NUCLEAR ALERT

growing insecurity as nuclear weapons spread and willingness to use them increases


FOR THOUSANDS of years civilised society has been governed by the old Roman dictum ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’. The fact is that preparation for war in order to secure peace has usually brought not peace but war.

The ultimate advance in efficient warfare was achieved with the development of nuclear weapons, with their unprecedented potential for causing death and injury not only to the combatants but to the population anywhere on the globe. At one stage during the Cold War, the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had a cumulative destructive power equivalent to 20,000 megatons of TNT. (The total of all explosives in all wars before the nuclear age was less than 5 megatons.) If detonated, this would have been enough to destroy not only the whole of our civilisation but possibly the whole of the human species.

But where is the popcorn?
VIP’s on Runit Island watch an atomic explosion throw 250,000 tons of radioactive reef 35,000 feet into the air. 6.34 am April 8 1951.

The great advances in science and technology during the last few decades have provided us with the technical means for wholesale suicide. In this nuclear age we simply cannot afford to have war, any war, because even a limited armed conflict could escalate into a nuclear holocaust.

An agreement to eliminate all existing nuclear arsenals would not be sufficient to secure the future of humankind. Nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. If in the future we take the wrong road and a conflict occurs between the great powers of the day, it would not take long to rebuild nuclear arsenals. For world security in the long term, we have to take the big step: elimination of war itself.


‘The final decision about where and when to use the bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.’
US president Harry S Truman, who gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

‘The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat of nuclear weapons could be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.’
Legal Opinion given in 1996 by the International Court of Justice. The fourteen judges were split evenly, and the decisive vote was then cast by the Court’s president. The USA had resisted even the request for the Court’s opinion.

The nuclear age began in August 1945 with the detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The vast majority of people alive today were born into the nuclear age. And since no further nuclear weapons have been used in combat, it is easy to understand that most people believe we ‘have learned to live with the bomb’.

But the generally-held belief that a third world war was prevented by the existence of nuclear warheads, and that their presence in the arsenals is no cause for worry, is an illusion. For one thing, many warheads were exploded in testing (a total of 2,051). 528 early tests were carried out in the atmosphere, exposing people around the globe to varying doses of radiation.

The main threat, however, arises from the very existence of nuclear weapons. Thousands are kept in arsenals, presumably for deterrence purposes, but sooner or later they will be used, deliberately or inadvertently. They were used against Japan as soon as they were first made. US president Eisenhower considered their use in the Korean War. It was considered again in the Taiwan crisis, and China developed its own nuclear weapons in response to what it saw as nuclear blackmail by the USA. In the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 we were a hair’s breadth from a nuclear holocaust. In May 2002, during the India-Pakistan crisis over Kashmir, we were officially warned that a conventional war there might escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Among people who have studied these problems, there is a general feeling that the avoidance of a nuclear exchange so far has more to do with good luck than good management. And we cannot rest the security of the world on good luck.

I still remember the feeling of unease, even nausea, when I saw how many of my friends were rushing to celebrate. Of course they were exalted by the success of their work, but it seemed ghoulish to celebrate the sudden death of a hundred thousand people, even if they were “enemies”.’
(nuclear physicist Otto Frisch, on the explosion over Hiroshima)

‘Nuclear weapons have changed everything, except our modes of thought.’
(Albert Einstein)

In a sense, nearly all wars are politically caused. Almost invariably it is a decision by political or military leaders that precipitates a state of war. In the case of international war, leaders may have to weigh up international prestige, the probability of success, possible national gain, internal domestic issues, their own careers, and many other factors. Often their decisions are based on data that are incomplete and ambiguous, and almost inevitably they lack much of the information needed. Their interpretation of the situation may be influenced by their own personalities and ambitions, and by wishful thinking. They may be affected by misperceptions about the enemy, and by irrational assessments of the outcome. They may be angry, or afraid. They are often very tired. For such reasons, the decisions of leaders may be very different from those of an objective outside observer.

Although politicians or military leaders are usually the prime movers in war, history shows that eliminating war is not a matter that can be left solely in their hands. Wars cannot happen unless individuals are willing to go to war or allow themselves to be coerced into doing so. Leaders depend on their followers, even in totalitarian regimes.

Prevention of war requires action both at the grassroots and the political level. Given the world as it is, with war an ever-present possibility, means for conflict resolution are essential. A culture of violence must give way to a culture of peace. We need to be aware of the causes of war and try to remove them. In a world armed with weapons of mass destruction, the use of which might bring the whole of civilisation to an end, we cannot afford a polarised world community with its inherent threat of military confrontations.

‘A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.’
(retiring speech by US president Dwight D Eisenhower, 1961)

The military-industrial-scientific complex of organisations is perhaps the most potent force supporting the institution of war. It can itself be seen as an institution. Of special interest are the psychological processes by which those who have roles in the military-industrial-scientific complex disengage themselves from the moral implications of their actions. In many countries, the military can claim a defensive or peacekeeping role. Some military industrialists and scientists can claim to be working in the cause of peace, though such an excuse covers only part of their activities. But the arms dealers can have no such justification for their actions.
Arms research and production are expensive enterprises, and the governments of arms-producing nations encourage their firms to sell abroad. The resulting arms trade facilitates war, the availability of weapons increasing the probability of violence. And war facilitates the arms trade. The assumption by the defence community that war is an ineradicable characteristic of human societies itself helps to perpetuate the institution of war.

In practice scientists and engineers play an essential role in the arms industry. Indeed, it can be argued that scientists, in improving old weapons and inventing new ones, drive competition in military hardware between rival states, as during the Cold War. Scientists can no longer claim that their work has nothing to do with politics.

‘It is my judgement that when you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do with it after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.’
(nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, director of the atomic bomb project 1943-5)

In the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind has put their disinterested discoveries. Science has often been able to provide new methods and protection against new weapons of aggression it made possible, but it cannot offer such protection against the destructive use of nuclear power. Among all the arguments calling for an efficient international organisation for peace, the existence of nuclear weapons is the most compelling one.’
(from the ‘Franck Report’ of 7 nuclear scientists, June 1945)

No war has a single cause. Every war depends on multiple interacting causes, but one factor is essential - the availability of weapons. Weapons, once possessed, have a way of being used.

The general abhorrence of nuclear weapons following their use on Japan in 1945 resulted in a strong desire, expressed both in public opinion and in the United Nations, to abolish nuclear weapons. This led to a number of treaties, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1968. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely. By 2005 it had an almost universal membership, with the notable absence of three nuclear weapon states (India, Pakistan and North Korea). Under its terms, the 183 non-nuclear countries have undertaken not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the five overt nuclear states have undertaken to get rid of theirs.

But the imminent danger of a nuclear holocaust is on the rise again. To a large extent this is a result of the policies of the USA. In a reversal of the previous doctrine (nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort), the new Nuclear Posture review spells out a strategy that incorporates nuclear capability into conventional war planning. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 had been signed by 175 states by September 2005, but it is unlikely that the USA will ratify it. (Until it and 10 other 'qualifying' states do so, the Treaty cannot come into force.) Indeed, with the decision to start the development of a new type of nuclear warhead, it is very likely that the USA will resume nuclear testing.

In 1957, a group of scientists met in the Canadian village of Pugwash for the first of the ‘Pugwash Conferences’, an organisation of world scientists and scholars concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking co-operative solutions to global problems. As soon as the Cold War was over, Pugwash launched its project towards a nuclear-weapons-free world (NWFW). One direct outcome was the Australian government’s Canberra Commission. The Commission’s Report (1996) was a lucid, eloquent, reasoned elucidation of the dangers arising from the existence of nuclear weapons and the need to get rid of them. ‘The possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a constant stimulus to other states to acquire them.’

The elimination of nuclear weapons is necessary to prevent an immediate danger, but in the long term it will not be sufficient to ensure the security of the human race. Moreover, future advances in science may result in the invention of new means of mass destruction, perhaps even more powerful, perhaps more readily available.

For the concept of a war-free world to become universally accepted, and for war to be made illegal, a process of education will be required: education for peace, education for world citizenship. We have to eradicate the idea that war is an inherent part of human society. We have to change the mind-set that seeks security for one’s own nation in terms that spell insecurity to others. This will require efforts in two directions: a new approach to security, in terms of global security; and developing and nurturing a new loyalty - a loyalty to humankind.

‘If the atomic bomb was merely another (though more devastating) military weapon to be assimilated into our pattern of international relations, it would be one thing. We could then follow the old custom of secrecy, nationalistic military superiority relying on international caution to proscribe the use of the weapon, as we did with gas. But I think the bomb instead constitutes merely a first step in a new control by man over the forces of nature, too revolutionary and dangerous to fit into the old concepts. I think it really caps the race between man’s growing technical power for destructiveness and his psychological power of self-control and group control - his moral power.’
(War secretary Henry L Stimson in a memorandum to US President Harry S Truman, September 11 1945)

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