A note recently came to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation that said: “Are you folks out of your minds? The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back in. Shortly even non-state actors will have nukes! Quit wasting your time on this silly dream.” The author of the note, to his credit, signed his name, and also indicated that he is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.
The colonel poses a critical question: Are we out of our minds to believe that change is possible and that humans might find a way to cooperate to eliminate the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity (and other forms of life)? Perhaps we are, but it seems to me that the future of civilization, the human species and other complex forms of life are worth the effort. The Nuclear Age is distinct from the periods that preceded it in having the capacity to end most complex life, including human life, on the planet. Fighting for the elimination of nuclear weapons is also the fight for human survival and for the rights of future generations. I’ve always believed that we have a choice: nuclear weapons or a human future. Along with the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I believe it is unlikely that both are possible.
Next, the colonel asserts that “[t]he nuclear genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back in.” I suppose this means that the knowledge of how to create nuclear weapons exists and cannot be erased. Granted, the knowledge now exists. The challenge is whether countries will choose to eliminate nuclear weapons in their common interest, or whether they will be paralyzed by fear into failing to try. Knowledge alone is not sufficient to make nuclear weapons. Scientific and engineering skills are also needed, as are nuclear materials. There may not be a foolproof method to assure the elimination of nuclear weapons, but there is also no foolproof method to assure that existing nuclear weapons will not be used in a nuclear war that could kill billions of people and destroy civilization.
The question is: which is a safer path for humanity? On the one hand, to seek the phased, verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons and effective international safeguards on nuclear materials; or, on the other hand, to continue the status quo of having the world divided into a small but increasing number of nuclear “haves” and a far larger number of nuclear “have-nots”? I would place my bet on working for the elimination of the weapons, the same path chosen by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Ronald Reagan. According to his wife, Nancy, President Reagan “had many hopes for the future, and none were more important to America and to mankind than the effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The colonel seems to like the odds of continuing with the status quo, even though he recognizes that “[s]hortly even non-state actors will have nukes!” This is most likely true and it poses an enormous problem for the US and other nuclear armed countries, if we fail to bring nuclear weapons and the materials to make them under strict and effective international control. All of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal can’t deter a terrorist organization in possession of a single nuclear weapon. You can’t credibly threaten retaliation against an organization or individuals that you can’t even locate.
“Quit wasting your time,” the colonel admonishes, “on this silly dream.” But all dreams may seem silly before they are realized. Mohandas Gandhi had a dream of an independent India. It must have seemed silly to Winston Churchill and other British leaders at the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream of racial equality. Perhaps it seemed silly to many. Nelson Mandela dreamed of an end to apartheid in South Africa. During his 27 years in prison, this dream must have seemed silly to the white power structure in South Africa.
There are dreams of justice and equality that must seem silly to many. There are dreams of alleviating poverty and hunger, and dreams of educational opportunity for all children. There are even dreams of eliminating war. It is not silly to fight for a better future, and certainly not silly to fight to assure the future itself.
For me, a New Year is a new beginning and always brings hope. I will continue to choose hope and to fight for the dream of peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Achieving these goals is the great challenge of our time, and on their success depend the realization of all other goals for a more just and decent world.
DAVID KRIEGER is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Councilor on the World Future Council.