The return of the nuclear arms race requires the revival of the disarmament movement
“It is three minutes to midnight.” Young people reading those words probably won’t know what they mean. Folks who were adults when the Cold War ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union are more likely to understand. And to be very, very afraid.
The statement refers to the current setting of the Doomsday Clock—announced every year since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Reaching midnight means nuclear war. The clock was first set at seven minutes to midnight when the United States was the only nation possessing nuclear weapons. In 1991, humanity rejoiced as the clock was set to 17 minutes to midnight when the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty resulting in deep cuts in their nuclear weapons arsenals.
Now, a quarter-century later, nuclear weapons are still very much with us, and the Doomsday Clock has been pushed up to three minutes to midnight for two years running. As close to midnight as the clock has been set since 1984—during the nadir of relations between America and the Soviet Union.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board—consisting of “scientists and other experts with deep knowledge of nuclear technology and climate science, who often provide expert advice to governments and international agencies”—made the decision based on a number of dangerous portents last year that show no signs of abating this year.
Their January 26 announcement stated that in 2015 “ … tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with … the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia re-positioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them. Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to most existing nuclear arms control agreements, but the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals … despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament.”
The modernization referred to in the announcement translates to an estimated US investment of nearly $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Money to be essentially stolen from much-needed social programs. The Obama administration made this commitment even as the President asked nations with nuclear weapons to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them” during a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan—the first of two cities destroyed by atomic bombs dropped by the US in the closing days of WWII. On July 20, eight progressive senators—including Mass Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (plus Bernie Sanders)—called on Obama to “restrain nuclear weapons spending and reduce the risk of nuclear war by scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans, adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and canceling launch-on-warning plans.”
A fine statement. But a display of not even a fraction of the political muscle that will be necessary to successfully challenge the military-industrial complex to change American nuclear weapons policy for the better. And not a sufficiently strong demand given that the only safe number of nuclear weapons is zero. With the US, Russia, and China all planning to build smaller nuclear warheads that are more likely to be used than traditional larger warheads, and developing hypersonic glide vehicles that are harder to intercept than conventional ballistic missiles, the road from a single “surgical” nuclear strike to an all-out nuclear war will soon become much shorter than it has ever been before.
That’s why it’s imperative for everyone to follow the lead of antiwar organizations like Mass Peace Action—who have just organized a series of local protests for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Week—and international disarmament campaigns like Global Zero in demanding the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Failure to do so will at best consign another generation to the lifetime of fear that earlier generations suffered under, and at worst doom the entire biosphere to death by fire. So, get informed and get involved. We’ve got our work cut out for us. There are currently more than 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet Earth.
For a better understanding of the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons, check out the classic 1982 BBC documentary “Q.E.D.: A Guide to Armageddon” on YouTube.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.