A Secure World

From the Foundation's 1995 Annual Report

Photo Credit1
[Nuclear explosion]
The challenge of protecting humanity and the Earth from nuclear destruction emerged fifty years ago. In the summer of 1945 the United States first tested a nuclear weapon, and on August 6 and 9 dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon thereafter, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a frenetic nuclear arms race, bringing in their wake the United Kingdom, France, and China. At various times other states joined the nuclear field. Some, such as South Africa, Taiwan and South Korea, dropped out; others, such as Israel, India and Pakistan, have stayed in the nuclear arena with varying degrees of activity.

1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the advent of the nuclear age, provided a remarkable standpoint for looking both backward and forward, for assessing the lessons of the preceding half century and evaluating how the world was coming to grips with the nuclear legacies of this period. The central lesson of the first fifty years of the nuclear age was that nuclear weapons should not be used again. With each passing year after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the taboo against waging war with nuclear weapons grew stronger. Though crises erupted, and in the earliest of them—the Berlin blockade of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962—the United States and the Soviet Union approached the brink of potential nuclear war, world leaders demonstrated an awareness that the negative consequences of nuclear war would dwarf putative gains. Although the two superpowers engaged in proxy wars in the Third World, the imperative of avoiding nuclear war became great enough to inspire caution over entering conflicts which could escalate into nuclear exchanges.

The essential deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, however—what McGeorge Bundy called "existential deterrence"—did not prevent the United States and the Soviet Union from building thousands more weapons than were required for the purposes of deterrence. Indeed, during the 50 years following 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union produced approximately 100,000 nuclear weapons between them. Many explanations exist for this excess. Military establishments, civilian strategists and nuclear weapon designers continually sought ways to escape from deterrence and to build more and "better" weapons which would allow one side or the other actually to win wars using nuclear weapons.

This attempt to circumvent deterrence imposed many costs. The United States and the Soviet Union spent trillions of dollars producing their over-sized arsenals, and in the process despoiled large parcels of their natural environment and impaired the health of workers and communities around nuclear production sites. These costs have still not been fully accounted for, as they were barely recognized until after the Cold War ended. The more obvious costs can be seen in the failure of the United States and the Soviet Union to end their arms race at an earlier date. Political scientist John Herz offered a compelling description of this problem in 1959:

The very fact that technical developments of weapons and armaments in themselves wield such a tremendous impact has meant that they have almost come to dictate policies instead of policies determining type and choice of weapons, their use, amount of armaments, and so forth. In other words, instead of weapons serving policy, policy is becoming the mere servant of a weapon that more and more constitutes its own raison d'etre. 2
Despite modest successes in managing nuclear competition in the 1960s and 1970s through limitations on nuclear testing and controls on nuclear forces, it was not until the mid-1980s that ending the arms race became possible. A necessary condition was the arrival of new Soviet leaders who recognized that their country could not sustain itself without major internal reforms and accommodation with the West which would allow integration into the high-technology international economy. Ending the nuclear arms race was a prerequisite for this reform and international accommodation. Fortunately, at the same time as Soviet leaders sought fundamental reform, the United States was led by a president who genuinely sought to abolish nuclear weapons, even if he sometimes pursued counter-productive policies. Thus the United States and the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Presidents Reagan and Bush and General Secretary Gorbachev and President Yeltsin, managed to conclude major treaties to eliminate whole classes of nuclear weapons and to reduce significantly those categories of weapons which remained.

The breakthroughs in nuclear arms reductions from 1987 onward were greatly facilitated by the work of nongovernmental scientists, scholars and activists. Through contacts made at the height of the Cold War, nongovernmental leaders, especially scientists, had worked with reform-minded Soviet counterparts to map how the nuclear arms race could be reversed. Unofficial plans for mutual force reductions were explored along with privately proven means of verifying agreements. These nongovernmental exertions were particularly valuable in emboldening the Soviet reformers to take steps that the entrenched nuclear establishment resisted.

By 1990 the momentum of the nuclear arms race had been reversed. However, as the ensuing years have shown, the challenge of removing fully the now unjustifiably large nuclear arsenals and changing the doctrines regarding their use remains great. Large, complicated and entrenched organizations and deeply ingrained ways of thinking must still be changed. 1995 has witnessed progress in this direction, most notably with the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970 and was subject to renewal at a conference of its 178 parties at the United Nations in the spring of 1995. The vast majority of states party to the treaty had abjured nuclear weapons and favored greater efforts by the five established nuclear-weapon states to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals, as the treaty itself obligates them to do. While progress toward this end had been made, chiefly by the United States and the Soviet Union, much of the world felt that a greater commitment to proceed further was required. The U.S. and the other four recognized nuclear powers resisted these demands, while urging stronger measures to keep others from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the end, an uneasy consensus emerged to extend the treaty indefinitely. However, the non-nuclear-weapon states, buttressed by many nongovernmental organizations, won commitments from the nuclear-weapon states to the following goals: "systematic and progressive efforts" to reduce nuclear stockpiles; pledges that elimination of nuclear weapons is the ultimate goal; completion of a comprehensive test ban treaty by 1996; and early conclusion of negotiations to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons. The extension of this treaty represented a major decision by the international community to reaffirm its commitment to moving toward a world with zero nuclear weapons.

At the end of 1995, then, the world appeared to recognize that nuclear weapons have been greatly overvalued and that further acquisitions of these weapons are illegitimate. Concentration has now turned to the task of dismantling the remaining over-sized nuclear arsenals and infrastructures of the nuclear-weapon states, cleaning up after and controlling the residues of the Cold War nuclear arms race, and blocking the further spread of nuclear materials and weapons. This challenge constitutes the agenda of the next fifty years and the hope that humankind can eliminate its most immediate threat to global sustainability.

1 "Fizeau," a 11-kiloton nuclear test on September 14, 1957 at the Nevada Test Site. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory.[Return]
2 John H. Herz, International Politics in the Atomic Age (New York: Columbia UP, 1959) 219-221. [Return]

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