The upcoming negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea may offer a way out of the terribly dangerous crisis that has developed over the last year. But there is no guarantee of success, and failed negotiations may actually increase the chance of war. The crisis underlines the need for a fundamental change in nuclear policy if we are really to move back from the brink of nuclear war.
For decades the United States has based its security policy on the belief that nuclear weapons make us safe. Even as other nations have developed nuclear arsenals capable of destroying our country, we have maintained that these weapons keep us secure, that somehow the threat of mutually assured destruction guarantees that they will never be used.
In fact, throughout the nuclear era, there have been many incidents when this policy of deterrence has failed, and we have come terrifyingly close to nuclear war. We know of at least six times when either Moscow or Washington began the process of launching their nuclear weapons in the mistaken belief that they were under attack from the other side. On each of these occasions we were not protected by the wisdom of our nuclear policy. Rather, as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara famously said, “We lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.”
Our current reliance on nuclear weapons is, essentially, a hope for continued good luck, and that is simply not an acceptable national security policy.
The enormity of the threat posed by these weapons has been driven home over the last decade by a series of scientific studies. We now know that even a very limited nuclear war, as might take occur between India and Pakistan, would have catastrophic consequences across the entire globe. The use of less than half of their current nuclear arsenals, less than 0.5 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, would kill up to 20 million people. Soot from the fires caused by these weapons would cause worldwide climate disruption. The resultant decline in food production would trigger a global famine that would put 2 billion people at risk and end modern civilization.
A large scale war between the U.S. and Russia would be far worse. Hundreds of millions of people would die in the first hour. Soot released in a war of this magnitude would create an instant ice age, with temperatures plunging, over a matter of days, to levels not seen in 18,000 years. Food production would collapse and the vast majority of the human race would starve. We might become extinct as a species.
For 25 years after the end of the Cold War, we assumed that we no longer had to worry about nuclear war. The Korean crisis, the daily, low-level fighting between India and Pakistan, the worsening relations between Russia and the West, the growing threat of cyberterrorism, and the increased likelihood of conflict as climate change makes large parts of the world less able to support their human populations — all of these factors underline how false that sense of security was.
So, what can we do?
A new national campaign, “Back from the Brink,” is calling for the U.S. to accept that our current nuclear policy is a disaster waiting to happen, and to adopt instead a new policy based on the understanding that our security is best served by a world free of all nuclear weapons. It calls on the United States to pursue a verifiable agreement among nuclear armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals as our highest national security priority.
There is no guarantee that these negotiations will succeed, but there is no reason to assume they will fail. At the height of the Cold War, millions of people around the world took action and successfully persuaded the U.S. and Soviet Union to change course. Despite the enormous gulf between them, the super powers negotiated a series of agreements to stop the arms race and dismantle more than 70 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Now it is time to finish the job.
Ira Helfand, M.D., is co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility; co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize; and a member of the International Steering Group, ICAN, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
Editor's note: Dr. Helfand will give two presentations in Madison on the issue of nuclear weapons on Tuesday, April 10. See sidebar for information.
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