John Reuwer: Nuclear weapons are unneeded, unsafe

Editor's note: This commentary is by John Reuwer, who is an adjunct professor of Conflict Resolution at St. Michael's College and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility's Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Sept. 26 is the International Day for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. In the United States we might ask, why worry about abolishing nuclear weapons? After all, haven't we lived with them successfully since 1945, and don't they keep us safe from other states with nuclear weapons? No one would dare attack us since we could destroy them in retaliation, a policy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). A deeper look beneath the shiny surface of the world of nuclear weapons gives us two important reasons that their abolition may be preferable to our ongoing acceptance of MAD.

First, the club of nuclear nations and the threat of using nuclear weapons is increasing, with only five of the current nine members signed onto the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. President Trump has said he sees no reason South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Japan should not have nuclear weapons. North Korea has threatened the U.S. with its new nuclear weapons, Pakistan and India have been openly fighting in Kashmir, China and the U.S. are fighting trade wars while conducting military exercises in the South China Sea. Russian and U.S. relations are deteriorating while each is modernizing their arsenals, including creating smaller, more usable warheads that can be delivered by stealth aircraft or cruise missiles. Arms control treaties, like the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to forestall Iranian nuclear weapons development, both of which saved us untold tax dollars and reduced the risk of disaster for all of us, are falling by the geopolitical wayside. 

Secondly, even without these new threats, the record of almost-disasters with the 70,000 or so nuclear warheads that mankind built is absolutely frightening. The Pentagon admits to 32 "Broken Arrow" incidents where someone "lost control" of warheads. In addition there have been at least six near-Armageddons. Gen. Lee Butler, former commander of all U.S. nuclear forces said we are only still here by a combination of careful planning, luck, and divine intervention. Robert McNamara said of the Cuban missile crisis, it was only luck that kept us from nuclear war. Luck makes for lousy policy. We've done better. Massive in-the-street support for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s, and relentless lobbying by physicians and scientists in the halls of power, led to over 75% of nuclear weapons being dismantled. But almost 15,000 remain, enough to end civilization and much life on the planet. 

We can do better. In 2017, 122 nations adopted the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, which makes the development, testing, production, possession, and transfer of nuclear weapons illegal under international law. The treaty will come into force when it is ratified by 50 nations;  27 have already done so. 

While we wait for that treaty to bring sanity to the world, we can push our government to enact policies that can immediately reduce the risk of Armageddon. The Back from the Brink campaign (BftB) calls for 1) Adopting a position of no first strike using nuclear weapons; 2) Ending the authority of any U.S. president to launch a nuclear attack; 3) taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; 4) Canceling the plan to build a new nuclear arsenal with enhanced weapons; and  5) Negotiating a verifiable agreement to reduce and eliminate all nuclear arsenals. Our federal leaders are unlikely to enact these measures without a grassroots push, which luckily is already underway. Many cities and states across the U.S., have adopted resolutions calling our federal legislatures to enact these policies. In Vermont, the cities of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski have done so already. 

To motivate support for a sane nuclear policy, it is worthwhile to educate ourselves and our neighbors about risks of nuclear weapons. There is an opportunity to do this this week by attending a screening of a new and gripping movie called "The Man Who Saved the World," about Russian missile officer Stanislaw Petrov who in 1983 was in charge of the Soviet hair-trigger alert system when all systems indicated the United States launched five missiles at the Soviet Union. By protocol, he was to initiate a retaliatory strike at the U.S., but could not bring himself to do it. It is very likely we owe this man our lives. Come see his story, and reason for hope.  

The film will be shown on Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski, and at 7 p.m. on Sept. 28 at Main Street Landing in Burlington. 


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