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The apparent employment of chemical weapons in Syria should remind us that, while weapons of mass destruction exist, there is a serious danger that they will be used.

That danger is highlighted by an article in the September/October 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Written by two leading nuclear weapons specialists, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists, the article provides important information about nuclear weapons that should alarm everyone concerned about the future of the planet.

At present, the article reports, more than 17,000 nuclear warheads remain in the possession of nine nations (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea).  Over 90 percent of that inventory consists of U.S. and Russian warheads.  These weapons, of course, are incredibly destructive, and almost all of them can massacre populations far more effectively than did the atomic bomb that obliterated the city of Hiroshima.  Indeed, a single one of these weapons can slaughter hundreds of thousands of people.

Although U.S., Russian, British, and French stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been declining since the end of the Cold War, those of the five other nuclear nations have been growing.  Consequently, as Kristensen and Norris observe, with the possible exception of North Korea, all of these countries “have sufficient numbers of warheads and delivery systems to inflict enormous destruction over significant ranges with catastrophic humanitarian and climatic consequences in their regions and beyond.”

Furthermore, many of these deadly weapons stand ready for almost instant use.  As the authors state, “roughly 1,800 U.S. and Russian warheads are on high alert atop long-range ballistic missiles that are ready to launch 5 to 15 minutes after receiving an order.”

But surely these terrible weapons are being phased out, aren’t they?  After all, the major nuclear powers, plus most nations, have formally committed themselves to building a nuclear weapons-free world.  And it is certainly true that the number of nuclear weapons on the world scene has dropped very significantly from the roughly 70,000 that existed in 1986.

Even so, there are numerous signs that the nuclear disarmament momentum is slowing.  Not only have nuclear disarmament negotiations between the United States (with 7,700 nuclear warheads) and Russia (with 8,500 nuclear warheads) apparently run aground, but none of the nuclear powers seems to take the rhetoric about a nuclear weapons-free world seriously.  Kristensen and Norris note:  “All the nations with nuclear weapons continue to modernize or upgrade their nuclear arsenals, and nuclear weapons remain integral to their conception of national security.”

For example, the United States is modifying its existing nuclear warheads while planning production of warheads with new designs.  Russia is phasing out its Soviet-era missiles and submarines and deploying newer missiles, as well as additional warheads on its missiles.  France is deploying new nuclear missiles on its fighter-bombers and submarines.  China is upgrading its missile force, while India and Pakistan are locked in a race to deploy new types of nuclear weapons.  Although Israel is the most secretive of the nuclear powers, rumors are afloat that it is equipping some of its submarines with nuclear-capable cruise missiles.  North Korea reportedly lacks operational nuclear weapons, but its hungry citizens can take heart that it is working to remedy this deficiency.

In addition, of course, it is quite possible, in the future, that other nations will develop nuclear weapons, terrorists will obtain such weapons from national stockpiles, or existing nuclear weapons will be exploded or launched accidentally.

In these very dangerous circumstances, surely the safest course of action would be to have the international community agree on a treaty requiring the destruction of all existing stocks of nuclear weapons and a ban on their future production.  Nuclear disarmament discussions along these and other lines have recently been concluded by a UN Open Ended Working Group, and will be continued in late September by a UN High Level Meeting and later this fall by the UN General Assembly First Committee.

But, to judge from past government behavior, it does not seem likely that disarmament discussions among government officials will get very far without substantial public pressure upon them to cope with the nuclear weapons menace.  And it is a menace -- one at least as dangerous to the future of world civilization as the existence of chemical weapons.  So pressing world leaders for action on nuclear disarmament seems thoroughly appropriate.

The alternative is to throw up our hands and wait, while power-hungry governments continue to toy with their nuclear weaponry and, ultimately, produce a catastrophe of immense proportions.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

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Comment Preferences

  •  They're both WMDs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    but I don't think they're all that comparable.  Nuclear warheads are much more difficult to build, maintain and launch than sarin gas canisters.  While the cold war is over, the deterrent effect of these weapons is still arguable useful, e.g. if the Taiwan situation with China escalates out of control.

    Securing loose nukes is of course of vital importance to global security.  But I think bringing up proliferation issues right now only confuses the situation.

    First they came for the slippery-slope fallacists, and I said nothing. The End.

    by Cream Puff on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 09:56:17 AM PDT

    •  I' not confused (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Johnny Q, Sandino

      The images are eerily similar;

      Hiroshima photo Hiroshima_zpse45f1f98.jpg

      Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

      by Shockwave on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 10:00:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You don't need black and white photos to show... (0+ / 0-)

        the horror of chemical weapons.

        As we have just seen, there is a much greater likelihood that chemical weapons will actually be used, instead of sitting around and costing way too much money.

        That makes them a more pressing issue.

        Art is the handmaid of human good.

        by joe from Lowell on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 10:37:41 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Cream Puff - I agree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cream Puff

      While I too think it is important to work and reduce the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons that effort does not have the same urgency as chemical weapons. As we have seen chemical weapons can be used in small scale strikes and delivered by basic rocket and artillery technologies. The transport and delivery of a nuclear device requires a much higher level of skills and technology which makes them less likely to be used by a rogue state or a terrorist group.

      Chemical weapons are the issue that is more time sensitive and we should not distract from the immediate goal of removing them from Syria and destroying stockpiles around the world.

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 10:39:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  So, because they're expensive they're okay (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sandino, Johnny Q, limpidglass

      That doesn't make any sense. Just because a country is rich doesn't mean it will be less willing to use nuclear weapons. It's convenient that talking about our own WMDs is only confusion the issue. Really, this is exactly the time to be talking about our own WMDs. Also Israel's nuclear weapons. And everyone else that has them.

      •  Because they're expensive (0+ / 0-)

        and difficult to use, they're less pressing of an issue.  And it's arguable that nukes serve a useful deterrant purpose.

        Way to reframe my comment to make it sound absurd.

        Sure, talk about nuclear disarmament as much as you want.  It's still pretty much irrelevant to the Syria crises.

        First they came for the slippery-slope fallacists, and I said nothing. The End.

        by Cream Puff on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 12:12:29 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It isn't irrelevant (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Johnny Q, Sandino

          Nuclear weapons pose far more of a threat than chemical weapons. Chemical weapons don't have the ability to destroy all life on earth with the push of a button, nuclear weapons do. Of course, it's never the right time to talk about what the US does. And what the US does never has any bearing on whatever crisis we're intervening in.

          And the fact that the Israel has nuclear weapons is in fact connected to the chemical weapon problem in Syria. Poorer countries can't afford the deterrent that is nuclear weapons and they are demonized for acquiring chemical weapons as a deterrent to nuclear armed states. And yet no one says shit about Israel having nuclear weapons. Not a damn peep.

  •  Weapons, yes. But I'm more afraid (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Johnny Q, Sandino

    of the measles epidemic in Syria and who knows what other diseases. People are suffering terribly due to absence of infrastructire, medical care.

  •  What about the NEW START accords? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Don't you see those as a meaningful advance for nuclear reduction?

    Art is the handmaid of human good.

    by joe from Lowell on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 10:34:19 AM PDT

  •  Chemical weapons (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Johnny Q

    are are a distraction and represent a minimal threat to people or society. They are militarily marginal. The sudden outrage over CW is just convenient fear-mongering by the neocon Military-Infotainment Complex, trying to take out the next target regime... Nuclear weapons and "civilian" plutonium factories represent a threat for a quarter million years, and have already hurt many more life forms CW.

  •  nukes are currently a poor first-strike weapon (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Johnny Q, Simplify, Sandino

    my guess is in the future, resource scarcity may make a first-strike with nuclear weapons a sound option. Wipe out enemy cities and populations with very little loss of personnel or materiel in order to secure raw materials (probably oil) for yourself.

    Under those circumstances, everyone will scramble to arm in order to deter the maniacs who are using them to make first-strikes.

    Then, there are those countries like Israel (the "Samson option") and North Korea which might end up using nuclear weapons as a last resort to defend themselves against perceived external enemies. Pakistan and India have the biggest potential for a nuclear exchange--prolonged border disputes and each country has a group of religious fanatics who hate the religious fanatics in the other country.

    Right now people are inclined to let it slide, but that just lets the problem grow, and once it becomes noticeable, it will be too late. If one nation starts using them in war, proliferation will explode out of control and it will be impossible to stop.

    Chemical attacks are horrible, but they're usually limited in scope. Areas remain contaminated only for comparatively short periods of time. One nuclear attack is by definition an immediate international crisis and the site of a nuclear attack ( with modern weapons) could be rendered uninhabitable for at least decades, maybe more.

    One more disturbing point: those nations which have complied with US demands to disarm themselves of WMD have usually been attacked by the US some time afterwards and the nations' leaders deposed by force: Iraq and Libya, for instance. Syria, having agreed to dispose of their CW, is surely next.

    So what is the lesson? The Iranians have learned it. Develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons at a moment's notice and you won't be invaded, even though the US may rattle the saber at you.

    The North Koreans have gone one step further and withdrawn from the NPT, developed actual nukes, and then rejoined. And you'll notice that no one is really getting on their case for this; I wonder why?

    Any counterproliferation effort must take this history of US intervention in those countries into account. If nukes are an effective deterrent to American invasion, then what possible reason could a country have to give them up, especially if that country is on bad terms with the US?

    We are simply not credible when we insist that other nations disarm themselves for the sake of peace, and before we can engage in a serious disarmament effort, we have to do something to rebuild that credibility.

    "In America, the law is king." --Thomas Paine

    by limpidglass on Mon Sep 16, 2013 at 11:25:36 AM PDT

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