US wants nuclear transparency, but not for its own bombs
Amid all of last week’s headlines parsing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as the deadline for a potential deal with world powers drew near, it was easy to miss the item in the Science section of The New York Times. It was about the US hydrogen bomb programme.
The H-bomb, the paper reminded readers, is a thermonuclear device. Its destructive power is 1,000 times that of the bomb that instantly killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima in 1945. And it has long been a feature in the arsenals of nuclear-armed states.
The news peg was a memoir by one of the founders of the US H-bomb programme, Kenneth W Ford. But even though he cited publicly available material, US Department of Energy censors blocked the book.
Transparency, of course, has never been deemed a virtue in any nuclear weapons programme anywhere in the world. That said, Iran’s leaders might see the irony in being held to stringent transparency requirements while states with well-established nuclear-weapons capability are absolved of the equivalent accountability.
But the basic hypocrisy of the major world powers’ application of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is well-established. Five of the countries currently negotiating with Iran, which is an NPT signatory, are acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. The NPT requires signatories to submit their nuclear facilities to constant inspections to verify their commitment to refrain from building weapons. Meanwhile, the established nuclear weapons states are meant to negotiate their way to disarmament. But 45 years after they adopted the NPT, the established nuclear powers have not ended their addiction to nuclear weapons.
In that period, four non-signatories – India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa – developed nuclear weapons, although post-apartheid South Africa signed the NPT and allowed the dismantling of its nukes. Meanwhile, a fifth country, North Korea, developed nuclear weapons after withdrawing from the NPT .
But the censoring of Ford’s book reveals a deeper peril in America’s national conversation about nuclear weapons – or, more accurately, the absence of a national conversation about nuclear weapons.
It can never be forgotten that the US was the first – and, mercifully, remains the only – country to have detonated nuclear weapons in anger. On August 6, 1945, that bomb instantly killed one quarter of Hiroshima’s civilian population. Three days later, it detonated a second device over Nagasaki, killing 40,000.
The decision to use weapons of mass destruction to destroy civilian population centres has not been exhaustively debated in the US. It was simply accepted as part of the national mythology that obliterating two Japanese cities was necessary to save many more lives.
When Washington’s Smithsonian Institution planned, in 1995, an exhibit depicting the impact of the bomb through photographs taken on the ground in Hiroshima, the effort was blocked by Congressional Republicans. They denounced it as “anti-American propaganda”. They did so, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, explained, because “most Americans … are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country”.
America’s nuclear arsenal now includes weapons a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. Most of its 4,650 active nuclear warheads are between 10 and 50 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Yet, the decision to nuke the Japanese city is one that American politicians don’t want their people to discuss. No surprise then, that there’s not much public discussion today on the place of nuclear weapons in the nation’s security doctrine.
During the 2008 campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, then-Senator Hillary Clinton rebuked her rival, Barack Obama, for ruling out the use of nuclear force against Al Qaeda in Pakistan. “Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace,” Mrs Clinton said, rejecting any “blanket statements with regard to use or non-use.” This was the view of the politician who might be in pole position in the 2016 race for the White House.
In April 2009, president Obama made a historic speech in Prague committing to pursue a “a world without nuclear weapons”and to reduce the number of warheads in the US arsenal. But he also pledged, in light of continued nuclear capability by rival powers, to ensure that the US maintains an “effective arsenal”.
That commitment has now translated, according to the budget he submitted to Congress last month, into a massive modernisation scheme, which would cost $348 billion (Dh 1.28 trillion) over the next 10 years and as much as $1 trillion over a 30-year period.
Still, don’t expect to see much public debate over just what the US is building, and the circumstances in which it might conceivably decide – once again – to destroy a civilian population centre in a matter of minutes.
The world would be a much safer place if, as the NPT intended, efforts to stop new countries acquiring nuclear weapons were matched by the attempt to hold accountable those that already have them.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York