We, the nuclear hostages

Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people have known that nuclear weapons are morally wrong.

Yet, those nations best placed to ban them by reason of political and economic clout are those that insist on developing them. They claim that having a nuclear weapon and not using it deters those that would use it if only they had one.

In “Thinkability”, the first of five short stories in Einstein’s Monsters (1987), Martin Amis asks:

“What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defence against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves.”

That intransigence revealed itself for the umpteenth time last week as the cold war-era arms control treaty that kept nuclear missiles off European soil for more than 30 years ended not with a bang but a whimper.

The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty happened because the USA and Russia insist on modernising their nuclear weapon programmes. On the American side, a nuclear bunker-buster, previously on the drawing board but shelved. On the Russian side, a land-based nuclear-capable cruise missile. Its range is secret, although likely to be in excess of 500 kilometres.

The USA is retaliating by developing at least three types of medium-range missiles, all of them designed for conventional warheads. The first of these, believed to be a land-based version of the Tomahawk cruise missile with a 1,000km range, is shortly to be tested. A second option, a medium-range ballistic missile, will see the light of day later this year, with a range of up to 4,000km. Lastly, the army is planning a new missile mounted on a mobile launcher, either a ballistic weapon or a hypersonic glide vehicle (a manoeuvrable rocket-launched aircraft that traverses the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 20 or 13,000 mph).

After the collapse of the INF, the last remaining arms control treaty is the 2010 New Start agreement limiting US and Russian strategic warheads. Due to expire in 2021, it is unlikely to be renewed under the Trump administration.

The following quotation from Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan has become famous: “Every thinking person fears nuclear war, and every technological state plans for it. Everyone knows it is madness, and every nation has an excuse.”

Few recall a later paragraph in the same book:

“We, the nuclear hostages – all the peoples of the Earth – must educate ourselves about conventional and nuclear warfare. Then we must educate our governments. We must learn the science and technology that provide the only conceivable tools for our survival. We must be willing to challenge courageously the conventional social, political, economic and religious wisdom. We must make every effort to understand that our fellow humans, all over the world, are human. Of course, such steps are difficult. But as Einstein many times replied when his suggestions were rejected as impractical or as inconsistent with ‘human nature’: What is the alternative?”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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