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Building a Nuclear Weapons-Free World

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Apocalypse Never (Rutgers University Press, 2010), by Tad Daley, is a new book that deserves wide circulation, for it is a spirited, ringing call for nuclear weapons abolition -- including why it is imperative and how it can be achieved.

According to Daley -- a former member of the International Policy Department of the Rand Corporation, as well as a former speechwriter and policywriter for members of Congress -- unless we move quickly to build a nuclear weapons-free world, nuclear catastrophes are likely to erupt in any (or all) of the following ways.

Nuclear terrorism provides the likeliest scenario. Although unscrupulous U.S. politicians have inflated the dangers of terrorism to further their own political careers, there is nevertheless a genuine danger of terrorist attack. And there remains little doubt that terrorists have attempted (and continue to attempt) to obtain nuclear weapons and weapons grade material to implement such an assault. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, if a single nuclear weapon of the Hiroshima type were exploded in Los Angeles, more than 117,000 people would perish instantly and another 111,000 would die sooner or later from radiation exposure. Moreover, that is a small nuclear weapon by today's standards. The U.S. government has a nuclear warhead with nearly a hundred times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. As long as nuclear weapons and weapons grade material exist in national arsenals, terrorists and other madmen will have the opportunity to obtain them through theft, black market operations, or bribery.

In addition, as Daley reminds us, there is a great danger of "accidental atomic apocalypse." Humans, after all, are prone to errors. With thousands of weapons set for "launch on warning," the stage is set for a catastrophe of immense proportions. During the Cold War, numerous accidental nuclear wars were narrowly averted. Even in the aftermath of the Cold War, there have been some very narrow escapes. Daley reports that, in 1995, Russian technicians at the Olengrosk early warning radar site spotted what seemed to be a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, apparently fired from a U.S. submarine, headed directly for their country. Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, "spent eight frantic minutes deliberating on whether or not" to launch a retaliatory attack before the incoming weapon arrived. Fortunately, Russian radar officers determined that the rocket was carrying not a nuclear warhead but a Norwegian weather satellite. But they did this with only three minutes to spare. Other potentially disastrous kinds of nuclear accidents, from missiles lost to nuclear submarines colliding, occur all the time.

Also, there is the problem of "nuclear crisis mismanagement." The Cuban missile crisis is the best known example of nations slipping and sliding toward a nuclear war they did not want. But there have been others. In 1983, for example, a NATO military training exercise, Able Archer, was misinterpreted by Soviet leaders as preparation for a U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In response, Soviet nuclear weapons were readied for action. The situation might well have spiraled totally out of control had it not been for a Western spy in the KGB, who reported on the very alarming Soviet developments, thus leading the U.S. government to ratchet down its military maneuvers. Daley asks: "Can we really expect, if we retain nuclear weapons for another twenty or thirty or fifty years, that not a single nuclear crisis will ever descend into nuclear war?"

Finally, there is the prospect of "intentional use" of nuclear weapons. The United States, of course, employed them intentionally back in 1945. And Daley notes that "someday the leadership of another nuclear state may make a similar decision, concluding, not from fear and panic but after a sober, calm, detached cost-benefit analysis that they ought to start a nuclear war." As Daley points out, the administration of George W. Bush gave serious consideration to using U.S. nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats. There is no reason to assume that the same will not be done by governments of other nations, including the dozens of additional countries that are expected to build nuclear weapons -- at least if there is no agreement to ban them in the coming decades.

One of the strongest objections to developing an international treaty for a nuclear-free world is that a nation might break out of this binding agreement by hiding nuclear weapons or secretly building them and, then, conquer the world. Confronting this "breakout" issue, Daley points out that U.S. conventional military strength, plus the military strength of other nations, is so great that "any leaders choosing to roll the breakout dice would be inviting both national and personal suicide." Furthermore, a government that "cheated" would "come under enormous political, economic, and moral pressure from the rest of the world." Indeed, "any state in a post-abolition world that tried to bully its way to some geostrategic objective with a nuclear club" would become "the planet's greatest pariah." Also, Daley reminds us that the coercive value of nuclear weapons is highly over-rated. After all, "each of the original five nuclear weapon states has lost a war to a non-nuclear weapon state... Their nuclear monopoly in relation to the other party did not enable them to achieve their objectives."

If, as Daley contends, there are more advantages than disadvantages to a nuclear weapons-free world, how can it be established? He maintains that the best way to accomplish this is by transforming the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) into a nuclear abolition agreement. Article 8 of the NPT provides for a conference of state parties to the NPT that can then alter the treaty. In case the nuclear powers are reluctant to call such a conference into session, Daley suggests that civil society and non-nuclear nations join together to insist that nuclear nations "move the issue to the top of their agendas." Even if the nuclear nations continued to object to such a conference, it could be convened, under the provisions of Article 8, if one-third or more of the parties to the NPT requested it.

Concluding this informative, insightful, and powerful book, Daley argues that "abolishing nuclear weapons... is probably the single most important task the human race can pursue right now to ensure our long-range survival."

Most people, if pressed on this point, would probably agree with him. And, as my recent book, Confronting the Bomb, indicates, the public has played a key role in staving off nuclear war since 1945. But, curiously, many people now seem sunk in a strange torpor, unable to challenge the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons that menace their future and that of generations to come. Hopefully, Apocalypse Never will help jolt them awake.

Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus 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.)