Since 1982, it’s possible that I have written more words about nuclear dangers, past and present, than anyone, in several hundred articles, two books and (in recent years) dozens of blog posts. I was also the editor of Nuclear Times magazine for four years. So I’ve observed, and charted, the rise and fall of American concern about nuclear weapons and their use for over three decades—or more, as I’ve been interested in this subject going back to ducking-and-covering back in my 1950s school days.
Unfortunately, after the heyday of the antinuclear movement of the early 1980s, public protest and political agitation for drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals, or even abolition, have faded. This has happened even though Ronald Reagan, of all people, called for abolition nearly thirty years ago, and now President Obama has done the same.
Yes, the United States and Russia have reduced their arsenals—largely by getting rid of outmoded weaponry and delivery systems—but as I noted last week (and this may surprise you), we still have 7700 nuclear warheads and maintaining that posture costs us $60 billion a year.
Also: we still have a “first-use” policy. That is, we retain the “right” to use our weapons first in a conflict, not just in retaliation.
That’s the key reason that so much of my writing has explored the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, and the “cover-up” in the US afterward (see my book Atomic Cover-up). Although our presidents, top officials, policymakers and pundits all proclaim “never again,” they inevitably turn around and defend the two times these weapons have already been used against people (killing more than 200,000, mainly women and children). In other words: they attest to the usefulness of the weapons in certain extreme cases. That means they have drawn a “red line”—in the sand, where it can easily disappear.
Anyway: Some help may be on the way in turning the tide of inaction and knee-jerk, often uninformed, opinion.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and other books, is out today with his much-awaited Command and Control, filled with scary stories about nuclear accidents and near-accidents in the US, with special focus on a 1980 missile silo crisis. As it happens, two years before that, in 1978, I assigned for Crawdaddy a piece by novelist Tim O’Brien on the threat of just such an accident.
Hopefully, getting scared about a nuke accident here at home might do what the Cold War “doomsday” scenarios, the mega-popular TV movie The Day After and the threat posed by modern-day terrorists with “suitcase bombs” have not—get Americans talking again about getting rid of these weapons, or at least reducing down to near-zero.
I’ll return this week with more on Schlosser and his book (you can read its first chapter now here), but I see, in an interview with Rolling Stone today, that he agrees with me about steep reductions, now. As he says:
I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but the first step would be for the major nuclear powers to meet and begin greatly reducing the sizes of their arsenals. The fewer weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a catastrophic accident. I mean, that’s just the law of probability. Realistically, you have an alternative: You can abolish nuclear weapons or you can accept that one day they’re going to be used. It’s just almost unimaginable what that would mean.
Greg Mitchell observes the anniversary of the “Atomic Plague” cover-up.