By Tariq Rauf*
On 16 July 1945, at 05:29 AM, the secrets of the atom were unlocked by detonating the world’s first nuclear explosive device dubbed “The Gadget”. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the multinationally staffed and supported Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons, lamented that “We knew the world would not be the same. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds“, and his colleague Leó Szilárd remarked, “That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow“.
The atomic bombing by the United States of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere three weeks later, on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively, clearly demonstrated the revolutionary and catastrophic power of nuclear weapons on human beings and the environment.
Nuclear scientist Szilárd observed that “Almost without exception, all the creative physicists had misgivings about the use of the bomb” and further that “Truman did not understand at all what was involved regarding nuclear weapons“.
Later Szilárd recalled that “In March 1945, I prepared a memorandum which was meant to be presented to President Roosevelt. This memorandum warned that the use of the bomb against the cities of Japan would start an atomic-arms race with Russia, and it raised the question whether avoiding such an arms race might not be more important than the short-term goal of knocking Japan out of the war?”
Following the death of Roosevelt, Szilárd drafted a petition to President Harry Truman opposing on moral grounds the use of atomic bombs against the cities of Japan.
Several years later, Szilárd astutely observed that after the atomic bombing of Japan’s two cities, the US lost the argument of the immorality of using atomic bombs against the civilian population.
Once the concept of atomic fission had been scientifically demonstrated and its application utilized to destroy cities in Japan, Albert Einstein belatedly took full responsibility for the dire consequences of the letter of 2 August 1939 that he and fellow scientist Leó Szilárd had jointly sent to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning against the dangers of Nazi Germany developing atomic weapons and recommending that the United States initiate a nuclear weapon development programme – that led Roosevelt to commission the Manhattan Project.
Less than a year after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Einstein lamented that, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe“. Later Einstein called it “the greatest mistake“, and in 1947 he told Newsweek magazine that “had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing“.
Promoting Nuclear Disarmament
Emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, the very first resolution adopted in 1946 by the newly formed United Nations called for the “elimination of atomic weapons“.
Thus, the first seeds were planted warning about the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of the use of atomic weapons and the first call issued to prohibit nuclear weapons.
To atone for his mistake, Einstein joined with philosopher Bertrand Russell and other atomic scientists to issue the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto“, on 9 July 1955 that issued a clarion call:
“Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? No one knows how widely lethal radioactive particles might be diffused, but the best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with H-bombs might possibly put an end to the human race. Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes“.
Despite efforts by many scientists to abolish nuclear weapons, other scientists unfortunately were successful in persuading their leaders to develop thermonuclear weapons with much greater destructive force than simple atomic weapons. Indeed, in 1958 there even was a short-lived US effort started in 1958, Project A-119, to detonate a thermonuclear nuclear device on the surface of the Moon. The rationale was to produce a very large mushroom or radioactive cloud and a brilliant super flash of light clearly visible from Earth — that would be an obvious show of strength to the Soviet Union.
Fortunately, the project was cancelled, the Moon was spared and the “Moon Treaty” of 1979 prohibits all types of nuclear tests on the Moon and other celestial bodies. This to highlight just one of the follies of humankind to misuse nuclear energy for destructive purposes and the ever-present risks of nuclear weapons.
Today, on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, it is important to recognize that no sentient human being who has met or seen the hibakusha (survivors), or visited the hypocentre, or looked at the photographic evidence of the destruction of the two devastated Japanese cities, can avoid being shocked and horrified by the devastation that nuclear weapons inflicted.
It is surprising and deeply disappointing that leaders of the “axis” of nine (9) countries with nuclear weapons and their “allies” – more appropriately the “captive nations” of nuclear deterrence – continue to blindly ignore the devastating effects of nuclear weapons use; and blatantly reject the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) supported by 122 States, signed by 82 and ratified by 40 States.
On a positive note, we should encourage 10 more States to ratify the TPNW for it to enter into force and thereby establish a jus cogens rule (fundamental principle under international law) creating an erga omnes (obligation) for all States to renounce nuclear weapons. In this context, we might recall Einstein’s prophetic words that, “Our defence is not in armaments, nor in science…Our defence is in law and order” – something in short supply today at the international level.
In October 2016, the “captive nations” of NATO, and other “allies” united in opposing the more than 122 countries that were supporting the negotiation under United Nations aegis of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
This “axis” of ‘nuclear’ States and the “captive nations” of nuclear deterrence now also are back-tracking from measures agreed to implement nuclear disarmament and risk reduction consensually agreed at the 1995, 2000 and 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences.
Tribute to Hiroshima
Up until now, Hiroshima and Nagasaki mercifully remain the only instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in war; however, it has been the hope that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki serves as a constant reminder why preventing the further use and proliferation of such weapons – and why nuclear disarmament leading eventually to a nuclear-weapon-free world – is of utmost importance for the survival of humankind and planet Earth.
In this regard, I would like to recognize and greatly appreciate the decades’ long efforts and sacrifices of the hibakusha and their families, the children, the people and leaders of Hiroshima Prefecture and Hiroshima City to keep alive the memory of those who perished and sustain those who survived the atomic bombing 75 years ago.
This honourable and selfless example of the leaders and people of Hiroshima should be an inspiration for the people and government of Japan, as well as for those in other cities and countries globally, to resolutely strive to seek a permanent end to all nuclear weapons.
It is truly inspiring that Hiroshima Prefecture Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki continues to be a tireless staunch supporter of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and Hiroshima City Mayor Matsui Kazumi also is working towards this goal.
The Mayor of Hiroshima serves as the President of “Mayors for Peace” encompassing 7,909 member cities in 164 countries and regions which conveys the realities of the atomic bombings and works to increase the number of people who share in the hibakusha’s message on the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Impact of COVID-19
The unfortunate coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has clearly and unambiguously shown misplaced priorities and wasteful investments on nuclear deterrence and military interventions amounting to trillions of dollars by the “axis” of nuclear-armed States and the “captive nations”. Their severe historic under-investment in health care have led to the unacceptably high levels of infections and fatalities in most of their countries.
It is truly tragic and contemptible that some of these States have selfishly commandeered certain medical supplies and instead of collaborating internationally to jointly develop a vaccine they are engaged in tribalism, bitter competition and propaganda that amounts to “vaccine nationalism” of “my country first”. This is not surprising because just as the advocates of nuclear weapons and deterrence lack the mental acuity to comprehend the global catastrophe of any use of nuclear weapons, they also fail to understand that defence against a pandemic cannot be contained within any one country.
It is obvious that those non-nuclear-weapon States that did not waste national resources on nuclear weapons and foreign military interventions are the ones that have been coping much better with the pandemic.
The collapse of Nuclear Arms Control
Unfortunately, the vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons is receding as the nuclear arms control architecture patiently built up over the past 50 years is collapsing before our eyes.
The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) still not in force, also is under threat of resumption of explosive nuclear testing and re-opening Pandora’s Box of nuclear weapon test explosions. The supporters of the CTBT have miserably failed to make it a requirement for India – a non-proliferation pariah – when they were giving it an “exception” in 2008 to enable it to buy nuclear technology and fissile material in flagrant contravention of UN Security Council resolution 1172 of 1998 and of the so-called “guidelines” of the self-anointed Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
In the negotiations and discussions on the denuclearization of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula, again no requirement was stipulated for North Korea to accept the CTBT. The bi-annual CTBT “facilitating entry-into-force conferences” have become a sad joke of repetitive platitudes. Thus, the prospects of the CTBT ever entering into force recede with each passing year and the likelihood of this Treaty becoming a fossil of nuclear arms control are enhanced.
The architecture and fundaments of bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control have been eroded by the United States withdrawal in 2002 from the crucial Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and by the failure of the five nuclear-weapon States – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States – to fully honour the commitments on nuclear arms reductions agreed in the framework of the 1995/2000/2010 NPT review conferences.
One also may note that the EU/E3+3-Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – signed in July 2015 and implemented since then by Iran – has been abandoned by the United States (in May 2018) leading to Iran stepping out of constraints on uranium enrichment (starting in May 2019), thereby further destabilizing the security situation in the region of the Middle East and raising the prospect of yet another ruinous war in that region.
On 2 August 2019, the United States formally withdrew from the 1987 Treaty on Shorter- and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) – foreshadowed in July 2019 by the Russian Federation suspending its compliance with the Treaty. Under the INF Treaty, by May 1991, 2692 ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometres had been verifiably eliminated, 1846 by the USSR and 846 by the United States under mutual verification—and nearly 5000 nuclear warheads removed from active service.
This leaves only one nuclear arms reduction treaty in force between Moscow and Washington – the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) – that was signed on 8 April 2010, entered into force on 5 February 2011. By 4 February 2018 both Russia and the United States had verifiably met the central limits of 1550 accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed launchers (land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers). In fact, on 1 July 2020, under New START, Russia had 485 deployed launchers carrying 1326 nuclear warheads, and the United States had 655 warheads on 1372 launchers.
New START will expire on 5 February 2021, unless extended by Presidents Putin and Trump. Should New START not be extended, it will leave Moscow and Washington without any bilateral nuclear arms control treaty for the first time in over a half-century and likely lead to a dangerous new nuclear arms race. The end of New START also will bring to an end the mutual intrusive verification and technical weapons data exchange modalities leading to lack of transparency and an increase in nuclear risks.
For the first time in the history of Soviet/Russian-United States nuclear arms control not only are existing agreements being dismantled but both sides are modernizing nuclear arsenals unchecked and have lowered the threshold of nuclear weapon use in their declaratory and operational policies.
Doctrines of some nuclear-armed States now posit first or early use of nuclear weapons. The United States Defence Department’s new nuclear weapons guidance, Nuclear Operations (11 June 2019) clearly posits that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”
For its part, Russian military doctrine envisions what some have called “escalation to de-escalate” in countering superior NATO conventional forces, that is early but limited use of nuclear weapons.
In South Asia, both India and Pakistan also contemplate use of nuclear weapons in a regional conflict. Recently, India is under pressure to invoke its nuclear capabilities to defend against China in the context of their revived conflict in the Ladakh region in the high Himalayas.
It is highly disturbing that when nuclear weapon use is discussed, the vocabulary used is very often conveniently sanitized. The destruction by thermonuclear war and resulting humanitarian and environmental consequences are downplayed and substituted by antiseptic concepts of nuclear deterrence.
Worrisomely, it is the view of many erstwhile defence experts, such as William Perry, former United States defence secretary, among others, that in today’s world the dangers of inadvertent, accidental or even deliberate use of nuclear weapons is higher than it was during the height of the Cold War. Perry published his new book last month entitled, The Button, because in his words, “Our nuclear weapons policy is obsolete and dangerous. I know, because I helped to design it, and we have to change it before it is too late.” He warns that the “awesome ability to launch hundreds of thermonuclear weapons in mere minutes” creates grave dangers of blundering into Armageddon.
The Gorbachev-Reagan understanding of December 1987 that a “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought” is no longer in the forefront of the minds of today’s leaders and nuclear war planners.
This year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the clock (which puts into context how close we are to nuclear catastrophe) at 100 seconds to midnight; closer to catastrophe than any year of the Cold War, one of the darkest years of the Cold War, when it was set at two minutes.
Belatedly, one hopeful sign has emerged with the initiation of direct discussions held in Vienna between the Russian Federation and the United States in late June and again in late July. The NSVT (nuclear, space and verification talks) on three baskets of nuclear arms control issues cover: nuclear weapon doctrines; space weapons and arms control; and transparency and verification. Despite this encouraging progress, both sides are divided over the extension of the coverage of the NSVT to include China as preferred by the US, and France and the UK if China is included as preferred by Russia. None of the other three nuclear-armed States – China, France and the United Kingdom – have expressed any enthusiasm in joining Russia and the US in starting multilateral NSVT.
At the 22 June session of the NSVT, the US placed desk flags for China, even though China already had indicated that it will not take part. This is an image of the exchange of Twitter messages between the representatives of the US and China.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) marked its 50th anniversary in July this year, and alarm bells already are ringing warning about impending failure of the 10th NPT review conference postponed to 2021 because of the SARS COVID-19 pandemic. This review conference, in reality, should be postponed to 2022 and held in Vienna (Austria), as I have argued since New York is no longer a safe or appropriate venue.
Concerning nuclear disarmament in the context of the NPT, the field is now crowded with several disorganized competing approaches: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) NPT States favour a three-phase time-bound “plan of action“, in contrast, the Western States stand by a “step-by-step” approach which has been slightly modified by a cross-cutting group called the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) that calls for “building blocks“; while another such group, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) supports a “taking forward nuclear disarmament” approach; Sweden has proposed “stepping stones“; and the United States has advanced the concept of “creating the environment for nuclear disarmament” (CEND)
A sober assessment of the CEND approach suggests that this initiative is geared to transfer the focus and responsibility for the “environment” and “conditions” for nuclear disarmament from the nuclear-armed to the non-nuclear-weapon States. In fact, the dystopian US CEND approach and nuclear policy as presently formulated is serving the cause of “creating conditions to never disarm”.
It would be appropriate to characterize CEND approach as being based on “dreaming of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to a new fantasy world of nuclear arms control”.
Placing one’s faith in such “rainbows, butterflies and unicorns” can never be the way forward to save the world from the dangers of nuclear destruction! Faithfully implementing nuclear disarmament obligations in the framework of the NPT is the only way forward to salvation.
Ending the ‘Perpetual Menace’ of Nuclear Weapons
The continuing survival of the human race and all other species on planet Earth is held at existential risk by the actions and decisions of some of the “leaders” and officials in the “axis” of nuclear-armed States, supported by the “captive nations; whose humanity, rationality and mental stability is increasingly open to question.
An international order anchored in legal norms and treaties offers the best hopes for survival. In this regard the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could establish a “right to nuclear peace” and stop nuclear weapons becoming a “perpetual menace“.
We need to heed the call of Pope Francis when, during his visit to Japan in November 2019, he clearly voiced his demand that world powers renounce their nuclear arsenals. He declared that both the use and possession of atomic bombs an “immoral” crime and a dangerous waste. I recall Pope Francis’ lament at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, “How can we propose peace if we constantly invoke the threat of nuclear war as a legitimate recourse for the resolution of conflicts? May the abyss of pain endured here remind us of boundaries that must never be crossed!”
*The writer is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, former Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT); Senior Advisor on nuclear disarmament to the Chairs at the 2015 NPT Review Conference and 2014 NPT PrepCom; long time Expert with Canada’s NPT delegation until 2000. Personal views are expressed here. The following is an expanded version of comments made at the event, ‘The 75th Anniversary of Atomic Bombing and the United Nations In the Time of COVID-19: Where Do We Stand and What Can Be Done for a Nuclear-Free World?’, organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Hiroshima.