The Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

For over thirty years the United States, Russia, and others have been attempting to limit, control, and reduce the nuclear weapons in the world. These efforts have resulted in a number of bilateral and multilateral treaties, and the number of these weapons has been reduced markedly. As a result, we tend to believe we are making good progress. That is the case relative to where we were. In the absolute, however, we are doing very poorly. There are still more than thirty thousand nuclear weapons in the world; we have just seen proliferation of these weapons to India and Pakistan; the risks of even further proliferation seem high; and the nuclear treaty process is in limbo. Without both a new sense of urgency and a more imaginative approach to controlling nuclear weapons, we risk letting the world become one of proliferation to irresponsible nations and groups that could easily be tempted to employ those weapons in anger for the first time since 1945. If the two nuclear superpowers continue to need tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, as both profess to, other nations of the world will say they need them as well.

The genesis of the problem can be summarized in the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons on three particular dates. Immediately after the attack on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, the United States possessed no nuclear weapons; it had at that point expended the only two it had built. The nation did not know quite what to do about that situation; it even proposed to the United Nations that a way be found to prohibit the new weapons. Joseph Stalin would not even consider the idea; in 1949-by which time the United States had about two hundred nuclear weapons-the first Soviet test detonation was conducted. That began a race, a spiral that produced a peak on the American side in 1969, at some 32,500 nuclear warheads.

That had to have been an irrational process. How could Americans possibly have thought they could use 32,500 nuclear warheads? After all, there were less than two hundred cities with populations of more than a hundred thousand in the Soviet Union.

But to put the enormity of these weapons into even sharper perspective: all Americans had seen post-attack pictures of Hiroshima; they knew that some 140,000 people had died there. The twelve-kiloton Hiroshima weapon had had a blast effect alone equivalent to some twenty-five million pounds of TNT-that's million. It also had, of course, other effects-radiation, heat intense enough to cause fires, and electromagnetic pulse. Further, a nuclear attack on a city causes severe societal disruption: communications that had passed through Hiroshima no longer did, affecting many other cities; products from Hiroshima's factories never went anywhere, affecting other factories around the country.

However, the matter needs to be put in context; not all the nuclear weapons that the United States has built since then have been the size of the Hiroshima bomb (see table 1). The smallest type was an artillery shell, but even that was a hundred times as powerful in blast effect as a modern large (two-thousand-pound) conventional bomb. Recently the Senate Armed Services Committee talked of developing a rather small nuclear device that might be useable in circumstances in which the nation would not think of using a huge weapon; the smallest one it considered would have five thousand times the blast effect of a two-thousand-pound bomb. Today, the standard weapon in the U.S. arsenal that could quickly be aimed at Russia (both sides having "detargeted" their ballistic missiles in January 1994) is 250,000 times as powerful as a two-thousand-pound bomb. The standard Russian weapon is the equivalent of over a billion pounds of TNT-over six hundred thousand times the power of a two-thousand-pound bomb.


How in the world did this nation ever get to 32,500? The primary reason is that the United States has always treated nuclear weapons as though they were simply larger conventional weapons. …