Hiroshima was destroyed by a single atomic weapon, giving rise to the Nuclear Age, an era characterized by humankind living precariously with weapons capable of destroying the human species. Should the incredible dangers of nuclear weapons not have been immediately apparent from the destruction of Hiroshima and, three days later, of Nagasaki, throughout the Nuclear Age there have been repeated warnings of their unprecedented capacity for destruction. These warnings have come from scientists, military leaders, religious leaders and, occasionally, political leaders. Mostly, these warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
Sixty-one years after the destruction of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and 15 years after the ending of the Cold War, there are still some 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Over 95 percent of these are in the arsenals of the US and Russia, with some 4,000 of these kept on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. In addition, seven other countries now possess nuclear weapons: UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. All of the nuclear weapons states continue to improve and test missile delivery systems for their nuclear warheads.
Throughout the Nuclear Age there have been accidents, miscalculations and near inadvertent nuclear wars. The closest we may have come to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tense days in which decision makers in the US and USSR struggled to find a way through the crisis without an escalation into nuclear exchange. In the 44 years since that crisis, despite other close calls, humankind collectively has relaxed and let down its guard against the dangers these weapons pose to all.
It has been widely accepted that nuclear weapons are illegal and immoral because they are weapons of mass murder that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Ten years ago, the International Court of Justice concluded that there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Progress toward this goal has not been reassuring. No such negotiations are currently in progress. Most political leaders in the US are more concerned with the reliability of nuclear weapons than with finding a way to eliminate them.
To safely navigate the shoals of the Nuclear Age, three key elements are needed: leadership, a plan, and political will. Only one country currently has the capacity to provide this leadership and that is the US. A spark of hope that such leadership might exist briefly flared during the Reagan presidency when Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev came close to an agreement on nuclear disarmament at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Their good intentions faltered on the divisive issue of missile defenses. Since then, no high-ranking American political leader, including members of the Senate, has spoken out for a world free of nuclear weapons. President Bush’s leadership on the issue of nuclear disarmament has been non-existent and, in fact, has set up obstacles to achieving this goal.
The years pass with the threat of nuclear Armageddon hanging over us, and we wait, seemingly in vain, for political leaders to emerge who are willing to make the abolition of nuclear weapons a high priority on the political agenda. We continue to wait for political leaders who will challenge the nuclear double standards, which assume that some countries can maintain nuclear weapons in perpetuity while other countries must be forever content to forego these weapons.
We wait for political leaders who will advance a viable plan for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons. Civil society has been able to devise a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, a draft treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons, so certainly government leaders should be able to do so as well.
After 61 years of the Nuclear Age, it seems clear that the political leaders needed to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world are unlikely to emerge from existing political systems and structures. These leaders will emerge only if ordinary people demand such leadership. The leaders will have to be led by the people toward assuring a future free of nuclear threat. Absent a sustained surge of political pressure from below, humanity will continue to drift toward increased nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and, finally, nuclear annihilation. The choice remains ours: a future free of nuclear threat or a global Hiroshima. The stakes could not be higher.
DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.