Time for America To Revisit its Nuclear Policy
August 17, 2012
Ronnie Dugger / The Dallas News
In the ongoing media melodrama about Iran's nuclear program, could we be overlooking profound questions and truths about the again-rising likelihood of the decimation or the end of life on Earth in an H-bomb holocaust? Why are nuclear weapons commonly called "weapons of mass destruction" when morally they are weapons of mass murder? We accuse Iran over their imagined nuclear plans and ignore the existing nuclear arsenals of the US, Israel and Britain.
(June 1, 2012) -- In the ongoing media melodrama about Iran's nuclear program, could we be overlooking profound questions and truths about the again-rising likelihood of the decimation or the end of life on Earth in an H-bomb holocaust?
Why are nuclear weapons commonly called "weapons of mass destruction" when morally they are weapons of mass murder?
If we put aside the Soviet collapse, the disassembly of our own grotesquely surplus nukes and the numbers trick of putting still-active weapons "in reserve," there hasn't really been any effective nuclear disarmament.
We accuse Iran and suspect other nations of hypocrisy about their nuclear plans. And yet the actual and prospective nuclear policy and practice of the United States, Israel and Britain has moved from the nuclear disarmament promised in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty into attacking nations that we don't trust and believe insist on getting the same weapons we have.
Has the deterrence doctrine against an H-bomb attack "worked," as is so commonly said, or was it the skin of our teeth that pulled us back three times from attacks that would have left tens of millions dead? An H-bomb explodes in millionths of a second with several times the heat of the core of the sun. Tens of millions of degrees. Heat, blast, radiation, no life. Only one failure of deterrence can kill as many as a billion people, the experts say. It's unimaginable, so we don't imagine it.
Why is "nuclear deterrence" so numbly accepted? To work, the theory has to be based on seriously intended retaliation with nuclear weapons. Deterrence is a euphemism, a brand on a box that also contains retaliation. Mass murder as revenge for mass murder. This is the policy we support?
In 1951, as a young reporter in Washington, I asked President Harry Truman why the US did not have a "no-first-use" policy for nuclear weapons. He was angered and didn't answer. How long has it been since a journalist asked a president why we still reserve the right to explode these weapons first?
In the 1960s during dinner in the White House, I asked President Lyndon Johnson about nuclear weapons. He, too, flared into anger and exclaimed, "I'm the one who has to mash the button!" while bearing his stiffened right thumb and four curled fingers downward as if he were mashing that button.
In 1986, I asked Dr. Richard Garwin, one of three inventors of the H-bomb, what it felt to be personally responsible for the bomb that can destroy any large city. After a pause, he responded, not with his feelings, but by saying to me quietly that what we're doing with the policy of nuclear deterrence is buying time, that nuclear proliferation can't be stopped, that there will be a nuclear war and that a billion people will die.
Why are so many of us so confident that this won't be the case? Are we lemmings? Is this not the most important subject in the world?
More nations keep getting the H-bomb and the systems to deliver it wherever they want to. There is still no international control of these weapons that can end life on Earth.
Jonathan Schell reports in The Seventh Decade that 50 more nations know how to make H-bombs. It's a secret no more. Why, then, are H-bombs a national — and not an international — question? Why are they still, 67 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of our business? And why are possibly apocalyptic facts about them blocked from us by nine systems of military secrecy?
For just one example, does Israel, as indicated in Ron Rosenbaum's recent well-sourced book How the End Begins, have five German-made nuclear-armed submarines in the Mediterranean poised to fire H-bombs in retaliation even if Israel's leadership has been "decapitated"?
Mikhail Gorbachev cautioned us recently that we need enough effective international governance to keep events from becoming "dangerously unpredictable." Are they not already so? My friend societal psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton said to me concerning Gorbachev's warning, "Unpredictability is all right, except for nuclear weapons."
What, fellow citizens, are our political and ethical responsibilities for our American H-bombs? I believe Garwin's prophecy is on its way to coming true.
What, if aimed, are they aimed at? If exploded, how many people will they kill? If we use them either to attack or to retaliate, what would that do to our standing in the conscience and history of humanity?
More deadly plutonium, the H-bomb fuel, isotope 239 of which has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years, is the last thing Americans need. But late last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee revived a plan to spend $3.7 billion to build a new plutonium factory at Los Alamos, N.M., despite President Barack Obama's decision to suspend funding for it.
In Prague in 2009, Obama called for "a world without nuclear weapons." But he also said that we are not likely to get it in our lifetimes. Why not? He then went on to reassure our allies that we will maintain our nuclear deterrent. We cannot have this both ways.
The US should be leading the world toward "near zero" or the abolition of these weapons. We should be challenging our officials and military for risking our deaths, the lives of our fellow human beings and our national honor by keeping, maintaining and implicitly threatening to use our own weapons of mass murder.
Journalist and author Ronnie Dugger is working on a book about nuclear ethics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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