Wednesday is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and an appropriate time to reflect upon the persistence of nuclear danger. The world’s nine nuclear powers continue to cling to some 27,000 nuclear weapons, almost all of them more deadly than that first atomic bomb, which annihilated an estimated 140,000 Japanese men, women, and children. They do so even as most people recognized long ago that nuclear war spells doom.
Have we really learned so little from Hiroshima’s terrible fate?
For a time, it seemed that nothing at all was learned. The U.S. and Soviet governments competed with one another to build bigger and more destructive nuclear arsenals. And, soon thereafter, they were joined by Britain, France, China, and Israel.
But then something extraordinary occurred. Millions of people rose up to resist this nuclear arms race — assailing nuclear testing, nuclear weapons buildups, and other preparations for nuclear war. As a result, government officials began to temper their nuclear ambitions. They agreed upon a broad range of arms control and disarmament treaties. Others decided against building nuclear weapons, turned their countries into nuclear-free zones, or abandoned nuclear weapons altogether. Perhaps the most important of the treaties was the nuclear nonproliferation treaty of 1968, under which the non-nuclear powers agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and the nuclear powers agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals. The number of nuclear weapons declined sharply and the menace of nuclear war began to recede.
Nevertheless, starting in the late 1990s, the nuclear danger began to revive. In the U.S. Senate, Republicans blocked U.S. ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. Pointing to the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill their disarmament pledges, India and Pakistan exploded their first nuclear weapons, while North Korea moved forward with its own nuclear program. Most dramatically, the new administration of George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM treaty, ended U.S. participation in nuclear disarmament negotiations and pressed Congress to fund the building of new U.S. nuclear weapons.
Yes, the Bush administration launched a war over what it claimed was the possession of nuclear weapons by Iraq (although, in fact, Iraq didn’t possess any) and today is taking a very hard line toward Iran (which also does not possess them and might not even be developing them). But, in defiance of the disarmament commitment of the nuclear powers, the President seems thoroughly comfortable with his own command of some 10,000 nuclear weapons and his proposals for more.
Now there’s pressure to get back on track toward a nuclear-free world. Peace and disarmament organizations, of course, have long championed nuclear abolition, and continue to do so. But they have now been joined by an important segment of the foreign and defense policy establishment. In dramatic columns published in The Wall Street Journal in January 2007 and 2008, George Shultz (Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state), Henry Kissinger (Richard Nixon’s secretary of state), William Perry (Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense), and Sam Nunn (former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee) argued that the time has come to press forward toward a nuclear-free world.
In addition, Barack Obama has called repeatedly for nuclear abolition. Speaking in mid-July, the Democratic presidential candidate promised to "make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy." John McCain also has announced that he shares the dream of a nuclear-free world.
These are popular positions. An opinion survey in the summer of 2007 found that the abolition of all nuclear weapons, through an enforceable agreement, was supported by 74 percent of the public in the United States, 85 percent in Britain, 87 percent in France, and 95 percent in Germany and Italy.
Indicative of this growing consensus, Ambassador Max Kampelman, a former Reagan administration official who has done much to get the nuclear abolition ball rolling among foreign and defense policy elites, spoke on July 20 at the convention of Peace Action, America’s largest peace organization. Kampelman stressed the dangers of nuclear proliferation and argued that it cannot be halted without U.S. government willingness to move at last to abolish its own nuclear arsenal.
Maybe we have learned something after all.
This article originally appeared in the TimesUnion.com.