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Opposition to abolishing nuclear weapons—and what could help to overcome it

April 5, 2021

Given the fact that nuclear war means the virtual annihilation of life on earth, it’s remarkable that many people continue to resist building a nuclear weapons-free world.  Is the human race suicidal?

Before jumping to that conclusion, let’s remember that considerably more people favor abolishing nuclear weapons than oppose it.  Public opinion surveys—ranging from polls in 21 nations worldwide during 2008 to recent polls in Europe,Japan, and Australia—have  shown that large majorities of people in nearly all the nations surveyed favor the abolition of nuclear weapons by international agreement.  In the United States, where the public was polled in September 2019 about the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 49 percent of respondents expressed approval of the treaty, 32 percent expressed disapproval, and 19 percent said they didn’t know.     

Nevertheless, surprisingly large numbers of people remain unready to take the step necessary to prevent the launching of a war that would turn the world into a charred, smoking, radioactive wasteland.  Why?

Their reasons vary.  Die-hard militarists and nationalists usually view weapons as vital to securing their goals.  Others are the employees of the large nuclear weapons industry and have a vested interest in retaining their jobs.  In the United States, that enterprise has long been very substantial, and the Trump administration, through massive infusions of federal spending, has succeeded in fostering its greatest expansion since the end of the Cold War.  According to a December 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times: “Roughly 50,000 Americans are now involved in making nuclear warheads at eight principal sites stretching from California to South Carolina.  And the three principal US nuclear weapons laboratories . . . have said they are adding thousands of new workers at a time when the overall federal workforce is shrinking.”  Members of these groups are unlikely to change their minds about the importance of retaining nuclear weapons.

But another constituency resistant to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and probably the largest, is comprised of people whose position could be changed.  They view nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a military attack—and especially a nuclear attack—upon their nation.  And their fear of external aggression is often inflamed by hawkish politicians, defense contractors, and the commercial mass media that whip up public hysteria about enemies abroad.

Of course, it’s not at all clear that nuclear deterrence actually works.  If it did, the US government, with its vast nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t be as worried as it is about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons or fomenting war.  Indeed, if US officials really believed that possession of nuclear weapons reduced the likelihood of nuclear and other kinds of war, they would be welcoming the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the globe.  Unfortunately, though, as they apparently recognize, the presence of nuclear weapons makes the world even more dangerous than it already is.

Even so, the advocates of nuclear deterrence make a very legitimate point about the reality of international affairs.  It is a dangerous world, and people have good reason to fear external aggression.  Although nuclear weapons provide an inadequate response to the dangers of military attack, there is considerable justification for people to be concerned about the security of their nation.

But what if the danger of external aggression were diminished?  In those circumstances, wouldn’t a substantial portion of the people concerned about national defense come around to supporting a nuclear weapons-free world?

Developing a stronger international security system would provide a useful way to foster this shift in attitudes.

The launching of the United Nations in 1945 raised hopes for the creation of an international entity that, in the words of the UN charter, would save humanity “from the scourge of war.”  And, in subsequent decades, this world organization, unlike any individual nation, did attain widespread legitimacy in world affairs, particularly for its humanitarian accomplishments and for the fairness of its decisions on global issues.  Nevertheless, the major nations—reluctant to give up the dominant power that they had traditionally exercised in international affairs—saw to it that the United Nations was denied the authority and resources that would enable it to develop an effective international security system.  

If, however, the United Nations were granted that authority and those resources, thereby providing nations with safeguards against external aggression, that would do a great deal to allay the fears of many people who cling to nuclear weapons.  And that, in turn, would transform the popular support for the abolition of nuclear weapons that currently exists into massive support for it—support that would be so overwhelming that even the nuclear powers might find it difficult to resist.

It is possible, of course, that hammering away relentlessly at nuclear dangers will be sufficient to finally convince the governments of nations—even the governments of the nuclear powers—to abolish nuclear weapons.  

Nevertheless, people who want to end the nightmare of nuclear destruction that has haunted the world since 1945 should consider widening the popular appeal of nuclear weapons abolition by strengthening the UN’s ability to provide international security.

[Dr. Lawrence Wittner ( ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).]

  1. April 19, 2021 7:13 pm

    The Inverse Square Law does not apply to extended sources of radiation. Every radiation detection monitor is calibrated and measurements taken using the inverse square law formula and intensity would not equal 4×pi×r2 and errors of considerable magnitude would occurr when applying this law to any extended source of radiation. Therefore, every nuclear power station should be shut down immediately just like Germany did. I served in the US Air Force in Spangdahlem Germany and loved the country and people there. I know the Chairman published the Fukushima thyroid cancer article…..why isn’t the IPPNW making sure all NPP get shut down. The weapons are not near as bad as the tonnes of fuel at just Fukushima,Chernobyl, TMI, Handford, Russia, China…I applaud this organization for making certain the weapons are disbanded….now work on the power stations that have never been about power for the masses and has always been about Uranium daughter procurement for the weapons and other black market usage. The purposeful use ionizing radiation needs to be haulted immediately around the world…..enough is enough. The Uranyl ion, uranium sulfate, water soluble oxidized conditions redox acidic PH, water soluble radionuclides and transuranics that bond to molecules that them flow around the planet to be ingested and caused internal exposure.

  2. April 5, 2021 10:55 am

    A peril of democracy? . . . If Vladimir Putin ordered the dismantling of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, I “think” the order would be obeyed. If Xi Jinping ordered the dismantling of China’s nuclear arsenal, I “think” the order would be obeyed. If Joe Biden ordered the dismantling of the America’s nuclear arsenal I feel certain it would NOT be carried out. We need to think very carefully why that would happen. Do we have a people’s democracy or a dictatorship of a certain class?


  1. Opposition to abolishing nuclear weapons—and what could help to overcome it — IPPNW peace and health blog « Antinuclear

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