The Ongoing Danger of Nuclear War
This August, when hundreds of Hiroshima Day vigils and related antinuclear activities occur around the
Unfortunately, it is not.
Today there are nine nuclear-armed nations, with over 23,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Thousands of these weapons are on hairtrigger alert.
Admittedly, some nations are decreasing the size of their nuclear arsenals. The
But other nations are engaged in a substantial nuclear buildup.
In addition, numerous nations--among them,
But surely national governments are too civilized to actually use nuclear weapons, aren't they?
In fact, one government (that of the
Moreover, nations have come dangerously close to full-scale nuclear war on a number of occasions. The Cuban missile crisis is the best-known example. But there are numerous others. In October 1973, during a war between Israel and Egypt that appeared to be spiraling out of control, the Soviet government sent a tough message to Washington suggesting joint--or, if necessary, Soviet--military action to bring the conflict to a halt. With President Richard Nixon reeling from the Watergate scandal and drunk in the White House, his top national security advisors responded to what they considered a menacing Soviet move by ordering an alert of
Of course, nuclear war hasn't occurred since 1945. But this fact has largely reflected public revulsion at the prospect and popular mobilization against it. Today, however, lulled by the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the
Furthermore, while nuclear weapons exist, there is a serious danger of accidental nuclear war. In September 1983, the Soviet Union's launch-detection satellites reported that the
Another nuclear war nearly erupted two months later, when the
Furthermore, today we can add the danger of nuclear terrorism. Although it is very unlikely that terrorists will be able to develop nuclear weapons on their own, the existence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and of the materials to build them in national arsenals opens the possibility that terrorists will acquire these items through theft or black market operations.
Overall, then, the situation remains very dangerous. Dr. Martin Hellman, a Professor Emeritus of Engineering at
In June 2005, Senator Richard Lugar, then the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, produced a committee report that was even less sanguine. Asked about the prospect of a nuclear attack within the next ten years, the 76 nuclear security experts he polled came up with an average probability of 29 percent. Four respondents estimated the risk at 100 percent, while only one estimated it at zero.
Thus, Hiroshima Day events provide a useful context for considering the ongoing nuclear danger and, conversely, the necessity for a nuclear weapons-free world.
Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).