Monday, April 6, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament: Yes We Must

As an elementary school student during the 1960s, I and other students across America took part in drills to prepare us to survive a nuclear attack. We dutifully crawled under our desks, to shield us from falling plaster, I guess. Then, on the walk home, I stood at the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place in Manhattan, looking to the northeast at the Empire State Building--not even two and a half miles away. It was widely rumored that the Soviets had two 20-megaton hydrogen fusion bombs aimed there. My school desk would not provide much protection against a blast that would vaporize the entire city block on which my school stood. I was stunned to learn, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that some American political leaders and think tank consultants, such as Herman Kahn, talked about 'winning' a nuclear war, and about 'acceptable' levels of American casualties during a nuclear conflict--casualties in the tens of millions, of which I would undoubtedly be one, along with everyone I knew.

For a total of eight months during 1978-1980, I lived in and near Hiroshima, Japan, where one of the first atomic bombs had been detonated, at the end of World War II. The Hiroshima atomic fission bomb, "Little Boy," was a weak little monster by today's standards, with 'only' a 13-kiloton yield, or the explosive equivalent of 13K tons, or 26 million pounds, of dynamite. (A 20-megaton hydrogen fusion weapon has the explosive equivalent of 20,000K tons, or 40 billion pounds, of dynamite--well over 1,000 times the power of "Little Boy.") Yet, the Hiroshima weapon immolated about 75,000 civilians instantly (with more dying later). At the museum in Hiroshima's Peace Park, I saw artifacts and photos illustrating blast effects. In this city divided by many rivers, photos of bridges showed the permanent "shadows" created by the brilliant blast, shadows left behind by morning commuters, as well as children who had been walking to school on those bridges at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the children and the commuters and everyone else were turned into piles of hot ash. (See photo above; note the outline of the shoes.)

(Yes, I know the received wisdom about the bombing being 'necessary to end the war.' I don't buy it; the historical facts show otherwise. See Howard Zinn's essay about this claim.)

The 1980s saw the publication of books like Carl Sagan's A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, and Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, which documented how even 'small-scale' nuclear war could bring about global nuclear winter, changing the climate of the planet for generations, ending human civilization. (See also Schell's The Abolition, and his 2007 book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.)

In the 1990s, with the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, I wondered who was taking charge of Soviet nuclear arms. I learned that, for all practical purposes, no one was; nuclear materials were being protected on lonely bases by rusty locks and corruptible guards. Consequently, there is now a lively international black market in nuclear materials and technology.

Yesterday in Prague, President Obama made an observation that should have been obvious since the demise of the Soviet Union: "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He has called for a renewal of American and international efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

I am not a pacifist. However, I have come to understand that the mere existence of nuclear weapons presents a threat to the survival of the entire human race. They must be eliminated from the armories of the nations of the world, and they must be kept from the hands of stateless terrorist forces.

Some say disarmament cannot be accomplished at this late date. I say this is a problem of will, not practicality. We have satellite technology that can read newspaper headlines from space; surely we can find a way to monitor the world for nuclear weapons.

Some say disarmament is weakness. I say it shows the will to survive. We are not the stronger for holding weapons that can destroy humanity; we are only making it more probable that some extremist politician or military officer or terrorist will someday use them.

I do not wish my someday grandchildren to end up as shadows on a bridge. Let us end these weapons now, before they end all of our hopes and dreams. I urge you to contact your federal Senators and Representative to instruct them to follow the President's lead on this matter, including the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear disarmament is clearly On The Mark.


Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger. (2009, April 6). Citing rising risk, Obama seeks nuclear arms cuts: Warns of spread of bomb technology in black market. The New York Times [late edition], pp. A1, A8.


Thanks to Adam Harrison Levy for posting the Hiroshima bridge picture on the site of DesignObserver with his story, "Hiroshima: The Lost Photographs."


  1. Neither am I a pacifist, but I tend to adhere more closely to Teddy Roosevelt's idea: Speak softly and carry a big stick. Do you not fear that Obama speaks softly while handing out baseball bats and lying our stick down on an unholy ground? My fear is that somewhere a terrorist lies in wait with a suitcase nuke, and at some point it will appear in our nation's capital...or the parking garage at Disneyland (which scares me all the more, given my proximity)...and I would stake my life on the fact that that suitcase bomb originated from a place with excess nuclear weapons, and likely not our own. When that bomb goes off, not only do I wish to have my children far, far away, and my food storage and supplies in order, but I want my country equipped with a big stick to intimidate other would-be terrorists into having second thoughts...

  2. Jessica: I think I understand your concerns. Just to put my own context on the table: I have four children myself (grown up and scattered about the country--but, believe me, that doesn't keep me from worrying about them one little bit); also, I live merely 2.5 miles from Grand Central Station in Manhattan, which is the next likeliest place (next to Wall Street) for a suitcase nuke to be targeted. So, I'm with you. However, let me point out a thing or two.

    Back in the day (circa 1960-1990), when what we were worried about the threat posed by other nuclear-weaponed nations, like the old Soviet Union, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) approach--"mess with my country, and we all end up as glowing gases"--made a certain twisted sense. (I'm not approving of this approach, mind you--it has immense risks--I'm just saying that I understand the logic.)

    Now, however, the MAD approach makes no sense whatsoever. A terrorist organization is not a nation; it cannot be targeted with retaliatory nukes. We've got nowhere to aim our Big Nuclear Stick, even if we wanted to.

    In addition--and this is the real kicker--a lot of these organizations are openly suicidal. They would like nothing more than to have The Great Satan, America, nuke them to glory--an event that they might hope would unite, say, the entire Islamic world against America. Hence, they have no incentive at all to avoid our Big Nuclear Stick! Rather, they'd like us to use it.

    You asked me an honest question, and here's an honest answer: No, I don't fear that Obama is making us more vulnerable at all. I think he's taking the only approach that might lead us to greater safety as a nation. ("Handing out baseball bats"?? How do you mean?)

    The previous administration, by alienating the entire Muslim world, did indeed make us more vulnerable; as one general put it, we were creating terrorists faster than the US Army could kill them.

    Your fear about the suitcase-nuke-in-the-parking-garage is well taken. However, there is no Big Nuclear Stick that will intimidate other would-be terrorists into having second thoughts. Rather, the way to deal with this is to attack the underlying way of thinking that would drive such attacks in the first place: undermining the idea that America hates Islam, and so forth. (Of course, coupled with vigorous Homeland Security-style detection of nuclear materials at our borders--something where our actions leave a lot to be desired, incidentally.)

    Thank you for your detailed response.


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