Many of the crucial details of nuclear policy are top secret, and the mundane terms used in official discussions tend to hide the apocalyptic consequences at stake.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Less than a decade after President Barack Obama called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the nine countries that possess them are engaged in a new nuclear-arms race. North Korea has most likely developed a hydrogen bomb, and its Hwasong-15 missiles may be large enough to transport not only a warhead but also decoys, chaff, and other countermeasures that would thwart America’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense anti-ballistic-missile system. India recently commissioned its second ballistic-missile submarine, launched an Agni-5 ballistic missile that can strike targets throughout Pakistan and China, and tested nuclear-capable BrahMos and Nirbhay cruise missiles. Pakistan now has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile, including low-yield warheads on Hatf-9 missiles for use against Indian troops and armored vehicles. Israel is expanding the range of its Jericho III ballistic missiles and deploying cruise missiles with nuclear weapons on submarines. France and the United Kingdom are developing replacements for their Vanguard and Triomphant ballistic-missile submarines. China is about to introduce Dongfeng-41 ballistic missiles that will be mounted on trucks, loaded with up to ten nuclear warheads, and capable of reaching anywhere in the United States. Russia is building a wide range of new missiles, bombers, and submarines that will carry nuclear weapons. The R-28 Sarmat missile, nicknamed Satan-2, will carry up to sixteen nuclear warheads—more than enough for a single missile to destroy every American city with a population larger than a million people. Russia plans to build forty to fifty of the Satan-2s. Three other countries—Iran, Japan, and South Korea—may soon try to obtain their own nuclear arsenals.
In the preface to the Nuclear Posture Review, released in February by the Trump Administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis expresses the new American point of view: “We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” That reality, according to the Pentagon, requires a full renovation of the Cold War nuclear triad—new intercontinental ballistic missiles, new long-range bombers, and new ballistic-missile submarines. It also requires new, low-yield “tactical” warheads and bombs, a category of weapons once considered so destabilizing that President George H. W. Bush removed almost all of them from active service, in 1991. The cost of rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal is projected to be more than a trillion dollars, spent over the course of thirty years.
The growing danger of the nuclear-arms race has failed to inspire much debate. Nuclear policy is no longer widely discussed in the media; the public has been told little about a subject of existential importance; and questions once passionately argued have been largely forgotten. Why do we have nuclear weapons? What they are for? How might they be used? And, at a time when a single American submarine can destroy the capital city of every country in the United Nations, how much is enough?
Instead, these questions are being addressed by a small group of policymakers. Many of the crucial details are top secret, and the mundane terms used in official discussions tend to hide the apocalyptic consequences at stake. “Mutual deterrence,” “flexible response,” “counterforce,” “countervalue,” “buffer distance,” “ladders of escalation,” “circular error probable,” “releasing commander,” “release other than attack,” “nuclear umbrellas,” “nuclear posture,” “force elements,” “yield,” “penetration aids”—none of these sound too alarming. But one term truly evokes its meaning. A “megadeath” is a unit of measurement in nuclear warfare. Ten megadeaths, for example, means that ten million people have been killed.
The targeting strategies of today’s nuclear powers stem from the aerial-bombing campaigns of the Second World War, when the distinction between hitting military assets and killing civilians disappeared. After the German bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica, and the Japanese attack on the Chinese city of Nanking, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the destruction of cities “inhuman barbarism” in a 1939 statement, demanding that combatants “under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” The United States Army Air Forces tried to minimize civilian casualties during its attacks on Germany, flying missions in daylight, aiming at military and economic targets, and attempting to carry out “precision bombing.” But the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, under the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Air Marshall Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, flew at night, aimed at residential areas, and tried to cause maximum devastation. Known as “de-housing,” the British policy sought to break the morale of the German people.
Unfavorable weather patterns over Japan and racism shifted the focus of American bombing there from military and economic targets to the civilian population. As the historian John Dower has noted, the war with Japan was a “war without mercy.” The Japanese used conventional, chemical, and biological weapons to kill as many as ten million to fifteen million people, mainly in China, and the United States did not hesitate to employ practices condemned a few years earlier as barbaric.
A great deal has been written about the ethics of President Harry Truman’s decision to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Much less attention has been given to Roosevelt’s support for the use of firebombs against more than sixty Japanese cities. Those attacks subjected about a third of Japan’s population to aerial bombardment and killed perhaps a million civilians. More people died during the firebombing of Tokyo in March, 1945, than during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. According to a subsequent account by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any [other] time in the history of man.”
The atomic bomb revolutionized modern warfare not by enabling the mass slaughter of civilians but by vastly increasing its efficiency—the ease with which densely populated cities could be annihilated. The destruction of Tokyo had been achieved by about three hundred American planes dropping roughly eight thousand bombs. Hiroshima was destroyed by a single plane carrying one bomb.
After the Second World War, the United States mothballed hundreds of ships, cut the number of military aircraft by more than two-thirds, reduced the size of the U.S. Army by almost ninety per cent, and halted the production of atomic bombs. The Cold War began at a time when American military forces in Europe were outnumbered roughly ten to one by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Unable to defend Western Europe with soldiers and tanks, the United States chose to deter a Soviet invasion by threatening to drop atomic bombs on Soviet cities. One of the early war plans, called TROJAN, listed seventy cities as targets. They would be struck by a hundred and thirty-three atomic bombs. Moscow would be hit by eight; Leningrad, by seven. Conservative estimates predicted that about seven million Soviet civilians would be killed or wounded. Threatening the mass slaughter of noncombatants had come to be seen as the only means of safeguarding freedom and preventing another world war.
The advent of hydrogen bombs seemed to endanger no less than the future of humanity. The new weapons could be made hundreds, if not thousands, of times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” opposed the development of the H-bomb, and, in 1951, he strongly advocated the development of low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons that would be aimed at military targets. He hoped to minimize civilian casualties and limit the scale of a nuclear war. If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, Oppenheimer supported using tactical weapons against tanks, troops, and airfields. The idea of bringing “the battle back to the battlefield” was later endorsed by a young Harvard academic, Henry Kissinger, who imagined nuclear wars in which adversaries fired only tactical nuclear weapons at each other, obeyed rules of engagement, paused the fighting to negotiate, and agreed to spare cities from harm.
Confronted with a choice between tactical weapons and more powerful strategic weapons, the United States decided to build both. The Navy got nuclear depth charges, torpedoes, cruise missiles, gravity bombs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Army got nuclear artillery shells, land mines, anti-aircraft missiles, ground-to-ground missiles, and even the Davy Crockett, a recoilless rifle carried by infantrymen that shot a small nuclear projectile. The U.S. Special Forces got “backpack nukes” for sabotage missions behind enemy lines. And the Air Force got the most lethal nuclear weapons of all, mounted on cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and bombers.
American war plans relying on tactical weapons and those relying on strategic weapons were in many ways incompatible. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 specified that the President had the sole authority to order the use of a nuclear weapon. That authority was later embodied in America’s main nuclear-war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)—a highly-centralized scheme that launched nuclear weapons in an all-out attack on the Soviet Union and its allies. But a Soviet invasion of Western Europe might sideline the SIOP: tactical weapons would only be effective on the battlefield if they could be used immediately. The commander of an American infantry division, about to be overrun by the Red Army, might not have time to call the White House and wait for Presidential approval before authorizing the firing of his nuclear artillery shells and Davy Crocketts.
As a result, during the Eisenhower Administration, the authority to use nuclear weapons was secretly delegated to relatively low-level American officers assigned to NATO. They could decide when to go nuclear. Once the first tactical weapon detonated on a battlefield, the escalation of the conflict would be hard to control. Communications could prove impossible amid the nuclear blasts, and a Third World War might begin without the President’s knowledge or approval. By deploying large numbers of both tactical and strategic weapons, the United States embraced a nuclear decision-making process that was simultaneously centralized and decentralized—and bound to be chaotic in a crisis.
Throughout the Cold War, the proper size and composition of America’s nuclear arsenal was a continual source of debate, as each military service championed its own role in any conflict. During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that the United States should have enough nuclear weapons to fulfill two objectives: deter a Soviet attack and limit the damage of such an attack by destroying Soviet nuclear forces. If deterrence failed, at a bare minimum, regardless of the circumstances, McNamara believed that the United States should always be able to kill at least a quarter of the Soviet population and eliminate at least two-thirds of its industrial capacity. That level of “assured destruction,” he later told President Lyndon B. Johnson, “would certainly represent intolerable punishment to any industrialized nation and thus should serve as an effective deterrent.” But the nuclear-weapon requirements for “damage limitation” could become endless, as the Soviet Union expanded its nuclear arsenal and the number of military targets there multiplied.
The U.S. Air Force initially wanted ten thousand long-range ballistic missiles to attack Soviet nuclear forces, leadership bunkers, and other strategic targets, but later settled for a tenth of that number. The Army wanted a hundred and fifty-one thousand tactical nuclear weapons to hit battlefield targets, but eventually obtained about a twentieth of that number. The Navy argued that a few hundred nuclear warheads, mounted atop missiles in its submarines and aimed at Soviet cities, would keep the peace, guarantee deterrence, and render all those Army and Air Force weapons unnecessary. Although the Navy’s strategy of “minimum deterrence” would limit the size of America’s nuclear arsenal, it would focus almost entirely on slaughtering civilians.
The interservice rivalries and competing nuclear strategies led to a remarkable degree of overkill. America’s first nuclear-war plan approved by the joint chiefs, known as Halfmoon, had assumed that dropping fifty atomic bombs on the Soviet Union would devastate the country. By the late nineteen-eighties, the United States had more than twenty thousand nuclear weapons, and planned to use almost four hundred of them just to strike targets in Moscow. The Soviet Union built a similar mix of tactical and strategic forces to deter the United States—and had more than forty thousand nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War.
The world’s other nuclear powers harbored much smaller arsenals and simpler ambitions. In China, Chairman Mao was dismissive of America’s “small stack of atom bombs,” suggesting that his country’s huge population could survive any attack and wouldn’t be “cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail.” China pursued a policy of minimum deterrence, planned only to destroy American cities, and never had more than a few hundred nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom showed little interest in hitting Soviet military targets, and its nuclear-war plans increasingly focussed on “the Moscow criterion,” a threat to destroy the capital of the Soviet Union. France had a nuclear policy known as “deterrence of the strong by the weak,” operating a command structure independent of NATO and targeting Soviet cities. President Charles de Gaulle compared the thinking behind the strategy to that of a man walking in an ammunition dump with a cigarette lighter. “Of course, if he lights up, he’ll be the first to blow,” de Gaulle explained. “But he will also blow all those around.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention extends legal protection to civilians during wartime. The rules against deliberately harming noncombatants were expanded by two additional protocols, in 1977. “The civilian population . . . shall not be the object of attack,” Protocol II states. “Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.” Despite that admonition, today’s nuclear-targeting policies in many ways resemble medieval hostage-taking. The innocent are threatened with murder in order to preserve the peace.
Pakistan is now moving away from that sort of minimum deterrence to a more complex strategy known as “full-spectrum deterrence,” building tactical nuclear weapons to offset India’s superiority in troop strength and conventional weapons. Much like NATO during the Cold War, Pakistan assumes that tactical weapons will deter an invasion or defeat the invading army without endangering cities. But Pakistan now faces many of the same risks and challenges that NATO once encountered.
To be effective on the battlefield, tactical weapons need to be widely dispersed and available for immediate use, making them more vulnerable to theft, sabotage, and unauthorized use. They may also make nuclear war more likely. Because the destructive effects of tactical weapons are smaller, the temptation to use them may be greater. Once the “nuclear taboo” has been broken, nobody can be certain what will happen next. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons were used against a nation that didn’t have them.
Russia and the United States possess about ninety per cent of the world’s approximately fifteen thousand nuclear weapons, maintaining arsenals large and diverse enough to hit a variety of targets. The most recent Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States, issued by the Obama Administration, in 2016, is a veritable jobs program for weapons of mass destruction. It emphasizes the importance of destroying counterforce (military) targets rather than countervalue (civilian) targets, and it vows to “minimize collateral damage to civilian populations,” in keeping with international law. The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review advocates a strategy that sounds oddly elegant: “tailored deterrence.” Its objectives include preventing a nuclear attack on the United States, protecting American allies from attack, and, if deterrence fails, ending “any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms.”
Russia has also changed its nuclear strategy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. But Russia is no longer confident that its conventional forces are superior to those of NATO, and so it has embraced an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, raising the possibility of the use of tactical weapons against NATO troops. The strategy is based on a faith that low-yield nuclear blasts will impose “tailored” damage on NATO, de-escalate the conflict, and force a ceasefire. The strategy presumes that NATO won’t retaliate by using nuclear weapons, too. The change in Russian doctrine has prompted the Trump Administration to seek new low-yield, tactical weapons. The Administration believes that its new tactical weapons will deter the Russians from ever using their own—reversing a bipartisan consensus that for the past quarter century has regarded these weapons as gravely and needlessly dangerous.
At the height of the Cold War, the United States kept about seven thousand tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The utility of those weapons was always in doubt. During Carte Blanche, a war game conducted in 1955, three hundred and thirty-five NATO tactical weapons were used against invading Soviet tanks and troops, for the most part on battlefields in Germany. Robert McNamara later outlined the results: “It was estimated that between 1.5 and 1.7 million people would die and another 3.5 million would be wounded—more than five times the German civilian casualties in World War II—in the first two days.” Those estimates did not include deaths from illness, radiation poisoning, or Soviet nuclear weapons. Subsequent war games confirmed the findings of Carte Blanche: if NATO ever used tactical weapons to defend Germany, it would destroy Germany. The mere existence of tactical weapons could destabilize a crisis and make it end badly. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know that the Soviet forces on the island and in the sea surrounding it not only had tactical weapons but also had the ability to use them without consulting Moscow. An American attack—contemplated for days at the White House and nearly set in motion—would have unwittingly led to a nuclear war.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the United States unilaterally removed all of its tactical weapons from South Korea and almost all of them from Europe. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, General Colin Powell, had trained in the employment of tactical nuclear weapons as a young officer and thought that they “had no place on a battlefield.” With the support of every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell persuaded Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and President George H. W. Bush to get rid of them, and over the years the size of NATO’s tactical nuclear stockpile fell by ninety-seven per cent.
Today, the United States keeps about two hundred tactical weapons at six NATO bases in Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands. The weapons are B-61 bombs designed to be carried by fighter planes. They have no assigned role in NATO’s war plans, and their military usefulness is “practically nil,” according to General James Cartwright, a former commander of the United States Strategic Command. The B-61 bombs have been retained as symbols of America’s commitment to the defense of NATO, despite concern that the weapons are vulnerable to theft by terrorists, sabotage, and attack, especially in Turkey. A few B-61s could fit in the bed of a pickup truck.
The Trump Administration is moving forward with plans to modernize the B-61 and would like to mount low-yield tactical warheads on submarine-based missiles. The advantage of basing tactical weapons on a submarine is that they will be hidden underwater—and therefore will be less likely to be stolen, attacked, or become the subjects of political protests. The disadvantage is that Russia will have no way of knowing whether a missile launched from a submarine is carrying a tactical warhead meant to destroy a tank battalion on the battlefield or a strategic warhead fired to destroy an underground leadership bunker in Moscow.
The glaring problem of how the President of the United States and the President of Russia might reliably communicate and negotiate during a limited nuclear war has never been resolved. The Moscow-Washington Direct Communications Link, known as the “hotline,” isn’t a voice link with matching red telephones, as portrayed in Hollywood thrillers. It’s a dedicated computer link that transmits encrypted e-mails between the Kremlin and the Pentagon. A recent photograph of the hotline is not reassuring: it looks like a computer terminal you might find in the business center at a Marriott hotel.
The return of tactical weapons is the most controversial aspect of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review. The new policy assumes that American tactical weapons will deter the use of Russian tactical weapons, raising “the nuclear threshold” and making “nuclear employment less likely.” Sam Nunn, a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services and a co-founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, has argued against that sort of thinking for more than forty years. He fears that the chance of accidents, miscalculations, and blunders with tactical weapons—as well as the pressure to “use them or lose them” in battle—greatly increase the risk of an all-out nuclear war. Like so many of the disagreements about nuclear strategy, this one cannot be settled with empirical evidence, and selecting the wrong policy could be catastrophic. As Nunn observed in 1974, after a tour of NATO’s tactical nuclear units, “Nobody has any experience in fighting nuclear wars, and nobody knows what would happen if one were to start.”
On the morning of August 6, 1945, Setsuko Thurlow, then thirteen years old, was preparing to decode messages on the second floor of the Army headquarters in Hiroshima. About twenty girls from her school worked beside her, and thousands of other middle schoolers were employed at patriotic tasks throughout the city as part of the Student Mobilization Program. Thurlow noticed a bright bluish-white flash outside the window at 8:15 A.M. She never saw the mushroom cloud; she was in it. She felt herself fly through the air, blacked out, and awoke pinned in the rubble of the collapsed building, unable to move. Lying there in silence and total darkness, she had a feeling of serenity. And then she heard the cries of classmates trapped nearby: “God, help me!,” “Mother, help me!” Someone touched her, removed the debris on top of her, and told her to crawl toward the light. She somehow made it out safely and realized that what was left of the headquarters was on fire. A half dozen or so other girls survived, but the rest were burned alive.
The smoke and dust in the air made the morning look like twilight. As Thurlow and a few classmates left the city center and walked toward the hills, they witnessed one grotesque scene after another: dead bodies; ghostly figures, naked and burned, wandering the streets; parents desperately searching for lost children. She reached an Army training ground in the foothills, about the size of two football fields. Every inch of ground was covered with wounded people begging for water. There seemed to be no doctors, no nurses, no medical help of any kind. Thurlow tore off strips of her clothing, dipped them in a nearby stream, and spent the day squeezing drops of water from them into the mouths of the sick and dying. At night, she sat on the hillside and watched Hiroshima burn.
Thurlow was reunited with her parents. But her sister and her sister’s four-year-old son died several days later. Her sister’s face had grown so blackened and swollen that she could only be recognized by her voice and her hairpin. Soldiers threw her body and that of her son into a ditch, poured gasoline on them, and set them on fire. Thurlow stood and watched, in a state of shock, without shedding a tear. Her favorite aunt and uncle, who lived in the suburbs outside Hiroshima and appeared completely unharmed, died from radiation poisoning a few weeks after the blast.
More than seven decades later, on the afternoon of December 10, 2017, I watched Thurlow accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). It was a remarkable moment, as she slowly walked to the podium with a cane, and the crowd in Oslo’s City Hall gave a standing ovation. After the bombing, Thurlow attended universities in Hiroshima and Lynchburg, Virginia. Later, she earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Toronto. She married a historian and settled in Canada. She began her anti-nuclear activism in 1954, and became a leading advocate for survivors of the atomic bombings, known as the hibakusha. A few years ago, I spent time with her in Stockholm, meeting with academics and legislators to discuss the nuclear threat. In her early eighties, she was sharp, passionate, tireless, and free of bitterness. “Today, I want you to feel in this hall the presence of all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki . . . a great cloud of a quarter of a million souls,” Thurlow said in her Nobel speech. “Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us insure that their deaths were not in vain.”
The movement to abolish nuclear weapons began soon after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In January, 1946, the first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons,” and during the Cold War every American President supported that goal, with varying degrees of sincerity. On September 25, 1961, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, President Kennedy gave perhaps the most eloquent speech on behalf of abolition. “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness,” he said. “The risks inherent in disarmament pale in comparison to the risks inherent in an unlimited arms race.”
That week, Kennedy also secretly met with military advisers at the White House to discuss the pros and cons of launching a nuclear surprise attack on the Soviet Union. American and Soviet troops were confronting each other in Berlin, and a war between the superpowers seemed possible. Kennedy wanted to hear the benefits of striking first. The casualties that would result from the Single Integrated Operational Plan seemed excessive to him: an estimated two hundred and twenty million deaths in the Soviet Union and China (not including fatalities caused by fire). A Kennedy aide, Carl Kaysen, had come up with a surprise-attack plan, focussing solely on air bases and missile sites. He predicted that it would kill “less than 1,000,000, and probably not much more than 500,000.” The problem with the plan, he acknowledged, was that it might not eliminate all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons—which could prove unfortunate for cities like New York and Chicago. If the United States launched a surprise attack on the Soviets, the likely American death toll was somewhere between five million and thirteen million. But, if the Soviets attacked the United States first, perhaps a hundred million Americans would die. “In thermonuclear warfare,” Kaysen observed, “people are easy to kill.” Kennedy wrestled with the dilemma, decided not to launch a surprise attack, and made his feelings clear at the U.N.: “Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.”
The height of anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States occurred during the Reagan Administration, amid renewed tensions with the Soviet Union. An opinion poll in 1983 found that about half of the American people thought that they’d die in a nuclear war. The Nuclear Freeze Movement and worldwide anti-nuclear protests helped to transform Ronald Reagan from an ardent Cold Warrior into a nuclear abolitionist. At a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Reagan and the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, nearly reached an agreement to get rid of all of their countries’ nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war receded, and arms-control agreements between the United States and Russia cut the number of nuclear weapons by about eighty per cent.
Republican Presidents had proved especially effective at reducing the nuclear threat. President Richard Nixon signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, committing the United States to seek “cessation of the nuclear arms rate at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” President George H. W. Bush cut the size of America’s nuclear arsenal by half. And President George W. Bush cut it in half again.
In 2007, the abolition movement was revived by an unlikely group of people: the leadership of the American national-security establishment. Two former Republican Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, joined two influential Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in writing an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, whose title aptly conveyed their goal clear: “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”
A new anti-nuclear group, Global Zero, was formed in 2008 by an international assortment of military, diplomatic, and political leaders. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates for President that year, Barack Obama and John McCain, supported nuclear abolition. The revitalized movement reached its apogee on April 6, 2009, when Obama gave a speech about nuclear weapons in Prague’s Hradčany Square. He said that the United States had a moral responsibility, as the only country that has used nuclear weapons, to lead the international effort to abolish them. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked,” Obama said. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for, if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
Nine years later, nuclear weapons have regained their sinister allure. North Korea has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, producing elaborate videos that show the destruction of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. During a speech by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in March, computer animations projected on a large screen behind him showed Russian nuclear warheads descending over the state of Florida, perhaps aimed at Mar-a-Lago. And President Trump has delivered the sorts of nuclear threats that only Soviet leaders used to make, promising to unleash “fire and fury” and boasting about the size of his “button.” Nuclear weapons are once again being depicted as good, valuable things, the measure of national status and strength. The current arms race between the United States and Russia betrays the same assumptions as the last one: that new weapons will be better, and that technological innovations can overcome the nuclear threat. It’s a familiar delusion.
William Perry, who’s been involved in nuclear matters for more than half a century, believes that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was at any time during the Cold War. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, unfortunately, agrees with him, and in January moved the hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. The Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union has been replaced by a multipolar nuclear competition, with far more volatile dynamics. Russia faces possible nuclear attacks by the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom. India must worry about China and Pakistan. China must deter the United States, India, and Russia. North Korea feels threatened by the United States, while some politicians in Japan and South Korea advocate developing their own nuclear weapons to counter those of North Korea. Nuclear terrorism poses a global threat. And everyone, it seems, hates the United States.
Moreover, the aftermath of a nuclear war may be even more dire than anything anticipated during the Cold War. In the nineteen-eighties, the astronomer Carl Sagan brought public attention to the danger of “nuclear winter,” a sudden and extreme form of climate change that would be precipitated by the dust and debris rising into the atmosphere as mushroom clouds from obliterated cities. The latest studies suggest that a relatively small nuclear exchange would have long-term effects across the globe. A war between India and Pakistan, involving a hundred atomic bombs like the kind dropped on Hiroshima, could send five million tons of dust into the atmosphere, shrink the ozone layer by as much as fifty per cent, drop worldwide temperatures to their lowest point in a thousand years, create worldwide famines, and cause more than a billion casualties. An all-out war between the United States and Russia would have atmospheric effects that are vastly worse.
The fact that launching a nuclear attack would be suicidal as well as genocidal hasn’t put an end to nuclear-war planning. Nor does the prospect of Armageddon loom as an effective deterrent. Some religious fanatics celebrate the slaughter of civilians and have no reluctance to die for their gods, while leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have been willing to use banned chemical weapons and bring on the destruction of their own countries rather than surrender power. An eagerness to embrace death undermines the logic of nuclear deterrence, while a determination to kill may perversely uphold it. In a recent documentary, Putin said that his country would only use its nuclear weapons in retaliation—and that he wouldn’t hesitate to use them. “Why do we need a world,” he asked, “if Russia ceases to exist?”
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was formed in 2007. It seeks to reframe public attitudes toward nuclear weapons and gain ratification of an international treaty banning them. ICAN contends that the same rationale used to outlaw chemical weapons, biological weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions—their cruel, indiscriminate harm to civilians—should be applied to the deadliest weapons of all. According to the World Health Organization, no nation has the medical facilities or emergency-response capability to deal with the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in a city, let alone hundreds. After a nuclear blast, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors would have to fend for themselves.
ICAN wants to stigmatize nuclear weapons, portraying them as inherently immoral and in violation of international law, not symbols of power or guarantors of national security. In July, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, sponsored by ICAN, was endorsed by a hundred and twenty-two of the hundred and ninety-three countries in the United Nations. The treaty will attain legal force after being signed and ratified by fifty. It forbids the testing, development, production, acquisition, manufacture, and possession of nuclear weapons. Last November, Pope Francis backed the treaty, altering the Catholic Church’s position on nuclear weapons; the Vatican had long opposed their use in war and advocated nuclear disarmament, but recognized their value in deterring war. Francis called nuclear weapons “senseless from even a tactical standpoint,” criticized their “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects,” and “firmly condemned” any possession of them.
A month later, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN—an impressive achievement for an organization with only three full-time employees and a part-time office temp. ICAN’s success has been driven by thousands of idealistic volunteers who are mainly in their twenties and thirties. During her Nobel lecture, Beatrice Fihn, the group’s executive director, a young and charismatic Swede, challenged the complacency of world leaders. “It is not irrational to think nuclear states can disarm,” she said. “It is a necessity.”
The Trump Administration and the eight other governments that have nuclear weapons vehemently disagree on a wide range of issues, but they are united in opposition to ICAN’s treaty. They argue that it is poorly conceived, unverifiable, unenforceable, unrealistic, and an invitation to nuclear blackmail. “This treaty will not make the world more peaceful, will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, and will not enhance any state’s security,” the State Department said in a statement after the group won the Nobel Peace Prize. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom declined to send a representative to the award ceremony, as a protest against the winner.
Thirty-five years after President Reagan promised an American missile-defense system that would somehow blast dozens of nuclear-warhead-tipped missiles from the skies, his dream remains unfulfilled. Pursuing it, at a cost of close to two hundred billion dollars, has only pushed other nations to modernize their nuclear arsenals. The exotic weapons recently announced by Putin—long-distance undersea drones with nuclear warheads, nuclear-powered cruise missiles that can circle the globe—aren’t necessary to evade a missile defense system. A hydrogen bomb hidden in a forty-foot sailboat can do that. Nuclear wars remain unwinnable, despite fantasies to the contrary. During the last two tests of American interceptors, the missile-defense system failed to destroy a single missile launched, even when it knew the trajectory.
The many grievances between the United States and Russia are serious. They include the expansion of NATO to the Russian border; American withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty; Russia’s invasion of Georgia, seizure of Crimea, and attack on eastern Ukraine; hostile propaganda; cyberwarfare; and meddling in elections. But they hardly justify killing billions of civilians. During a telephone call between Trump and Putin on March 20th, the two discussed resuming arms-control talks. If the two countries, which possess nine-tenths of the world’s nuclear weapons, can agree to make significant cuts in their arsenals, the other nuclear powers can be pressured to do the same. And if a meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, ever occurs, Kim should be told that having nuclear weapons, for a wide variety of reasons, makes the destruction of his country more likely.
The abolition of nuclear weapons will require unprecedented trust between nations, a strict inspection regime, and severe punishments against any country that cheats. Until the day when those things are possible, greatly reducing the number of nuclear weapons, taking ballistic missiles off of alert, and abandoning high-risk strategies will make the world a much safer place. None of that will happen until people are willing to confront the threat. “Yet in spite of the immeasurable importance of nuclear weapons, the world has declined, on the whole, to think about them very much,” Jonathan Schell wrote in “The Fate of the Earth,” which was published in The New Yorker thirty-six years ago. “This peculiar failure of response, in which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate, unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the world they live in—but do nothing about it . . . has itself been such a striking phenomenon that it has to be regarded as an extremely important part of the nuclear predicament.”
Since the publication of my book “Command and Control,” in 2013, I’ve gotten to know the young leadership of the nascent anti-nuclear movement, spoken at ICAN gatherings, joined the board of the Ploughshares Fund (a foundation dedicated to reducing the nuclear threat), and received financial support for some of my work from the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I have also met with many of the top officials at our nuclear-weapon laboratories, with the leadership of the National Nuclear Security Administration (the civilian agency in charge of our nuclear weapons), and with the commanding officers at the Air Force Global Strike Command, the unit responsible for our intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. What these disparate groups share is a strong and sincere desire to avoid a nuclear war. But they don’t agree about the best way to do that.
I hope the spirit now animating the demonstrations against gun violence will soon offer resistance to the greatest possible form of organized violence. As government officials in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, Beijing, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tel Aviv, and Pyongyang discuss how to update and improve their arsenals, the madness at the heart of the whole enterprise must be loudly asserted. How much is enough? The only rational answer: even one nuclear weapon is one too many.