Kicking the Nuclear Habit: Why We Need a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

News Abroad

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).]

With President Barack Obama and other world leaders now talking about building a nuclear-free world, it is time to consider whether that would be a good idea.

Six reasons for supporting nuclear abolition are particularly cogent.

The first is that nuclear weapons are morally abhorrent.  After all, they are instruments of widespread, indiscriminate slaughter.  They destroy entire cities and entire regions, massacring civilian and soldier, friend and foe, the innocent and the guilty, including large numbers of children.  The only crime committed by the vast majority of victims of a nuclear attack is that they happened to live on the wrong side of a national boundary.

The second reason is that nuclear war is suicidal.  A nuclear exchange between nations will kill millions of people on both sides of the conflict and leave the survivors living in a nuclear wasteland, in which—as has been suggested—the living might well envy the dead.  Even if only one side in a conflict employed nuclear weapons, nuclear fallout would spread around the world, as would a lengthy nuclear winter, which would lower temperatures, destroy agriculture and the food supply, and wreck what little was left of civilization.  As numerous observers have remarked, there will be no winners in a nuclear war.
The third reason is that nuclear weapons do not guarantee a nation's security.  Despite their nuclear weapons, the great powers over the decades became entangled in bloody conventional wars.  Millions died in Korea, in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and numerous other lands—including large numbers of people from the nuclear nations.  As the leaders of the nuclear powers learned, their nuclear arsenals did not help them a bit in these conflicts, for other peoples were simply not cowed by their nuclear might.  Nuclear weapons simply weren't useful. 
Nor has the vast nuclear arsenal of the United States protected it from terrorist assault.  On September 11, 2001, nineteen men—armed only with box cutters—staged the largest terrorist raid on the United States in its history, in which some 3,000 people died.  Of what value were U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring this attack?  Of what value are they now in "the war on terror"?  Given the fact that terrorists do not occupy territory, it is difficult to imagine how nuclear weapons can be used against them, either as a deterrent or in military conflict.
The fourth reason is that nuclear weapons undermine national security.  Of course, this contention defies the conventional wisdom that the Bomb is a "deterrent."  And yet, consider the case of the United States.  It was the first nation to develop atomic bombs and, for some years, had a monopoly of them.  But in response to the U.S. nuclear monopoly, the Soviet government built atomic bombs.  And so the U.S. government built hydrogen bombs.  Whereupon the Soviet government built hydrogen bombs.  Then the two nations competed in building guided missiles, and missiles with multiple warheads, and on and on.  Meanwhile, other nations built and deployed their nuclear weapons.  And, each year, all these nations felt less and less secure.  And they were less secure, because the more they threatened others, the more they were threatened in return! 
Moreover, as long as nuclear weapons exist there remains the possibility of accidental nuclear war.  Over the course of the Cold War and in the years since then, there have been numerous false alarms about an enemy attack that have nearly led to the launching of a nuclear response with devastating potential consequences.  Furthermore, nuclear weapons can end up being exploded in one's own nation.  For example, in the summer of 2008 the top officials of the U.S. Air Force were dismissed from their posts because, thoughtlessly, they had allowed U.S. flights with live nuclear weapons to take place over U.S. territory.
The fifth reason is that, while nuclear weapons exist, there will be a temptation to use them in wars.  Waging war has been an ingrained habit for thousands of years and, therefore, it is unlikely that this practice will soon be ended.  And as long as wars exist, governments will be tempted to draw upon their stockpiles of nuclear weapons to win them.
Admittedly, nuclear armed nations have not used nuclear weapons for war since 1945.  But this reflects the development of massive popular resistance to nuclear conflict, which stigmatized the use of nuclear weapons and pushed reluctant government officials toward arms control and disarmament agreements.  But we cannot assume that, in the context of bitter wars and threats to national survival, nuclear restraint will continue forever.  Indeed, it seems likely that, the longer nuclear weapons exist, the greater the possibility that they will be used in a war.
The sixth reason is that, while nuclear weapons remain in national arsenals, the dangers posed by terrorism are vastly enhanced.  Terrorists cannot build nuclear weapons by themselves, as the creation of such weapons requires vast resources, substantial territory, and a good deal of scientific knowledge.  The only way terrorists will attain a nuclear capability is by obtaining the weapons or the materials for them from the arsenals of the nuclear powers—either by donation, by purchase, or by theft.  Therefore, as long as governments possess nuclear weapons, the potential exists for terrorists to secure access to them.
What, then, is holding us back from nuclear abolition?  Certainly it is not the public, which poll after poll shows in favor of building a nuclear-free world.  Even many government leaders now agree that getting rid of nuclear weapons is desirable.  The real obstacle is the long-term habit of drawing upon the most powerful weapons available to resolve conflicts among hostile nations.  This habit, though, has proved a deeply counter-productive, irrational one—worse than smoking, worse than drugs, worse than almost anything imaginable, for it places civilization on the brink of destruction.  It is time to kick it—and create a nuclear-free world.

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J R Willis - 6/22/2009

Either the author has the worst timing in the universe, or he lives in a strange reality.

Trotting out reason why nuclear weapons are dangerous is a bit dry, but asking for an impossibility (the "abolition of nuclear weapons")is somewhat childish.

The "world" agreed to abolish chemical weapons, genocide, non-uniformed combatants,and the Fokker D-VII.

Read the daily news, and we might find everything but the latter as a dog-eared card well played in recent times.

By all means, let all nuclear nations lay down their nukes. We can then revert to napalm, gas chambers, guillotines, and swords. Far more humane, these.


Mark Reitz - 6/22/2009

I dispute whether knowledge of nucleur technology would forever remain a mystery but for the US and Soviet scientists. Scientific knowledge - especially in warfare - has its own way in being discovered. I believe that even if the US had not had the Manhattan Project, the Soviets would have developed their own program anyway, and other countries and scientists would have likewise discovery the secrets of atomic weapons.

I demur to your statement that but for imperialistic western countries, the third world would forever remain peaceful, content not to mix it up in the international world. Capacity makes for action. The West had the capacity to delve into world affairs, and the Iran/Afghanistan-like nations did not. That equation has changed, and will certainly change again if nucleur technology is acquired.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/22/2009

Had the US and then other contries not built their nuclear arsenals, neither Iran nor North Korea would even possessed the know-how to follow the suit. Even now, had the latter two been assured the US and its allies never attack them first (the official promise they asked the US, , to give many times, in vain of course), they would have no need or desire to built any WMDs.
Plus, the Iraq and Afghanistan cases are not only quite fresh in anyone's memory, but continue to the tragedy of those two nations.
Neither Iran nor Afghanistan had attacked any other country for about two centures of the modern history, while the Western "peace-loving democracies", including the US, did this on multiple occasions, many times under flimsiest or conspicuosly false pretexts.
So, stop repeating your obsolete imperialistic garbage, please.

Mark Reitz - 6/22/2009

Agreed. If would be nice if there was no violence of any kind in the world, and it was all fuzzy bunnies and cotten candy. However, that's not how the world works. Is there any doubt that both NK and Iran see a nucleur weapon as in their own perceived best interest? And is there any doubt that they would in fact use their weapon if they felt either all was lost or they could get away with it? The technology is out of the bag, and there's no way to stuff if back in. For the major powers to relinquish all deterent of their own arsenals while leaving the weapons in the hands of the least rational nations is an invitation to blackmail on a world-wide scale.

John D. Beatty - 6/22/2009

...then you stand a better chance. They will not disarm simply because you want them to. No one will.

Move this same argument back to the 12th Century, change nuclear weapon for crossbows, repeat as necessary for any weapon you choose.