There are strong moral reasons for advocating the global elimination of nuclear weapons, as we note on another page. There are also strong practical reasons for pursuing this course. They include avoidance of disastrous effects, the uselessness of nuclear weapons in reality, and the availability of a pathway to zero.
One of the strongest practical reasons for opposing nuclear weapons is the disastrous effects any use would have. Even limited use would cause great harm to human beings and the environment. Wider use would be a global catastrophe. This is something to avoid by eliminating the total global nuclear arsenal.
(1) The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has described the destructive effects of nuclear war on the United States and Russia, which possess more than 90 percent of the global nuclear arsenal.
- A study published in 2002 showed that if only 300 of the weapons in the Russian arsenal attacked targets in American cities, 90 million people would die in the first half hour.
- A comparable US attack on Russia would produce similar devastation.
- Furthermore, these attacks would destroy the entire economic, communications, and transportation infrastructure on which the rest of the population depend for survival.
- In the ensuing months the vast majority of people who survived the initial attacks in both countries would die of disease, exposure, and starvation.
The destruction of Russia and the United States is only part of the story.
- An attack of this magnitude would lift millions of tons of soot and dust into the upper levels of the atmosphere blocking out sunlight and dropping temperatures across the globe.
- If the whole of the U.S. and Russia strategic arsenals were involved, average surface temperature would fall to levels not seen on Earth since the depth of the last ice age 18,000 years ago.
- Agriculture would stop, ecosystems would collapse, and many, many species, perhaps even our own, would become extinct.
Even a limited war involving only 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs would have disastrous results.
- It would cause enough climate disruption to provoke a global famine that we have reason to fear could kill up to one billion people.
IPPNW is referring to the consequence of nuclear war between the United States and Russia, with fallout on the rest of the world. Adding in the explosive power of the nuclear weapons of the other possessors would enlarge the disaster and global consequences.
(2) In an article on “Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts” published in Atmospheric Chemistry journal in 2007 the authors indicate:
We use a modern climate model and new estimates of smoke generated by fires in contemporary cities to calculate the response of the climate system to a regional nuclear war between emerging third world nuclear powers using 100 Hiroshima-size bombs (less than 0.03% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal) on cities in the subtropics. We find significant cooling and reductions of precipitation lasting years, which would impact the global food supply.
The climate changes are large and long-lasting because the fuel loadings in modern cities are quite high and the subtropical solar insolation heats the resulting smoke cloud and lofts it into the high stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow.
(3) A study on “Environmental consequences of nuclear war” published in Physics Today, December 2008, reports:
A regional war involving 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons posed a worldwide threat due to ozone destruction and climate change. A superpower confrontation with a few thousand weapons would be catastrophic.
The authors note that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) of 2002 between the United States and Russia places a limit of 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads by 2012. They comment, “we estimate that the direct effects of using the 2012 arsenals would lead to hundreds of millions of fatalities. The indirect effects would likely eliminate the majority of the human population.” This is because of the environmental consequences of nuclear war.
For any nuclear conflict, nuclear winter would seriously affect noncombatant countries. In a hypothetical SORT war, for example, we estimate that most of the world’s population, including that of the Southern Hemisphere, would be threatened by the indirect effects on global climate. Even a regional war between India and Pakistan, for instance, has the potential to dramatically damage Europe, the US, and other regions through global ozone loss and climate change.
(4) Knowledge of the catastrophe effects of nuclear war isn’t new. The magnitude of human casualties has been known since the early days of the nuclear arms race. Certainly President Eisenhower knew it. So did President Kennedy and all subsequent presidents.
In memoirs that Dan Ellsberg is publishing online about his experience as a Washington insider in the 1960s, he recalls seeing top secret reports from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961 in which they indicated that the death toll from “a U.S. first strike aimed primarily at the Soviet Union and China would be roughly 600 million dead.” Ellsberg comments, “A hundred Holocausts.” Yet the American public, not even Congress, were provide details of the human consequences of using nuclear weapons.
Speaking of today’s situation when the United States and Russia are reducing but retaining sizable nuclear arsenals, Ellsberg believes:
It is Congress’ responsibility to investigate the nature of the planned targets for the reduced operational forces proposed by Obama and Medvedev—1,500 to 1,675—or some lower but still huge number like 1,000, and the foreseeable human and environmental consequences of destroying those targets with the attacks currently programmed.
The questions to be addressed initially are simple: “How many cities would burn under our various preplanned ‘options’? How many humans would die from these various attacks—from blast, fire, fallout, smoke, soot and ozone depletion—in the target country, in its regional neighbors, in America, and worldwide?”
And these, less simple: “For each of these possible attack options and exchanges, what is the likely, and the range of possible, impact on the regional and global environment? Which of our options, if any, threaten to produce regional or worldwide nuclear winter? Do we—or does any state—have a right to possess such an ‘option’? Should a U.S. or Russian president have the authority—or the power, as each now has—to order attacks that might have the global effects described above?”
Ellsberg would broaden this approach.
Every parliament in the world has an urgent need to know what its constituents have to expect—in the way of homicidal and environmental damage—from a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange: or for that matter, from an India-Pakistan exchange. These assemblies have a stake in discovering—and changing—the societal and ecological impact of the existent contingency war plans of every nuclear weapons state, the U.S. and Russia above all but the others as well.
And so do the people of the United States, Russia, and all other nations on Earth.
A second practical reason for eliminating nuclear weapons is their lack of any legitimate utility in the 21st century. This is explained in an essay, "Useless Weapons” by Howard Hallman. He makes three points:
- Nuclear weapons have no appropriate use for military combat in contemporary wars and in dealing with terrorists.
- There are better ways to deal with nations seeking nuclear weapons than threatened or actual nuclear attack.
- For deterrence of other nations’ nuclear arsenals a wiser and safer alternative is mutual elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Hallman elaborates on this theme in “A Dream Fantasy”, an imaginary conversation with U.S. President Obama and Russian President Medvedev.
No military utility. The lack of military utility is attested by numerous generals and admirals.
One of the most thorough analysis is offered by Admiral Noel Gayler about his experience in the 1970s as commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, a command that extended to the Middle East. He indicated:
Let me begin by stating my main proposition plainly, so that there may be no misunderstanding. It is my view that there is no sensible military use for nuclear weapons, whether "strategic" weapons, "tactical" weapons, "theater" weapons, weapons at sea or weapons in space.
Admiral Gayler then takes us on a tour of places within his command where nuclear weapons were useless: Vietnam, Korean Peninsula, elsewhere on the Asian continent, Maritime Russia, defending Iran (in the ‘70s ruled by the Shah) from the Soviet Union. For beyond his command in the European sector he observed that “we could not possibly gain an advantage by the initiative use (first use) of nuclear weapons to defend Europe against a conventional attack” by the Soviets” (a worry in the 1970s). However, Gayler was unable to persuade his superiors in the Pentagon, and nuclear weapons remained as prime components of the U.S. arsenal. But his conclusions remain valid today.
In 1999 Paul Nitze, usually considered a “hawk” in his long career, concluded, “I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us.” He believed that the power and accuracy of conventional weapons was sufficient for all military purposes without annihilating hundreds and thousands of people and causing incalculable damage to our natural environment. “The fact is,” he wrote, “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons.”
Not required for wannabes. We believe that the nuclear ambitions of states such as North Korea and Iran can be curbed through a combination of diplomacy, smart sanctions, and incentives carried out through broad international cooperation. The military option of a preemptive strike, especially the use of nuclear weapons, should be publicly taken off the table.
However, we note that Paul Nitze in favoring elimination of nuclear weapons offered an alternative approach for this situation.
As for the so-called rogue states that are not inhibited in their actions by the consensus of world opinion, the United States would be wise to eliminate their nuclear capabilities with the preemptive use of our conventional weapons -- when necessary, and when we have unambiguous indication of these countries' intent to use their nuclear capability for purposes of aggrandizement. The same principle should apply to any threat emanating from unstable states with nuclear arsenals.
We don’t agree with this kind of preemptive action but observe that it is tightly restricted and repudiates hawks who favor nuclear weapons in such circumstance.
Ending Need for Deterrence. If nuclear weapons are useless for military purposes and aren’t required to deal with nations with nuclear weapons ambitions, their remaining function is to deter nuclear attack by other nations that possess nuclear weapons. As we have already noted, a wiser course is to rid the world of all nuclear weapons so that there is nothing to deter. Much of this website is dedicated to how this can be accomplished.
The genie. Skeptics of nuclear abolition counter that “the genie is out of the bottle.” The knowledge of how to make nuclear has spread broadly so that total elimination is an impossible dream. We reply that the knowledge cannot be purged, but the capacity to apply this know-how can be contained through a vigorous nuclear nonproliferation program.
The third practical reason for getting rid of nuclear weapons is that it is within the mutual interest of all the possessors. It is clearly the case for the United States and Russia which between them have more than 90 percent of the global nuclear arsenal. It is also the case for the other possessors.
The truth is that the United States and Russia are stuck with nuclear arsenals developed during the Cold War when two superpowers competed for world domination. Having passed the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the symbolic beginning of the end of the Cold War, elimination of this quintessential cold war weaponry is long overdue. As we have noted, these holdover nuclear weapons have no military utility for either the United States or Russia. They are irrelevant for the remaining quarrels between these two nations: disputes at the edges of the Russian Federation, such as Georgia, potentially Ukraine; concerns about missile defense in Eastern Europe; human rights issues. All that’s left is nukes deterring nukes, unneeded for any other purpose. The solution is balanced build-down through a process that achieves undiminished security for both sides during all phases of the pathway to total elimination. The end results will be much greater security for the United States and Russia, a mutual benefit.
In Western Europe the United Kingdom and France would likewise benefit from participating in the nuclear disarmament process that would remove the Russia threat in exchange for eliminating their own nukes. China, too, would find it beneficial to give up its nuclear weapons as Russia and the United States eliminate theirs.
Because a nuclear war in between India and Pakistan would be an unmitigated disaster, these two nations would greatly benefit from a process that phases out their nuclear arsenals. They would need to resolve other political issues between them, especially Kashmir, but because nuclear weapons are not really useful for dealing with border disputes, removing them from contention would help ease tensions.
Elimination of Israel’s nuclear stockpile requires dealing with a variety of issues -- the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s desire for security, Palestinian aspiration for statehood, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reform, and extremism and terrorism. As the Iraq Study Group pointed out, these issues “are inextricably linked.” Because in our opinion Israel’s nuclear weapons aren’t morally justifiable or militarily usable, finding ways to eliminate them as part of a broader political settlement would be quite beneficial.
Thus, there is a convergence of moral concerns and practicality in the global elimination of nuclear weapons.