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An Unexamined Assumption

Surviving in a Nuclear Armed World

by ROBERT F. DODGE, MD and IRA HELFAND

President Obama speaking in Berlin on Wednesday took the first step in his 2nd term to address the world’s nuclear arsenals. He proposed negotiating the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third of its current levels of 1722 as of September 2012 and reducing nuclear weapons in Europe. While any reductions in nuclear arsenals must be applauded and supported, they must be viewed as only the next step in the mandatory elimination of all nuclear weapons. The devastating potential of these reduced arsenals has the ability to inflict catastrophic damage to our world. There is no “acceptable” level of nuclear weapons that is consistent with the ultimate survival of civilization.

A study by Physicians for Social Responsibility showed that if only 300 warheads in the Russian arsenal got through to targets in American cities, 75 to 100 million people would be killed in the first 30 minutes by the explosions and firestorms that would destroy all of our major metropolitan areas, and vast areas would be blanketed with radioactive fallout.

In addition, the entire economic infrastructure on which we depend to sustain our population would be destroyed. The transportation system, the communications network, the public health and banking systems, the food distribution network — all would be gone. In the months after this war, it is probable that the vast majority of the American population who were not killed in the initial attack would die of starvation, exposure, epidemic disease and radiation poisoning.

The global impact of a nuclear war with the reduced number of weapons proposed by the President was defined in a 2007 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research demonstrating catastrophic climate change due to the release of an estimated 50-100 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere blocking the sun. This would cause severe drops in global temperatures in a matter of days of up to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, devastating agriculture production throughout the world. The ensuing global famine could result in the death of a majority of the human population.

Thus any reduction in nuclear weapons is an important step to securing our future and we must move to realize these reductions now, but zero is the only acceptable number. Each day that we fail to work toward this goal is one day closer to realizing Albert Einstein’s prophecy from a 1946 telegram: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

But we can’t stop there. This effort must lead to multilateral negotiations involving all nuclear weapons states, negotiations that will produce a nuclear weapons convention banning these weapons once and for all. These negotiations will not be easy, and the treaty they produce will have to be a hard-nosed agreement that establishes mechanisms to verify and enforce compliance. We don’t have an alternative.

Some say it is unrealistic to think we can eliminate nuclear weapons. But in truth, it is unrealistic to think we can maintain nuclear arsenals indefinitely and still avoid a nuclear conflict. These are critical unexamined assumptions that demand reëvaluation.

As long as nuclear weapons exist we face a real and imminent danger of catastrophe either by design or accident. It is a matter of sheer luck that we survive. Luck is not a long-term viable security policy. We owe it to our children and future generations to abolish all nuclear weapons. The time to act is now.

Robert F. Dodge, M.D., serves on the boards of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Beyond War, Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, and Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions, and writes for PeaceVoice.

Ira Helfand is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War