Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World

Having won reelection, President Clinton now aspires to leave a mark in history. The best way to do that is to help free humanity from the risk of a nuclear holocaust. This would be as significant an achievement as the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln.The year 1996 has brought us several steps closer to a world free of nuclear weapons. The World Court declared the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons contrary to international law. The Canberra Commission on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons -- which included former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. Lee Butler, former chief of the Strategic Air Command --proposed a concrete step-by-step plan to eliminate nuclear weapons in a verifiable way.And on September 10, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was approved by the United Nations General Assembly by a vote of 158 to 3. (India opposed the treaty, purportedly because it set no date for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, though it is possible India wants to keep the option of developing a nuclear arsenal.)On signing the treaty, Clinton advocated further steps, including a ban on producing bomb-making materials, deeper cuts in nuclear weapons arsenals, improved verification, and stronger measures against smuggling of nuclear materials.Clinton should go farther, and declare that the United States will never use nuclear weapons first, and invite other powers to begin work on a treaty eliminating all such weapons.Clinton may face resistance from other members of the "nuclear club" -- who think of themselves as occupying a privileged position-- and from Republicans in Congress, who argue the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty undermines American security.In this case he can appeal directly to voters -- 82% favor eliminating all or most nuclear weapons, according to a 1995 poll. Similar treaties banning biological and chemical weapons already exist.Why has an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons eluded us? If Hitler had used nuclear weapons and lost the war, they would have been outlawed as cruel and inhuman long ago. But the fact that they were first used by the victorious side in a war considered just has given them an undeserved aura of legitimacy.Over the last 50 years, many flawed arguments have been put forward to justify the policy of nuclear deterrence.It has been asserted, for example, that nuclear weapons help prevent war -- but in fact the five declared nuclear powers have been involved in eight times as many wars as the non-nuclear countries since 1945.The claim that nuclear weapons have prevented nuclear war is preposterous. The threat of nuclear retaliation might deter a deliberate attack, but that is not the way every war begins. Rather, when tensions are high, events may escalate and it is sometimes hard to say who made the first move.Relying on the threat of mutual destruction to deter war is like trying to prevent traffic accidents by packing your car with dynamite, putting a trip wire around it and telling everyone, "Don't hit me, or we will both die!" This should indeed stop people from hitting you intentionally, but any accidental collision would be fatal.As long as the nuclear powers insist on the right to keep nuclear weapons, other countries, and ultimately terrorists, will want them, too. Once that happens, it is only a question of time until they are used, deliberately or by accident. We are playing Russian Roulette with our future.We must reject playing the role of involuntary nuclear hostages. Nuclear weapons will not be abolished without a strong popular movement, just as the abolition of slavery, colonialism, and most recently apartheid came only after sustained public pressure.There are those who admit we might be better off if nuclear weapons had never been invented, but argue they can not be uninvented -- and therefore we have to live with them as long as civilization exists. But nobody has uninvented cannibalism. We simply abhor it. We can certainly learn to abhor the thought of incinerating entire cities with nuclear weapons.


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