Nuclear weapons advocates often say that nuclear weapons prevent war and thus make our world safer. Is this assertion credible? Here are five compelling reasons to doubt this so called “nuclear peace” claim.
First, the existence of nuclear weapons has not prevented warfare. Some evidence suggests that the likelihood of war between two countries both armed with nuclear weapons is indeed reduced. However, other data indicate that the probability of war between two countries, only one of whom possesses nuclear weapons, is substantially enhanced. The fact that the U.S. had nuclear weapons did not prevent the Korean War of 1950-52. The fact that Israel had nuclear weapons did not prevent the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The fact that England had nuclear weapons did not prevent the Falkland Islands War of 1982. Nor does mutual possession of nuclear weapons always prevent warfare, as the 1999 Kargil War between nuclear-armed India and nuclear-armed Pakistan demonstrates.
Second, the existence of nuclear weapons makes possible catastrophic accidental wars and disastrous nuclear mishaps. Numerous unintended near-nuclear calamities have been documented. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a nuclear war was narrowly averted because a Soviet submarine commander disregarded an erroneous order to launch a nuclear torpedo. On Sept. 18, 1980, a Titan II missile carrying a 9-megaton nuclear warhead exploded in its silo near Damascus, Ark. Fortunately, the warhead did not detonate.
Third, production of nuclear weapons creates abundant fissile materials which must be stored and are often poorly secured. These materials could be acquired by a terrorist organization and used to construct a primitive nuclear weapon. It is known that both ISIS and al-Qaida have tried to acquire such fissile materials.
Fourth, nuclear weapons have evolved in the direction of small tactical (as opposed to strategic) nuclear devices. These tactical nuclear weapons could be used under actual battlefield conditions. This evolution erodes the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons and thus undermines the long-standing prohibition against using the former. Armed with tactical nuclear weapons, some countries, like Russia, have rescinded their pledge not to use nuclear weapons first. The USA never made a no-first-use pledge.
Fifth, and most decisively, even if nuclear weapons would reduce the likelihood of warfare — which they do not — they definitely increase the human cost of military conflict immeasurably. World War II killed about 60 million people. A full-scale nuclear war would probably extinguish human life on our planet. Even a very limited nuclear war could exceed the total mortalities of World War II.
Nuclear weapons have certainly not made our world safer. On the contrary, they have made it far more perilous. Reason and ethics both require that all nuclear weapons be abolished.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.