Pay enough attention and nuclear weapons condemn themselves
Each year, in August, we are reminded, to our sorrow, about nuclear weapons, the horrors they unleash, and the shame they bring to humankind—first, for having created them at all, and then for having tolerated their existence this long. The US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which we commemorate this week, put the world on notice almost 70 years ago that war had reached a point of no return. We woke up to discover that we had weapons powerful enough to end humanity itself. Our response to that dilemma, as we realized even then, would determine for all time whether humanity had been worth the bother. Sadly, the jury is still out.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the starting points of the humanitarian case for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The evidence that nuclear weapons are good for nothing and abhorrent to everything we value was first compiled on the ruins of those cities and has mounted steadily over the years. Doctors and scientists have studied the horrific impacts from blast and heat, the acute and long-term effects of radiation, and the environmental consequences, and have concluded that these weapons must never be used again. (Bjorn Hilt has been giving us a refresher course on the medical effects on this blog.) That evidence has most recently been collected and submitted at a series of international conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW), with the intent of forcing the issue around their prohibition and elimination.
This is not the first time the consequences of nuclear weapons—what they are and what they do to humans and to all living creatures, to societies, to ecosystems, and even to the Earth itself as a sustainable habitat—have been the focal point of a global effort to get rid of them. Throughout the nuclear age, in fact, whenever nuclear weapons themselves have been put on trial—as we’ve been seeing in Oslo and Nayarit, and soon in Vienna—they have been condemned as humanitarian atrocities.
The problem has been that we collectively remember for a while, and then we collectively forget. During those periods of forgetting, the nuclear-armed States find it much easier to put disarmament off to another day, to pollute the discourse with specious arguments about deterrence and the need to keep nuclear weapons out of the “wrong hands” (with the self-serving implication there are “right hands”), to modernize their arsenals, and to keep everyone guessing about the circumstances under which they would actually use them (just to maintain credibility, of course).
Heightened awareness that the very existence of nuclear weapons threatens us in catastrophic, irreparable ways, has often led to public demands for nuclear disarmament. Films like “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove” were cultural backdrops to the Cuban missile crisis. When doctors found large amounts of strontium-90 in the baby teeth of children far from the Nevada test site, mass demonstrations by an alarmed public forced an end to atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963. Testing went underground, however, and so did the sense of urgency, for more than a decade.
In the 1980s, the world woke up to the nuclear threat again. Jonathan Schell wrote “The Fate of the Earth”; Helen Caldicott barnstormed the world demanding an end to “nuclear madness”; a TV film called “The Day After” was broadcast worldwide to a shocked and frightened audience; a popular scientist with his own TV show, Carl Sagan, told us about nuclear winter—and the US and the Soviet Union replaced talk about “winnable” nuclear wars with declarations that nuclear war “could not be won and must never be fought.” Activists in Europe and the UK demanded the removal of Pershing and cruise missiles that were making them targets for Soviet SS-20s. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated the INF Treaty and started calling themselves abolitionists.
Starting around 1989, downwinders at the US and Soviet nuclear test sites, knowing full well that even underground testing was seriously contaminating their environments, damaging their health, and endangering their communities, joined together in the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement. By 1992, they had shut the test sites down and achieved a moratorium that, with a few well-known and inexcusable exceptions, is still in effect today.
Now a renewed concern with the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has created a fresh political opportunity to ban and eliminate the worst weapons humans have ever created. The Marshall Islands, which hopes to prevent anyone else suffering from nuclear weapons as its people have, is suing the nuclear-armed States in the World Court and in US federal court for failing to fulfill their nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT and international law. ICAN has taken up the humanitarian case for abolition as the basis of its global campaign for a ban treaty.
It seems that the more everyone pays attention to what the bomb really is, the less persuaded everyone is that keeping it around is worth the gamble. In this moment, we can once again see nuclear weapons for what they are, and we get another chance. Let’s hope everyone really pays attention this time around.