IN A HISTORIC STATEMENT last November, Pope Francis categorically condemned not only “the threat” of nuclear weapons but also “their very possession.” In December, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for its work on a new global treaty to prohibit nuclear arms. Already approved by the United Nations, it’s expected to enter into force this year. The Vatican was one of the first to ratify.
Here in the United States, however, it’s like we live in the Twilight Zone. President Donald Trump threatens to “totally destroy North Korea,” tweets about how his “nuclear button” is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s, and is moving ahead with plans to spend $1.7 trillion to rebuild the nuclear arsenal over the next three decades.
Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and impulsive tweets worry Democrats and Republicans alike, with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) saying in October, “We could be heading toward World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.” In a sign of growing concern, the GOP-controlled Senate held the first congressional hearing on the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons in 41 years. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Americans are concerned that President Trump “is so unstable, is so volatile” that he might order a nuclear strike that is “wildly out of step” with our national security interests.
Yet there is a relatively simple step the United States could take that would 1) limit President Trump’s nuclear options, 2) reduce the risk of war, 3) respond to growing international calls to eliminate atomic arms, and 4) save a boatload of money.
It is time to retire our Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
My new friends adhered to the “seamless garment” philosophy, also called the consistent life ethic, one committed to the protection of all human life, whether from war, poverty, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia, or abortion. One of them gave me a button that read “Peace begins in the womb,” and I pinned it to the bottom of the black leather motorcycle jacket I used to wear in those days.
Setsuko Thurlow was 13 when “progress” came to Hiroshima in a white-hot flash. In the dark silence following the nuclear bomb blast, Thurlow recalls children crying, “Mama, help me. God, help me.”
Her sister lived for four days. Many of her 351 dying schoolmates “looked like skeletons with skin hanging from their bones.”
They perished in agony.
Today, Thurlow and other survivors travel the globe, sharing their stories with a new generation for which nuclear weapons are an afterthought — seemingly a hypothetical and abstract threat.
The end of the Cold War had a mixed effect on the nuclear equation. Through dogged diplomacy and effective institutions, disarmament continues, though at a slower pace in recent years. There are now 10,000 operational nuclear warheads in the world, down from a high of 64,000 in 1986.
But the specter of nuclear terrorism and regional conflicts between nuclear weapons states makes nuclear weapons even more dangerous in our international system. Deterrence theory, which governed strategic thinking during the Cold War, is a much less compelling framework today.
Thankfully, most states have forsworn these armaments. Nuclear weapons are not vital to any state’s legitimate security interest. No state or NGO has the capacity to respond to the unfathomable humanitarian crisis that would follow an accidental or intentional use of a nuclear weapon.
Thus a growing global consensus now acknowledges the extreme risk nuclear weapons pose.
Pope John XXIII stated unequivocally in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” “Nuclear weapons must be banned.”
IMAGINE IF YOU will a world in which the most destructive weapons were “conventional” explosives. These bombs, often with nicknames such as “Daisy Cutter” or “bunker buster” or even the “Mother of All Bombs,” have enormous power: The Vietnam-era Daisy Cutter, one of the largest conventional weapons ever used, was designed to flatten a forest into a helicopter landing zone with a blast equal to about 15,000 pounds of TNT.
Now imagine that someone says, “Those conventional bombs aren’t destructive enough. Let’s invent a weapon a million times more powerful, one that releases radiation that magnifies the killing effects for generations. And let’s make 16,000 of those weapons.”
A sane world would respond, “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
But in the real world, it’s no joke.
Today, 70 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world has 16,400 nuclear weapons—93 percent of them in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. The first H-bomb had the force of around 10 million tons of TNT, more than a million times as powerful as the worst conventional weapons.
THE KENNAN DIARIES, carefully edited by Frank Costigliola, a University of Connecticut historian, covers an amazing and sometimes disturbing 88-year period of personal journal-writing by George F. Kennan, who became the most famous diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century.
Born in 1904 (he died in 2005) Kennan, a Milwaukee native, grew up in an upper-class Scotch-Irish Presbyterian family with three older sisters and a father who was a tax attorney.
After graduating from Princeton, Kennan became a Foreign Service officer with the State Department, eventually serving in posts throughout Europe. But Kennan’s first love was Russia. He wrote in his diary that “he had a mystical connection to Leningrad, as though he had once lived there.” He was offered a three-year university stint in Berlin by the State Department—Kennan’s boss wanted him to be educated like a pre-Bolshevik Russian gentleman. Kennan’s grasp of the Russian language and history became exceptional. Together with his prodigious analytical skills, it would be the foundation of his brilliant career.
After 20 years abroad, Kennan fired off his famous 5,540-word “Long Telegram” on Feb. 22, 1946, from Moscow to Washington. Soon afterward, in July 1947, he wrote another piece in Foreign Affairs under the byline “X.” In the two pieces he said that the Soviets under Stalin would try aggressively to expand, but that the U.S. should not employ military means to stop them. Instead, Kennan advocated “containment,” heavily monitoring the Russians with hard-headed diplomacy and tough talk. He also stated that the Soviet Union would eventually self-destruct.
The forthcoming dedication of the national memorial monument honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., affords an opening for considering the complexity and meaning of his leadership. He was not the tamed and desiccated civil hero as often portrayed in the United States around the time of his birthday, celebrated as a national holiday. He was until the moment of his death raising issues that challenged the conventional wisdom on poverty and racism, but also concerning war and peace.
King was in St. Joseph's Infirmary, Atlanta, for exhaustion and a viral infection when it was reported that he would receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. As Gary M. Pomerantz writes in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, this was the apparent cost exacted by intelligence surveillance efforts and the pressures of learning that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had formally approved wiretaps by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His evolving strength as a leader is revealed in his remarks in Norway that December, which linked the nonviolent struggle of the U.S. civil rights movement to the entire planet's need for disarmament.