For 72 years, they’ve tried to warn us a time like this would come.
The world-renowned scientist Albert Einstein – his 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt played a critical role leading to the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki – tried to warn us, writing in 1952 to lament his role and to argue continued development of nuclear warheads “leads inevitable (sic) to war, which, in turn, under today’s conditions, spells universal destruction.”
The president who made the fateful decision to drop those two bombs on Japan in 1945 – Harry Truman – tried to warn us, stating in his 1953 farewell address that “starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.”
For the most part, we haven’t been listening. More than seven decades into the Atomic Age, more nations than ever collectively possess enough nuclear warheads – nearly 15,000 – to theoretically destroy the planet at least five times over and possibly many times more than that. (Although five times seems more than sufficient, no?) And there were two things that – assuming the world continued to build nuclear bombs, which we did – worried the great scientists and political leaders of yesteryear more than anything else.
The first was nuclear proliferation, that eventually the technology to build and deploy nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of an unstable dictatorship (or, even worse, terrorists or other unaccountable stateless actors). The second fear is the great powers with the bulk of the world’s nuclear arsenal – like the United States and the USSR/Russia – might not always have wise leaders with the savvy to see radioactive hell-fire bombs as a beyond-last-resort deterrent to conventional war.
Instead of getting rid of the planet’s nuclear arsenal, humankind’s only strategy for avoiding Armageddon these last 72 years was not having nuclear launch codes in the hands of people like North Korea’s dangerous and despotic Kim Jong Un – or a hotheaded, impulsive American president like Donald Trump. The last week has revealed the utter folly of that notion.
The thing is, we’ve been lucky, starting with the leadership shown by Dwight Eisenhower, whose successful strategy for avoiding World War III during the fraught early days of the Cold War meant threatening rivals with the use of America’s then-sizable nuclear advantage, even though privately he vowed to do everything possible to never follow through.
Since then, our ADD-addled interest in nuclear bombs has ebbed and flowed. The nuclear-freeze movement of the early 1980s and the buzz generated by TV’s “The Day After” was followed by some real progress on disarmament through Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, punctuated by the hopeful end of the Cold War. But the next generation of leaders has mostly botched the follow-through. And nothing epitomized the failure of our nuke-free dreams more than the disappointing policies of Barack Obama.
Not only did Obama not reduce the vast number of warheads as much as his predecessors did, but near the end of his term, he actually endorsed a $1 trillion plan to modernize, replace and restore the stockpile.
The Obama plan would take the ability to destroy the world and simply preserve it. That’s the scheme Trump has now also endorsed and tweeted – falsely, of course – that he has been busy carrying out. (In the reality-based world, the plan is still under review.) Not surprisingly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants to modernize and upgrade the nukes he controls – exactly the arms race the 21st century didn’t need.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Ploughshares Fund has called for removing some outdated and unnecessary elements from the proposed nuclear overhaul, such as cruise missiles launched from jet aircraft and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. That would free up hundreds of billions of dollars for things other than annihilating human civilization.
In January, Democratic lawmakers introduced a Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act that would bar the president from launching a nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress, unless the United States was under a nuclear attack. That’s a commonsense safeguard that’s long overdue.
Will Bunch is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. Email him at email@example.com