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A case for nuclear disarmament

R ecently, I watched a video on the subject of nuclear disarmament. Like most such films, it featured dramatic and horrifying depictions of what would happen if a nuclear device was set off in a major city such as New York.

Such depictions are in a way counterproductive, because they convey the impression that nuclear disarmament is a cause primarily supported by “softies.” But there are compelling practical, hard-headed arguments that nuclear weapons no longer serve any useful purpose for the nations of the world and are so dangerous to all of us that they must be eliminated entirely.

Nuclear weapons pose two dangers. The first danger is accidental launch. Every nuclear-capable nation surely has extensive safeguards in place, but those safeguards may not be adequate. If the Iranians’ centrifuges were vulnerable to sabotage, how trustworthy can their safeguards against accidental launch be?

The second, more worrisome danger, is from “non-state actors” like al-Qaida or Aum Shinrikyo. Such organizations have no return address; if a suitcase bomb goes off in Boston, how can we know who placed it there? Even if al-Qaida, say, takes credit for it, are they to be believed? And if we believe them, how could we retaliate against such a dispersed target?

Missiles can be tracked and if a missile strikes a city, it’s possible to determine where it came from. Not so for smuggled nuclear devices, which is what non-state actors would probably use. And non-state actors, unlike nations, are often willing to sacrifice their very existence for some higher cause.

Most nuclear weapons are in the arsenals of either the United States or Russia. American weapons are targeted at Russia and Russian weapons are targeted at the United States. But these two countries are no longer the mortal enemies they were in the 1960s. Indeed, the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia isn’t even a communist country anymore. Those weapons no longer serve any plausible strategic purpose.

Suppose, using our weaponry, we could destroy Russia with no damage to ourselves. We would accomplish nothing by doing so; Russia is no longer a threat to us. Conservatives see Scandinavia with its socialist governments as much more of a threat than Russia. And Russia probably gains as much as it loses by the American presence in the world — think of those Russian oligarchs who own penthouses in Manhattan.

In the 1960s, when nuclear strategy was at its peak, the essence of that strategy was “counterforce”: destroy the enemy’s missiles first so they can’t strike back; then go after the cities. Nuclear placements were designed around that strategy.

A counterforce strategy is no longer feasible. Nuclear missiles can be placed on submarines or on mobile platforms where they are invulnerable. They can be placed deep in the earth where even bunker-busting bombs can’t reach them. So if, for instance, Iran were to fire nuclear missiles at Tel Aviv, it would surely be devastated in return, and the Iranians know that. No sane nation, or even an insane one like North Korea, would ever deliberately initiate a nuclear exchange. The consequences would be unacceptable.

Furthermore, non-nuclear weapons have become extremely powerful. Even in World War II, as much damage was inflicted on Tokyo with conventional bombing as on Hiroshima with atomic bombing. The lack of nuclear weaponry hardly renders a nation powerless; we could devastate any nation on earth without using atomic weapons at all.

Israel and Iran are probably the two nations that would be most reluctant to give up their nuclear arsenals. Israel is under constant threat from Iran, which would like nothing better than to remove Israel from the face of the earth. Israelis are proud of their nuclear capabilities, but those capabilities aren’t essential to Israel’s defense. Israel surely has plenty of missiles and enough conventional explosives to counter the Iranian threat, as well as a first-rate air force. So even Israel could live without its nuclear bombs.

And Iran? One of the things that ought to worry Iran is the possibility that Hezbollah or perhaps al-Qaida might ground-deliver and detonate a nuclear device in Tel Aviv. Israel would almost certainly attack Iran under such circumstances, having to assume Iran to be responsible whether or not it really was.

An argument often made for a strong military is that armament-building creates jobs and profits. The folks in Groton, Conn., have an understandable attachment to nuclear submarines. But even from that point of view, nuclear weapons aren’t of much use; building them creates far less employment and profit than building exotic aircraft and ships.

The unique thing about nuclear weapons is the fact that they deliver enormous destructive power while being quite compact. It is that compactness that renders them usable by non-state actors.

Ultimately, the only protection the people of the world can have against nuclear catastrophe is tight, internationally monitored control of all fissile material. Without that material it is impossible to construct a bomb. And though plutonium, say, can be transported clandestinely, it’s very difficult to produce it clandestinely. To get the rest of the world to give up its nuclear weapons, we have to be willing to give up our own. It would not endanger us.

It would be worth the price.

Paul Abrahams is a retired computer consultant, programmer, NYU professor, and technical writer. He lives in Deerfield and collects wild mushrooms.

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