by Ivan Oelrich
Today is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, which was one of those rare events that divides human history into a before and an after. That day was the beginning of the nuclear age. There is nothing special about sixty-four, not like a fiftieth or a centenary. But, years from now, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing may be seen as special: there is a chance that people looking back on today’s anniversary will see this as the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.
The Cold War came to a close two decades ago but only now are national leaders seriously considering a world free of nuclear weapons. Even those who see a global ban as a long-term goal can see that making serious progress in the direction of that goal will enhance the security of the nation and the world.
The number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen dramatically from their frightening Cold War peaks. This decline is not due primarily to arms control treaties or any sudden rationality of national leaders. The numbers have gone down mostly because the missions for nuclear weapons —everything from nuclear torpedoes to nuclear land mines—have been taken over by militarily superior alternatives: advanced, guided, accurate conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons have gone away primarily because they are becoming technologically obsolete.
Obviously, the end of the Cold War was important too. The Cold War was a stand-off between two implacable ideologies, each of which felt it had a historic mandate to guide the future of the world. Nuclear weapons, weapons of global destruction, might have seemed appropriate to an ideological struggle of global dimension. But today, the stakes in play are smaller. If ever there were a global political justification for nuclear weapons, it no longer applies. Nuclear weapons are becoming politically obsolete.
Nuclear advocates, unwilling to admit that they are planning for the use of nuclear weapons, always talk in terms of deterrence, a term that has become so vague, misused, and overused that it barely means anything anymore. Those wanting a robust nuclear force, who want to think it is useful, even crucial, emphasize that deterring some action by threatening retaliation requires both the ability to retaliate and the willingness to do so. They make much of the need to constantly keep the perception of U.S. capability and willingness very high to deter any possible enemy.
There are three problems (at least three) with this use of the latent power of nuclear weapons. First, history shows it doesn’t work. Whether the U.S. in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or in a score of other cases, having nuclear weapons does not automatically deter wars between nuclear and non-nuclear adversaries or win them, if they are not deterred. Second, nuclear weapons are so wildly destructive that the United States—and the other established nuclear powers—have destructive power at hand far in excess of any imaginable need. There is no reason to worry about the details of our nuclear capability. Finally, some nuclear advocates argue that we need to have smaller nuclear weapons to make our willingness to use them more plausible, so they will deter more effectively. This is the sort of more-is-less upside-down logic that only nuclear theorists could hope to get away with. But all the tweaking and fine-tuning of the nuclear arsenal will not change the plausibility of their use compared to one outstanding, and hopeful, fact: nuclear weapons have not been used in war for sixty-four years. If they were not used in Korea, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or the Falklands, or Iraq, their use is going to be even less plausible in similar conflicts in the future. The logic is inescapable but nuclear advocates will not face it: the only thing that can make the use of nuclear weapons significantly more plausible (and, thus, they argue, a better deterrent) is to occasionally use them. If we want to frighten non-nuclear nations with our nuclear weapons, we have to bomb one of them every decade or so. Mercifully, after sixty-four years, no nuclear power has done this. Moreover, every year that passes without nuclear use further erodes the plausibility of future nuclear use for anything other than national survival. The strategic leverage provided by nuclear weapons continues to erode. Nuclear weapons are becoming strategically obsolete.
Finally, the moral question of nuclear weapons is often overlooked. They have been with us so long, we have stopped asking the hard questions. Nuclear weapons analysts, both pro and con, avoid the squishy problems of moral debate if they want to be taken seriously. Yet, nuclear weapons force many of the moral concerns about war into stark relief. The customary laws of war are that violent action should be proportionate to the threat and should, to the extent possible, distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Thus, what is moral depends in part on technology. If no alternatives exist, then an indiscriminant weapon might be justified. But today, alternatives do exist. Nuclear weapons are becoming morally obsolete.
Today’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons is not a call for sacrifice. It is not a call to accept greater risk for our country to improve the security of the rest of the world. It is not a call to take a moral stand, rejecting something that is wrong, but admittedly useful. The call for a nuclear free world is an acknowledgement that the curtain is starting to close on the nuclear age. Battleships, the very epitome of great nation power, ruled the oceans for about the same length of time the Nuclear Age has lasted. They arose, they had their day, and then a combination of changes in technology and global politics displaced those awesome, powerful giants and they were retired. Nuclear advocates are fighting an aggressive and skillful rear-guard action, fueled by nostalgia for the certainties of the past and a lack of imagination about the future just as romantics wanted to keep battleships alive long after aircraft carriers, submarines, radar, and cruise missiles had made them obsolete. Nuclear weapons are in the middle of this process of obsolescence. It is better to speed the process along and reduce the risk nuclear weapons pose to world civilization, to explicitly reject them and plan for their demise than to continue to bumble through the danger we daily face but have become inured to. For the first time since Hiroshima, the world seems ready to listen. It may be, a generation from now, that sixty-four will be seen as a special anniversary.