of U.S. nuclear policy and a dearth of activism aimed at total disarmament.
We were not always so blasé about the existence of weapons that could destroy life on this planet several times over, as even a cursory survey of the history of the anti-nuclear movement demonstrates. From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, “Women Strike for Peace” organized marched across the United States, articulating both maternalist and feminist critiques of nuclear weapons. During the same period, thousands of Britons participated annually in the Aldermaston marches, demanding the termination of Great Britain’s nuclear program and the abolition of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.
The early 1980s saw even larger anti-nuclear protests, due to Ronald Reagan’s acceleration of the arms race. On June 12, 1982, over a million people filled New York City’s Central Park to protest the nuclear buildup; a year later, over three million people took part in similar demonstrations across western Europe, protesting the deployment of U.S. cruise and medium-range ballistic missiles.
After the Cold War, the sense of imminent catastrophe that led millions to organize against nuclear weapons receded. The threat, of course, remains to this day. The United States and the Russian Federation each possess several thousand nuclear warheads, many of which are aging and poorly maintained, constituting a grave environmental hazard. Both countries maintain nearly a thousand nuclear weapons on prompt-alert, or “hair-trigger,” status, increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange, particularly during times of tension. Moreover, the peace between India and Pakistan, both of which possess nuclear weapons, remains precarious. The nuclear threat has also metastasized since the Cold War, due to the rise of international terrorist organizations that seek weapons of mass destruction and cannot be deterred from using them in the same way nation-states can.
Despite the danger, only a handful of the most dedicated activists, such as ICAN and the radical Christian pacifist movement, Ploughshares, continue to campaign for nuclear disarmament. The media and the general public pay virtually no attention to the nuclear policy of the United States, except when a non-Western country unwilling to accept Pax Americana attempts to develop nuclear capabilities (and in the case of North Korea, succeeds in doing so). Consider the complete lack of public debate surrounding the Obama administration’s trillion-dollar, thirty-year plan to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal. We may not have learned to love the bomb, but most of us have learned to stop worrying.
Recent events ought to shake us out of our complacency. Donald Trump demonstrates the folly of giving a single man the power to pick up the telephone and kill millions of people within 25 minutes, as an inebriated and despondent Richard Nixon once put it. Trump’s language regarding nuclear weapons is cavalier in the extreme, and he appears to see no reason why nonproliferation and arms control policies are in the interest of the United States, not to mention all humanity. He has made repeated genocidal threats to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” upon North Korea, a nation of 25 million people. Directly contradicting his maladroit secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he has dismissed diplomacy with Pyongyang as a waste of time and declared that “only one thing” — presumably military force — will solve the crisis. Tweet by tweet, we are edging towards a conflict that would almost certainly result in mushroom clouds over the Korean Peninsula, with millions dead and countless more maimed and poisoned.
At the same time, Trump has refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency and members of Trump’s own national security team have verified Iran’s adherence to the letter of the agreement. This move jeopardizes the survival of the deal, the greatest obstacle in the way of Iran obtaining the bomb. Undoubtedly, it signals to the world (including the North Korean leadership) that the United States cannot be trusted to uphold its diplomatic commitments.
While Trump’s recklessly belligerent remarks and injudicious policies should spur us to action, the problem presented by nuclear weaponry transcends the senile reality television star presently occupying the White House. We ought to find the existence of these weapons unacceptable even if they could be forever entrusted to imperturbable, compassionate, Ivy League-educated constitutional lawyers.
First of all, it is deeply immoral to give a single person the ability to use weapons of mass destruction whenever and wherever he or she wishes. We have ceded to our chief executive power infinitely greater than that of the mightiest tyrants in human history. He or she need consult no one, neither citizen nor foreigner, before taking action that could wipe out cities, states and entire continents in less than an hour. Such an arrangement is unjust to the point of absurdity. Needless to say, this “thermonuclear monarchy” is utterly incompatible with the principles of republican governance and constitutionalism this nation still professes to hold.
Secondly, while nuclear weapons are machines with tremendous destructive power, they are made and operated by human beings, a species highly prone to error. Indeed, recent history is replete with examples of nearly catastrophic nuclear accidents. Consider the 1961 Goldsboro nuclear accident, when a U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed, dropping two thermonuclear bombs on a North Carolina farm (three of the four safety mechanisms on one of the bombs failed, one worked, and North Carolina remains to tell the tale).
Or take a more recent, post-Cold War example: in 1995, Russian early-warning systems detected what appeared to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile headed towards Moscow. The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was brought the “nuclear briefcase” and given six minutes to decide whether to launch a massive retaliatory strike on the United States and its NATO allies. After a few minutes passed, Yeltsin’s military advisers concluded the missile was not headed towards Russian territory. In fact, it was a weather rocket launched by a team of Norwegian and American scientists. Every day these weapons exist is a perilous gamble with Armageddon, and our luck in the past is no indicator of future success.
At present, the threat posed by nuclear weapons far outweighs the attention paid to it. While the workings of the Nobel Committee are mysterious and often suspect (e.g., Henry Kissinger), their decision to present this year’s award to ICAN ought to encourage us to do our part to remedy this lack of attention. We should be under no illusion that abolishing nuclear weapons will be simple or undemanding. The political establishment, arms manufacturers, nationalist sentiment and that supremely powerful political force, inertia, stand in our way, to name just a few obstacles.
However, when the survival of our species is at stake, incrementalism is impractical. Nuclear strategists of the mid-twentieth century claimed, with no small pride in their cold rationality, to “think the unthinkable” when they contemplated the most efficient ways of incinerating millions of their fellow men and women. In the twenty-first century, we must collectively think of something perhaps even more unthinkable, a world without nuclear weapons, and form a broad-based popular coalition to bring such a world about.