William Perry with Dr. Ira Helfand
The initial down payments toward the production of an entirely new generation of missiles, submarines and bombers designed to deliver a new generation of nuclear warheads are already in the federal budget. The ultimate pricetag would be in the vicinity of a trillion dollars if all the weapons on the Pentagon’s shopping list are produced. But it’s not too late to stop the nuclear assembly lines and get back to the business of nuclear abolition. That was the emphasis of a conference on “Reducing the Dangers of Nuclear War” held April 2 at MIT in Cambridge
“Once you start bending metal, it’s almost impossible to stop,” Joe Cirincione said at one of the workshops. Cirincione, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee who now heads the pro-disarmament Ploughshares Fund, said that means we have two to three years to stop the new weapons systems. “This is our moment,” he said.
The conference brought together an impressive array of activists and scholars, plus William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense who has joined the call for nuclear weapons abolition. “The danger of a nuclear catastrophe is higher today than at any time during the Cold War,” he warned. Perry is particularly alarmed by the proposal for a new cruise missile, the nuclear armed version of which would be indistinguishable from one carrying non-nuclear explosives until after it detonates. Eight thousand American and Russian nuclear weapons were dismantled while he was at the helm at the Pentagon, he said, but “we’re going backwards today.”
Given the stakes, “backwards” is an understatement. As Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility reminded the conference attenders, detonation of a nuclear bomb over a major city would not only kill huge numbers of people in an instant, but by destroying hospitals and the doctors and nurses who work there, the ability to respond to burns and other injuries would be crippled. And as Alan Robock, a professor of environmental science from Rutgers stressed, detonation of a relatively small share of the world’s nuclear arsenal could throw so much smoke into the upper atmosphere that it could bring on a global cooling process so severe that food production would fall worldwide by 20 to 40% for a 5-year period.
Mary Popeo of Global Zero with Joe Cirincione
“Only nuclear disarmament will prevent catastrophe,” he said.
It’s not just the number of nuclear weapons that poses a danger, it’s also their design. One of the features of the warheads now being pursued by the US nuclear weapons labs and the corporations that run them (on a for-profit basis) is increased accuracy. Aron Bernstein, an MIT emeritus professor of physics, said “when we make the missiles more accurate, we make them more likely to be perceived as a first strike weapon.” They might even be more likely to actually be intended for first strike or battlefield use, something which should not even be contemplated but which becomes an option for military strategists once they enter the arsenal.
Nuclear weapons have proven to be no use against terrorists or the regimes with which the USA has been in conflict in recent years. They certainly make no contribution to efforts to fight climate change, mass migration, growing inequality, and other dilemmas that ought to be top priorities. Whether “deterrence” even works is debatable. But nuclear weapons have proven useful to US leaders time and time again, said Joseph Gerson of the AFSC, who has documented the ways in which nuclear threats have backed up foreign policy objectives starting with their use in Japan 70 years ago. And they are certainly useful to the corporations that stand to get the contracts for new missiles, subs, and bombers.
That’s why the conference wasn’t just about spreading the alarm, it also spread news about a variety of ways to challenge the nuclear-industrial-complex. For a prime example, Cambridge’s Mayor Denise Simmons used the occasion to announce her city’s new policy of divesting city funds from corporations that build nuclear weapons. In this, her administration has the aid of a new web-based tool from MIT’s Future of Life Institute. The Responsible Investing Made Easy tool lists companies that produce nuclear weapons, cluster bombs, and landmines. It also gives grades to mutual funds which claim to be socially responsible. (Spoiler Alert: some of the funds have investments in other financial firms that invest in weapons makers.) The Netherlands-based Don’t Bank on the Bomb project has another set of useful lists.
Short of nuclear abolition there are steps, such as taking missiles off high alert status, which can reduce nuclear dangers. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and further nuclear reductions are important steps in the right direction. But for any of these steps to take place, the movement against nuclear weapons needs to grow. Stay in touch with AFSC and your local Peace Action chapter to get involved.