Nuclear Weapons: The Burden and the Dream for Peace

Nuclear Weapons: The Burden and the Dream for Peace
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Recent world events have alerted the general population, not to say the top echelons of government and military officials, of the precarious prospects of nuclear conflict. It’s almost absurd really: Nuclear weapons reveal about a challenging paradox about the current state of humanity. On the one hand, most officials and ordinary citizens denounce the unprecedented destructive capacity of nuclear warheads. On the other hand, it is difficult to find a nation that wouldn’t want to possess them, on the grounds of deterrence or intimidation. Only the future can reveal how dangerous this paradox is.

How did we get to where we are today? At the outset of World War II, a group of scientists, including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, were alarmed at the prospect of the Nazis developing an atomic bomb. They began to advocate that the United States undertake an atomic research program. By late 1941, this became the Manhattan Project, starting at Columbia University, before it eventually moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first nuclear bomb was created, tested, and detonated near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.

With the knowledge of the weapon’s devastating power, Harry S. Truman, newly-installed as commander-in-chief after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, decided to use the novel atom bomb against the obstinate Japanese army, which did not seem close to surrendering despite their limited military options. On August 6, 1945, the first atom bomb in human history was dropped on Hiroshima. The blast burned with a heat equal to the sun, instantly vaporizing and incinerating thousands of people. It completely destroyed a two-mile impact area and annihilated two-thirds of all buildings within a three-mile radius. The survivors, known as hibakusha (explosion-affected person), were immediately aware of a hellish feeling of a post-nuclear fallout. As Robert Jay Lifton, an esteemed psychiatrist who specializes in the effects of war (and a vocal detractor of nuclear weapons), noted in his interviews with hibakusha: "The most striking psychological experience was the sudden and absolute shift from normal existence to an overwhelming encounter with death."

Yoshitaka Kawamoto, then at his middle school about half a mile from the blast, recalled that most of his classmates died immediately from the blast, and others quickly began to die. Then he spotted a friend who was still alive: “Ota was looking at me with his left eye. His right eyeball was hanging from his face.” Other survivors recalled seeing people with brains hanging outside their heads and internal organs exposed. Still others noted that many people wandered silently, their hair and skin burned off. While estimates of the dead vary, the Japanese believe that about 140,000 people were instantly killed and, with the ensuing years of leukemia and other cancers, they believe the total dead thus far is 297,684.

On August 9, the Americans dropped a second bomb but since there were heavy clouds, the bomb was not dropped at the intended target, Kokura, but near the city of Nagasaki. While, overall, this was much less destructive than the bombing of Hiroshima, the bombing inflicted tens of thousands more casualties. While many Americans credit the bombings with ending the war, scholars have come to the conclusion that the declaration of war by the Soviet Union presented an even more immediate threat to the Japanese.

As the Cold War developed in the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States discovered that having nuclear weapons did not provide as secure a deterrent as hoped. The Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. In response, the United States developed the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb), many times more powerful than atomic bombs, in 1952; the Soviets produced their own H-bomb the next year.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman in 1953, he wanted to retain America’s military strength, but he also did not want to "waste money" on military spending that he deemed unnecessary. As a result, while the Army budget was cut, Eisenhower greatly increased spending on nuclear weapons and delivery methods from artillery to long-range bombers to submarines to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). His first Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, called it "A bigger bang for the buck." The Eisenhower Administration presented the view that nuclear weapons would be used in a tactical manner to defeat any Soviet invasion of Europe ("massive retaliation") and as a way to destroy the Soviet Union. To stress this, troops were literally marched across territory shortly after an atomic bomb had been exploded. Civil Defense was unrealistic, offering people the hope that getting to the ground, having children get under their desks ("Duck and Cover"), or going to an air raid shelter offered protection from nuclear explosions.

Eisenhower’s Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, emerged as First Secretary in 1956. Khrushchev was keenly aware that the Soviet Union lagged behind the United States technologically and militarily, as it had no long-range bombers and scarcely any ICBMs. In response, Khrushchev resorted to a bluff, claiming that he had developed hundreds of ICBMs, going so far as to claim at the United Nations in 1960 that the Soviets produced ICBMs like "sausages" on an assembly line. Only in the ensuing decades have we come to learn that the United States dominated the decade in nuclear weapons production and test explosions. According to a study prepared for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 1951-1958, the United States conducted 189 nuclear tests (including 111 during 1957-1958), while the Soviet Union conducted 82 tests.

While Eisenhower was alarmed at Khrushchev's bellicose rhetoric and erratic behavior, he also grew skeptical of Soviet claims. American spy planes made numerous flights over the Soviet Union, yet no ICBM sites were found. Eisenhower wanted to challenge the Air Force and many politicians who were already claiming that the Soviets had up to five hundred ICBMs, but he wanted proof, and then use this information to negotiate a reduction in nuclear weapons with Khrushchev. On the other hand, Khrushchev was afraid that the United States would discover how weak his nuclear arsenal was. In 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, which then scuttled any chance for a thaw in relations.

Unfortunately, this development reinforced an American strategy that stressed hitting every city in the Soviet Union with multiple warheads. Thus, a Russian city about the size of Hiroshima was targeted at this time by four hydrogen bombs, the largest of which had the force of 300 times the bomb used at Hiroshima.

President John F. Kennedy came into office as a hawk, having campaigned against a mythical "missile gap" with the Soviets. Khrushchev responded in 1961 with the largest nuclear test explosion in history, a 50-megaton blast that frightened the American public. It was the ultimate bluff: the bomb weighed 60,000 pounds and could not have been delivered as a weapon. In reality, the Soviets had about six ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, versus hundreds of American warheads that could reach the Soviet Union. Later, in a move to counter American missiles in Turkey, Khrushchev agreed to install ICBMs in Cuba (after an aborted CIA-sponsored invasion). The resulting crisis nearly plunged the world into nuclear war. Fortunately, it led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963), which banned above ground nuclear testing, greatly reducing the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere.

Over the ensuing decades, little progress was made toward reducing the threat. In the 1970s, the SALT I and II treaties limited some nuclear warhead delivery systems, but had little effect on the increasing number of warheads. The concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) symbolized the mutual deterrence of the Cold War mentality. By 1985, the beginning of President Reagan's second term, the United States had 20,000 warheads and the USSR had about 11,000, far more than necessary to obliterate all humanity.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made dramatic changes upon coming to power in 1985. One move was a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests from August 1985 to February 1987. In 1986, the United States conducted 14 tests and that same year, Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear warheads by 2000; President Reagan initially agreed to an immediate elimination. Reagan's advisers immediately persuaded him to drop the idea as the United States was unwilling to give up its program of developing a nuclear defensive system that would be based in space. In December 1987, the United States and USSR did sign a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). By the INF treaty, the USSR eliminated 1,500 missiles and the United States destroyed about half that number.

While the United States and the Soviet Union/Russian Federation have dominated the nuclear landscape, other nations have developed nuclear weapons. According to the SIPRI, 9 countries currently have 16,300 nuclear weapons (North Korea’s arsenal is an estimate).

An unfortunate inference one takes from the above table is that those with political adversaries tend to develop nuclear weapons. Thus, the United States/United Kingdom/France versus Russia/China, and India versus Pakistan. There have been many serious situations possibly related to this in the recent past, of which two stand out: Iran and North Korea.

Since 1979, Iran has been a self-proclaimed Islamic Republic, implacably opposed to the United States and to the existence of Israel in its pronouncements and alliances. Indeed, Iran, Syria, and the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas form an alliance known as the "Resistance Axis.” As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Iran's supreme leader ... spews the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology.” When it appeared that Iran was moving toward developing nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama joined with France, China, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia in a two-year process that produced a treaty with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under its provisions, sanctions were lifted in exchange for Iran agreeing to suspend its nuclear program and only use its facility for nuclear power for fifteen years. It will reduce its centrifuges (used to refine mined uranium from less than 1 percent concentration to 3-4 percent for nuclear power or 90 percent for nuclear weapons) from nearly 20,000 to no more than 5,060 of the least efficient centrifuges. It will also agree to lower its uranium 235 (U-235) from 10,000 kg to about 300 kg and limit its concentration to within the 3 percent-4 percent range for nuclear power (nuclear weapons grade requires enrichment to 90 percent). By January 2016, Iran reduced thousands of centrifuges and transported tons of U-235 to Russia and also agreed to modify a reactor so the nation cannot produce weapons grade plutonium; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is monitoring the facilities, and maintains the right to inspect sites upon request.

Initially, Israeli opposition to the treaty was universal, with the Cabinet unanimously opposing the JCPOA, comparing it to the notorious 1938 Munich Agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who wanted a treaty forcing Iran to dismantle all of its nuclear capability, said the treaty “would increase the risks of nuclear proliferation in the region and the risks of a horrific war.” On the other hand, proponents note that the JCPOA saves Israel from the dilemma of whether to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, and the international consequences that would ensue to Israel, a nuclear power. They argue that Iran has already reduced its U-235 and centrifuges. In addition, the JCPOA has reaped political benefits. Hassan Rouhani, who unseated the belligerent radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, had promised Iranians he would work to ease sanctions, and the agreement helped him to decisively defeat another hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, in 2017. Rouhani's opponents had charged that he was duped by the United States, which would work to reimpose sanctions after Iran gave up its nuclear weapons capability. Other reports indicate that the United States was duped and that Iran was never acting honestly and is desperately seeking out nuclear weapons technology. Time will tell whether Rouhani can open and liberalize Iran, or whether the religious leaders will thwart his efforts. It is significant that President Donald Trump, who denounced the JCPOA during his presidential campaign, decided in May 2017 to leave it in place. (Who knows how his administration will behave in the future, however.)

Perhaps the most distressing hotspot for nuclear activity today is in the rogue state of North Korea. North Korean history since 1945 has been dominated by one family. Kim Il-sung quickly emerged as its autocratic leader, and in 1950 launched an invasion of the South in an effort to unify the nation under his control. The brutal war that followed, in which the newly-established United Nations voted to aid the South, ended in stalemate in 1953, although no peace treaty was ever signed. In the succeeding years, Kim, at times, seemed to endorse unification and nuclear non-proliferation, and even joined the United Nations in 1991, but then in 1993 tested a medium-range missile. When Kim died in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il took over and signed an agreement freezing its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and two light-water nuclear reactors. In the ensuing years, moments of hope for a peaceful unification were countered by declarations of hostility, while economic decline and even famine occurred. In 2003, after several violations, North Korea withdrew from the agreement limiting its nuclear weapons research, and revealed it had enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs. In 2006, it exploded its first nuclear bomb and the United Nations responded with economic sanctions. In 2007, reacting to economic hardship, North Korea agreed to shut its main reactor in exchange for fuel oil, but in 2009 it exploded a second nuclear bomb. The current dictator, Kim Jong-un, succeeded his father when the latter died in 2011. This young and mysterious leader has generally increased the pace of nuclear development, including the launch of an ICBM in July 2017. The United States was quick to condemn the launch. It looked to China to restrain North Korea, while incumbent United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley stated that the ICBM launch is “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.” The United States and South Korea also staged joint missile launching exercises, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to ask the United Nations for more stringent sanctions against North Korea. However, others point out that North Korea, in developing nuclear weapons and ICBMs, may just be doing what other nations do when threatened. We should remember that the United States has used nuclear weapons in war, and spent much of the Cold War stressing that it would use tactical nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that China will take strong action against North Korea, as China is fearful that further sanctions could destabilize North Korea, leading to a refugee crisis and the seizure of the country by South Korea. Perhaps the best temporary solution is offered by former Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz joined with other nuclear experts to urge President Trump to resume talks with North Korea as the "only realistic option."

It remains to be seen how long the world can avoid the next use of nuclear weapons in warfare. In July 2017 at the United Nations, more than 120 nations signed a treaty banning all nuclear weapons. This sounds significant; however, all nine nuclear powers (and many of their allies) boycotted the event, and the United States, Great Britain, and France issued a joint statement opposing the treaty. They denounced the treaty as being "incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years." Instead, they endorsed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was signed when there were five nuclear powers (today there are nine).

While there is no purely correct answer to the nuclear question, it is self-evident that there is no political objective worth the horrific death of countless people. We would do well to heed the voice of one hibakusha from Hiroshima: "I touched and smelled Hell." Yet, we must also understand just how great the danger is and how easy it would be, with the wrong people in power, for the world to blow up at the slightest whim. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell commented that: “I…declare my hope and declare it from the bottom of my heart that we will eventually see the time when that number of nuclear weapons is down to zero and the world is a much better place.” We must keep the dream alive.

These words ring true for the untold generations that will hopefully have the ability to grow up in a world without the existential threats of destruction at a moment’s notice. It is one of the cruelties of the modern condition that the fates of so many are entrusted in the hands of so few. And, as current events play out in front of our eyes, the petulance of rogue nations that would deem it necessary to flex their powers actually show their weakness. Nuclear weapons don’t display strength. Rather, they are symptomatic of fear and frailty. These aren’t the traits that exhibit the best that humanity has to offer; they are the antithesis.

If anything, the underlying worth of nuclear weaponry is that their existence should inspire us to better than we already are. Their existence, while certainly detrimental to the spiritual growth of the world, provides a crucial opportunity for vital self-reflection at the individual and collective level. While this notion may seem like a bygone pipe dream or a radically naïve approach, ignoring the possibility that humanity’s future may descend into nuclear apocalypse would be truly irresponsible. While the manifold dimensions of nuclear conflict resolution are complicated, the outcome should be simple: a lasting peace throughout the world. How we get there is up to us. We must not only have this as a hope but actively push for cross-cultural exchange, deeper global trust, and grassroots relationship building across nation-states. Citizens around the world will be the ones to determine whether we’ll have global solidarity and trust or global suspicion, paranoia, and endless retaliation. Indeed, the future of humanity depends on our holy devotion to this crucial, necessary work.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

Popular in the Community