The forgotten element in averting nuclear catastrophe

Published 11:25 am Tuesday, April 30, 2024

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What will it take to end the nuclear nightmare that has gripped the world since the atomic bombings of 1945?

For a time, that nightmare seemed to have abated for, in response to massive popular resistance to the prospect of nuclear war, governments turned to signing nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements. Even previously hawkish government officials proclaimed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

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In recent decades, however, nuclear-armed nations have scrapped nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, begun the massive upgrading and expansion of their nuclear arsenals, and publicly threatened other nations with nuclear war. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has assessed the nuclear situation since 1946, has turned the hands of its “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous setting in its history.

Why has this renewed flirtation with nuclear Armageddon occurred?

One reason for the nuclear revival is that, in a world of independent, feuding nations, governments turn naturally to arming themselves with the most powerful weapons available and, sometimes, to war. Thus, with the decline of the worldwide nuclear disarmament campaign of the 1980s, governments have felt freer to engage their natural proclivities.

A second, less apparent reason is that the movement and government officials alike have ceased thinking systemically. Or, to put it another way, they have forgotten that the motor force behind nations’ reliance upon nuclear weapons is international anarchy.

In the late 1940s, during the first wave of the popular campaign against the Bomb, the movement recognized that nuclear weapons grew out of the centuries-old conflicts among nations. Consequently, millions of people across the globe, shocked by the atomic bombings of 1945, rallied around the slogan “One World or None.” 

In the United States, Norman Cousins, the young editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, sat down on the evening of the destruction of Hiroshima and wrote a lengthy editorial, “Modern Man Is Obsolete.” The “need for world government was clear long before August 6, 1945,” he observed, but the atomic bombing “raised the need to such dimensions that it can no longer be ignored.” 

Becoming a key writer, speaker, and fundraiser for the cause, Cousins turned the editorial into a book that went through 14 editions, appeared in seven languages, and had a circulation in the United States of seven million copies. He also became a leader in a new, rapidly growing organization, United World Federalists, which by mid-1949 had 720 chapters and nearly 50,000 members.

Around the world, the atomic bombing provoked a similar response. Atomic scientists, horrified by the prospect of worldwide destruction, published a book titled One World or None, organized international antinuclear campaigns among scientists, and emphasized the need for a global solution to the nuclear problem. Many, like Albert Einstein, became prominent world federalists or, like Robert Oppenheimer, viewed international control of nuclear weapons as a task that necessitated overriding national sovereignty.

The antinuclear uprising of the late 1940s had some impact upon public policy. Major governments, previously enthusiastic about nuclear weapons, grew ambivalent about their development and use. Indeed, the appearance of the Baruch Plan, the world’s first serious nuclear disarmament proposal, owed much to the postwar agitation.

Nevertheless, as the Cold War emerged, the officials of the great powers rejected the new way of thinking about relations among nations championed by Einstein and other activists. Instead of restructuring international relations to cope with the unprecedented peril of the Bomb, they incorporated the Bomb into the traditional framework of international conflict. The result was a nuclear arms race and a growing sense that agitation for transforming the international order was, at best, naïve, or, at worst, subversive.

These narrowed political horizons meant that, when the antinuclear movement revived in the late 1950s, it championed more limited objectives, beginning with a call for ending nuclear testing. And this goal proved attainable, at least in part, because halting atmospheric nuclear testing did not seriously hinder the great powers, which could move tests underground and, thereby, continue to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. The result was the passage of the world’s first nuclear arms control agreement, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. 

Admittedly, ban-the-bomb movements also sprang up in numerous countries. But, although they were sometimes headed by long-time proponents of world government, including Norman Cousins (chair of America’s National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and Bertrand Russell (president of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), they, too, focused on weapons rather than on reforming the international system. The result was a welcome surge of nuclear arms control treaties in the late 1960s and early 1970s that quieted the fears of activists and led to the movement’s decline.

When the Cold War revived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did an outraged antinuclear campaign. Indeed, this third wave of the nuclear disarmament movement proved the largest and most successful yet, securing substantial decreases in nuclear arsenals and significantly reducing the danger of nuclear war. 

Of all the major actors of that era, though, only Mikhail Gorbachev seemed ready to move beyond weapons cutbacks to advocate the development of a new international security system. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was swept from power. And, in recent decades, rising international tensions have swept away the antinuclear campaign’s hard-won gains, as well.

Those gains, though evanescent, were important, for they helped the world to avoid nuclear war while giving it time to press on toward a nuclear weapons-free future.

But this history also suggests that, in the struggle for survival in the nuclear age, confronting the continued anarchy of nations cannot be avoided. Indeed, given the severity of our current international crises and the escalating nuclear menace that they generate, the time has come to revisit the forgotten issue of strengthening the international security system.

(Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).)