This ran as an opinion article in the Concord Monitor on March 30, 2017.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “all options are on the table” with regard to North Korea, he was indicating that the United States is considering attacking the country with nuclear weapons. That’s the real “nuclear option.”
The United States maintains an arsenal of some 6800 nuclear warheads, one-fourth of them deployed on land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, or long-range bombers. Most of them carry many times the explosive force of the first generation nuclear bombs that killed more than 200,000 people in Japan in 1945. The warheads on land-based missiles are kept in high alert status, meaning they can be launched within minutes of a suspected attack, perhaps before that attack is even verified.
And while official policy still speaks of “deterrence,” it is now and long has been US military doctrine to consider using nuclear weapons in pre-emptive attacks, including against North Korea. As Donald Trump asked, if we’re not going to use them, “why are we making them?”
The Trump administration is pushing ahead with a plan hatched during Barack Obama’s term to do a complete replacement of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of one trillion dollars. That’s a new generation of land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and land-based missiles, plus a new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile. Then, there’s a new generation of warheads, designed to be more “usable.”
The authority to use U.S. nuclear weapons – which could set off massive famine on top of direct casualties – rests with Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief.
Eight other countries also have the capacity to launch nuclear weapons: Russia, France, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and yes, North Korea, which is believed to have about a dozen warheads on what by U.S. standards are primitive missiles.
The danger that any of these countries might detonate their terrible weapons of mass destruction, and that conflicts between them could lead to nuclear exchanges that would literally threaten the future of life on the planet, is the “nuclear option” that ought to be keeping us awake at night, not the prospect of a change in the Senate’s rules for approving judicial appointments.
The good news is that talks started March 27 at the United Nations on a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. Although the USA and other nuclear powers are boycotting the event, more than one hundred nations are behind the new push. “We need to find a new way to inspire and motivate the public in support of disarmament, in the same way that they have been energized to respond to the challenge of climate change, an existential threat facing humanity,” commented Kim Won-soo, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
Congress is also taking notice. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) has introduced legislation, S.200, “to prohibit the conduct of a first-use nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.” As the bill states, “the framers of the Constitution understood that the monumental decision to go to war, which can result in massive death and the destruction of civilized society, must be made by the representatives of the people and not by a single person.“ The bill has a parallel version in the House, H.R. 669, sponsored by Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA). (No members of New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation have yet signed on as co-sponsors.)
Another piece of good news: two weeks ago voters in the little town of New London, New Hampshire, voted 73 to 45 in support of a resolution calling for an end to the trillion dollar nuclear build-up, the de-alerting of land-based missiles, and talks leading to global nuclear abolition consistent with U.S. obligations under the 1965 Non-Proliferation Treaty. At other times in our history, it was grassroots action like New London’s that grew strong enough to get world leaders stepping back from the nuclear brink. It’s time once again to exercise our anti-nuclear option.