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Should anything trigger the use of nuclear weapons?

October 3, 2008

John Loretz
Program Director, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

The next President of the United States has an awesome responsibility for the security of the entire world. He (or potentially she) can either lead us toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons, or he can continue to claim that they are essential for US security and ensure their almost inevitable use—whether deliberately or through tragic error.

During the US vice presidential debate on Thursday, October 2, moderator Gwen Ifill asked Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin “What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?”

Neither candidate answered the question. Gov. Palin spoke vaguely about the lethality of nuclear weapons and made an inaccurate statement about US nuclear policy. “Nuclear weaponry,” she said:

“of course, would be the be all, end all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period. Our nuclear weaponry here in the US is used as a deterrent. And that’s a safe, stable way to use nuclear weaponry.”

Not only is there is no “safe, stable way” to use nuclear weapons, given their intolerably destructive nature, but US nuclear policy defines a number of situations in which national leaders might use or threaten to use nuclear weapons preemptively or in response to a non-nuclear attack. Such policies are extremely dangerous; they violate the norms of international law; and they provoke other countries into considering the acquisition of their own nuclear arsenals.

Sen. Biden also sidestepped the question about the use of nuclear weapons and gave an incomplete answer about the importance of arms control. “Barack Obama” he said “…reached across the aisle to my colleague, Dick Lugar, a Republican, and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.’ They put together a piece of legislation that, in fact, was serious and real.” He also spoke about the importance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

His answer, while it demonstrated his expertise in nuclear policy, stopped short of expressing what both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain have said during the campaign: that the world will be safer without nuclear weapons. As a number of senior American statesmen have argued over the past year, any individual arms control measures need to be seen as steps toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

The answer to Ms. Ifill’s question is simple and irrefutable. We must never allow anything to trigger the use of nuclear weapons, because if we use them they will destroy all of us — our adversaries, our allies, and ourselves. There can be no responsible owners of nuclear weapons. Because of their inherent destructiveness, the mere existence of nuclear weapons threatens the future of all humanity.

Increasing knowledge of how to construct nuclear weapons, increasing availability of the materials with which to make a bomb, increasing numbers of people desperate enough to use the bomb, and, most important, a lack of international resolve to banish the bomb from the arsenals of the world, make the use of nuclear weapons inevitable if the next US President and the international community do not act decisively. IPPNW, through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has called for negotiaton and adoption of a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would eliminate all the world’s nuclear weapons.

You can learn more about nuclear weapons and what would happen if they are ever used again here [nwarmedicalcons.pdf]. You can learn how to become part of the solution and become an ICAN supporter here [].

Most important, please tell both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain that there are no responsible owners of nuclear weapons, only responsible leaders who will take the necessary steps to abolish these weapons of mass extermination from the world.

Please let us know how you feel about the remarks of the Vice Presidential Candidates and our opinion of their responses by commenting on this post.

  1. October 9, 2008 4:34 pm

    I meant this

  2. October 9, 2008 4:32 pm

    Re: Robert Karp

    Strong leadership is the byproduct of an engaged, educated and mobilized public! We need to move the masses. Anybody seen this yet?

  3. Adam permalink
    October 6, 2008 8:58 pm

    Use of a fraction of today’s 26,000 nuclear weapons would also bring about global climate change – in just hours (to say the least).

    This needs to be hammered home to the receptive media and public consciousness, at every opportunity.

  4. Robert Karp permalink
    October 6, 2008 4:17 pm

    Developing, stockpiling and deploying nuclear weapons is a false option. Countries that have “the bomb”, and those aspiring to have it, need to be convinced that having “the bomb” is more a survival threat to themselves than a deterent they perceive it to be. When that mindset takes hold and nations adopt it as public policy, the nuclear world will stand down. Strong leadership with courage and conviction can get us there. The rest of us must demand that it happen.

    Robert Karp,
    Stamford, CT

  5. October 6, 2008 10:09 am

    Writer CL raises an important point. IPPNW’s founding co-president, Dr. Bernard Lown, put it this way: “Above all, it is mandatory to dispel a central myth in confronting the unthinkable. We think of nuclear war as war, but with magnified consequences. We must break out of the intellectual strangle-hold of conditioned responses and habitual modes of thinking. Nuclear war is a term of deception. ” He added that, “Nuclear boms are not weapons. They are instruments of genocide. They are not peacemakers or instruments of national policy. Cholera or crematoria are not made acceptable whatever the sponsorship. We must promote a social revulsion against nuclear weapons…and foster a popular anti-nuclear survival instinct as we hunger for food.”

  6. C. Llewellyn permalink
    October 4, 2008 11:32 pm

    The candidates can sidestep the issue because there is no public outcry against “nuclear weapons.” Why not? I find most of the “public” doesn’t have a clue as to what constitutes “nuclear weapons” or a clue as to the magnitude of destruction which even a single warhead exploded on a single target would bring about. I think using the “nuclear weapons” terminology only connotes some kind of imagined (not a real “tactical”) hightech, handheld device which has limited force with no- or low-level radiation, and which can be seen on a Star Trek episode.

    I’m questioning whether this “nuclear weapons” terminiology could be in part responsible for this trivialization and confusion?

    In contrast, many of us remember the public outcry and organizing, both for containment and toward abolition, of “the H bomb,” which went on in the Sixties and Seventies. That awareness, outcry and action, in large part, was because mainstream news coverage of the arsenals of the “Cold War” or about pending NPT and other treaties, would also include the number and megatons of “hydrogen bombs” and explanations of the alphabets and destructive properties of missiles (ICBMs etc.). Such newscoverage also defined terms like “ground zero” and “nuclear winter.”

    Am I correct in saying the “nuclear weapons” catchall term is largely of post-cold war usage? And don’t many folks now believe that the threat of “nuclear war” has gone away because the “Cold War” with “Russia” was ended?

    I’ve read other messages in this IPPNW/ICAN exchange, so I know there is writing more informed and articulate. So help me out, those of you reading this who better understand this language-thing.

    I’ll end with a trivial but relevant idea? Do you remember how food packagers used to print “artificial flavoring and coloring” on their label to avoid alerting consumers to the health risks of eating the product?

    Thanks for listening, CL

  7. Andreas Nidecker permalink
    October 4, 2008 8:21 am

    World citizens aware of the increasing dangers of nuclear proliferation have the highest hopes in the next president of the US. The United States of America under President Barack Obama will lead the world on the path towards a world free of nuclear weapons. But it is also the responsibility of our whole generation to fullfill this vision for our children and grandchildren and make an allout effort accordingly.

    A. Nidecker, Switzerland

  8. Chuck Baynton MD permalink
    October 4, 2008 12:50 am

    The history of war is the history of miscalculation. Of all people, Americans who have experienced our Iraq and Vietnam wars ought to understand that. No government is immune to miscalculation.

    It is immoral to bet the future of every nation’s children on the proposition that America’s repeated threats of nuclear attack (“all options are on the table”) can never lead to a fatal miscalculation.

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