It has been 60 years since the U.S. government used atomic bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons killed 200,000 people outright and left tens of thousands of others dying of radiation-induced cancers or afflicted by birth defects, immunological disorders and psychological traumas. It was a grim beginning to the nuclear age and led millions of people around the globe to conclude that the world stood on the brink of destruction.
Fortunately, since 1945, we have managed to avert that fate. Thanks to widespread public pressure and the efforts of some far-sighted statesmen, governments around the world have exercised a surprising level of nuclear restraint. They have resisted the temptation to carry their quarrels to the level of nuclear war and have agreed to important nuclear arms control and disarmament measures.
Perhaps the most important of these measures is the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by virtually all nations. Under its provisions, non-nuclear nations pledged to forgo developing nuclear weapons and nuclear nations pledged to divest themselves of their own nuclear weapons. In this fashion, nations agreed to move toward a nuclear-free world.
As a result, out of almost 200 nations, only eight — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States — are now nuclear states, although another, North Korea, might have them, too. Furthermore, the number of nuclear weapons in existence has declined, from about 70,000 at the height of the Cold War to some 30,000 today.
Unfortunately, during the past decade, this modest progress has been reversed. The Republican-dominated U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, India and Pakistan became nuclear states and additional nations have shown signs of joining the nuclear line.
The policies of the Bush administration have been regressive. It has spurned the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and abandoned negotiations for nuclear arms control and disarmament. It also has championed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons — despite the fact that the U.S. already possesses some 10,000 of them — and affirmed its willingness to initiate nuclear war. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration’s policies helped to wreck the recent NPT review conference at the U.N., where nations condemned its double standard.
The Bush administration’s determination to preserve U.S. nuclear options seems particularly inappropriate to its "war on terror." There is no morally acceptable way to employ nuclear weapons against terrorists, for terrorists do not control fixed territory. Instead, they intermingle with the general population and cannot be bombarded with nuclear weapons without causing a Hiroshima-style massacre of civilians.
Conversely, the maintenance of nuclear stockpiles by the United States and other nations provides terrorists with the opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons through theft, bribery or purchase. Thus, the only way to ensure against a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons or materials is to eliminate them from national arsenals.
In these increasingly dangerous circumstances, many thousands of Americans — joined by concerned people around the globe — will be holding events this August to commemorate the atomic bombings and to demand that the nations of the world get back on track to nuclear disarmament. On Aug. 6, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, these actions will be especially large and prominent at the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Lab in New Mexico, the Livermore Nuclear Weapons Lab in California, the U.S. nuclear test site in Nevada and the Y-12 Nuclear Facility in Tennessee. On Aug. 9, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, there will be candlelight vigils held at city halls across the United States.
There also is pressure for nuclear disarmament emerging in Congress, where Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., has introduced a resolution in the House (HR 373) calling for a comprehensive disarmament program. "There will be no security for America or our world," she said, "unless we take all steps necessary for nuclear disarmament."
Today, 60 years after the inception of the nuclear era, these words are all too true. Thus far, through nuclear restraint, we have managed to stave off the specter of nuclear annihilation that has haunted the world since 1945. The future remains a race between wisdom and catastrophe.
Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).
This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.