Academic journal article Social Justice

The End of Disarmament and the Arms Races to Come

Academic journal article Social Justice

The End of Disarmament and the Arms Races to Come

Article excerpt

Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a "peace race. " -- Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964)

THE DECADE THAT HAS PASSED SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR REPRESENTS A historically unprecedented period of squandered opportunity. Prospects for a new era of cooperative global security have been replaced by the reality of an increasingly unilateral and aggressive U.S. foreign policy, in which the potential use of nuclear weapons is again becoming "thinkable." Moreover, U.S. behavior in the international arena is eroding the network of security treaties that has helped to stem the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, thus contributing to the creation of conditions that threaten to spark new arms races. (1)

Nuclear Arms Racing: Destructive Power "Off the Human Scale"

The United States was the first and remains the only county to have used nuclear weapons in war. The estimated number of "acute" deaths (within two to four months) resulting from the explosions and firestorms generated by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is as high as 220,000 (RERF, 2002). As awesome and terrible as the destruction caused by those first bombs was, it is miniscule compared to the destructive power of today's nuclear arsenals. The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the start of an entirely new kind of arms race, one that according to Theodore Taylor, a prominent early nuclear weapons designer, "moved the human capacity for destruction clear off the human scale." (2) Herbert York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National (nuclear weapons) Laboratory, estimates that "by 1950 the nuclear-arms race had reached a point such that we could duplicate the destruction of World War II by using nuclear weapons, except that while that conflict had lasted for more than five years, the devastation could now be reproduced in a single day" (York, 1970: 33).

The subsequent development of the hydrogen bomb resulted in a thousand-fold increase in explosive yield. According to York, by the beginning of the 1960s, the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile had reached "the energy equivalent of some ten thousand World War IIs, most of which could be released in a matter of hours. We had reached a level of supersaturation that some writers characterized by the word 'overkill,' an understatement in my opinion" (Ibid.: 42).

More powerful and sophisticated delivery systems accompanied the development of more powerful and sophisticated nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 began a space race that also fueled fears of a Soviet-led "missile gap." John F. Kennedy exploited these fears during the 1960 presidential campaign, although as it turned out, the missile gap favored the United States. The U.S. went ahead anyway with an accelerated deployment of nuclear missiles, provoking the Soviets to engage in a new missile race. (3)

By the time the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which banned atmospheric nuclear testing, was negotiated in 1963, there were more than 34,000 nuclear weapons in the world -- nearly 30,000 of them in the U.S. arsenal (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1997). The PTBT raised hopes that the nuclear arms race would be curtailed. However, it turned out to be primarily an environmental health measure, in that it protected populations from exposure to radioactive fallout from testing. In the U.S., under pressure from the politically powerful nuclear weapons laboratories (the heirs to the Manhattan Project) and their allies, underground nuclear testing was expanded, and the arms race continued unabated. …

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