Remember the Past but Work for the Future
August 6, 1945 we dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The world changed forever. We came under the shadow of a nuclear mushroom cloud that is still with us 69 years later.
We should remember the dead and wounded from the horrific events of that time. At Hiroshima we killed an estimated 166,000 and, three days later, 80,000 in Nagasaki. Most of these dead were non-combatant civilians of all ages.
We should remember that war has always been destructive. But with the atomic age we reached a new level of destructiveness. During the arms race of the cold war we built arsenals with the power to literally destroy the world. When you destroy the world no one wins.
We should remember that the United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons. One would think this would inspire some remorse, a little humility, or, at least, less celebration of “shock and awe”. Humility, however, has never been an American strong point.
The purpose of remembering the past is to understand the present, learn from our mistakes, and do better in the future. Knowing the awful destructiveness of nuclear weapons, why do we not see the folly of them? Why don’t we lead the world in abolishing them?
We cannot use them again. We have signed treaties that make their use illegal under international law (the Kellog-Briand Pact, the UN Charter, the Geneva Accords, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Even a super-power need friends and trading partners. Using nuclear weapons again would surely make us a pariah state. So why are we spending billions to maintain the arsenal?
The idea that nuclear weapons deter potential enemies and keep us safe is false. They do not work for terrorists, suicide bombers, or “rogue states.” Nuclear retaliation cannot deter terrorists because they do not have a territory to retaliate against. Leaders of a rogue state may not use rational thinking, but they know we cannot actually use nuclear weapons. So deterrence doesn’t work.
It is questionable whether deterrence worked with the Russians during the cold war. Nuclear deterrence failed to restrain us, or the Russians, from aggression. There were many deadly “proxy” wars by the superpowers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Vietnam War, which took several million lives, is a prominent example.
Nuclear weapons certainly did not keep us “safe.” As Eric Schlosser points out in Command and Control, we are very lucky the world was not destroyed during the cold war. There were 1200 nuclear weapons incidents, accidents, or close calls between 1950 and 1968. The Cuban missile crisis was not the only time we almost pushed the button.
Nuclear weapons have been an environmental and health disaster. Working in our 19 nuclear weapons production facilities produced 45,799 U.S civilians with work related illnesses. Globally there have been and estimated 13 million victims. Many nuclear weapons production facilities are Superfund cleanup sites.
Since WW2 we have spent an estimated $35 trillion developing, deploying, maintaining, and cleaning up after our nuclear weapons programs. The lost opportunity to have done good with this money is the real tragedy.
We should also remember that many people have tried to deter us from the folly of nuclear weapons. Most recent is the Plowshares 3, one of whom is Duluth resident Greg Bjoertje-Obed. Greg is serving a 60 month sentence in Leavenworth for protesting our nuclear weapons programs. Along with Megan Rice, an 82 year old nun, and Michael Walli, a Vietnam veteran, the Plowshares 3 were convicted of sabotage. They willing committed trespass and breaking and entering in a peaceful act of civil disobedience. Their actions were purely symbolic and intended to awaken the conscience of the nation. Their purpose was to inform the public of the danger, immorality, and illegality of nuclear weapons. Yet they received very harsh sentences for embarrassing the government and exposing the lax security at the nuclear weapons facility. We should thank them, not put them in jail.
The bottom line is we would be more secure by eliminating all nuclear weapons which are the only weapons that could actually destroy the United States. It is time we learn from our mistakes and chart a new direction for the future. Politicians will not act. It is up to us, as citizens, to remember the past, take action now, and build a better nuclear weapon free future.
Philip Anderson is a 20 year veteran of the U.S. Military