Arms expert: 'Eliminate nukes or they will eliminate us'

Richard Rhodes (photo by Tom Fox)

Independence, Mo. — A leading nuclear arms expert, exploring what he called the dangerous and “logically illogical” world of nuclear weapons, endorsed the Iran nuclear treaty Aug. 9 as a vital step towards moving the world to ban these weapons of mass destruction.

Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and four other books on nuclear weapons, said the recently signed treaty buys time, slowing nuclear proliferation. “The treaty is a good deal,” he said in a talk that was part of a commemoration ceremony on the 70th anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. That bomb, dubbed “Fat Man,” burned out an entire city, immediately taking some 36,000 lives.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, Rhodes said, ushered the world into “an unparalleled moment of global danger, one that threatens human life on the planet.”

Nuclear weapons continue to be stockpiled -- some 13,000 worldwide -- based on false thinking, Rhodes said, that they deter war. This is the deterrence theory, Rhodes said. Behind this theory is the notion of “mutual assured destruction,” or, MAD, the idea that no enemy would ever strike first with a nuclear weapon because it would mean certain retaliation. So any use of a nuclear weapon would be suicidal, as Rhodes explained the theory.

Deterrence advocates, Rhodes said, like to cite the fact that deterrence has worked and that nuclear weapons have not been used for 70 years as a result of deterrence. He called this dangerous, misguided and shortsighted thinking.

Rhodes argued that deterrence theory is a “fig leaf” laid over 70 years of “unsustainable dumb luck” and that the real story is one of “close calls, freak accidents and near misses.”

Rhodes attempted to peel back the psychology of building and stockpiling weapons that, if used, would lead to self-annihilation.

He questioned the logic of modernizing nuclear arsenals by making weapons smaller and more precise delivery systems. Such weapons and delivery systems, he said, bring the world perilously closer to crossing the taboo boundary from conventional to nuclear war. Once crossed, he said, most experts agree that an escalation to larger and more deadly nuclear exchanges is almost certainly inevitable.

“Nuclear weapons are as useless as they are dangerous,” Rhodes told an audience of several hundred at the Community of Christ Temple. Their use is “logically illogical," he said, adding that this makes “the immense cost of their upkeep and security less and less acceptable to military leaders and to responsible elected officials.”

Why such irrationality? Rhodes asked. Why build weapons that can never be used?

The answers, he said, can be found in the work of psychologists who have interviewed U.S. government officials on their thinking about nuclear weapons.

“When pushed into the logical corner that their illogical arguments led them to, all fell back on the same justification for maintaining a world-destroying nuclear arsenal. Which was, that it made the American people -- and by extension the Russian people, the Chinese people and so on -- feel safer.”

No government official, Rhodes says, wants to publicly admit what scientists well know -- that all people are vulnerable in the nuclear age and that no government can protect them. So officials preach illusions.

“When the primary role of government is to protect its citizens, no officials wants to admit such protection is impossible to provide,” Rhodes said. This same reluctance to speak honestly, he said, has led President Obama, who in 2009 in Prague pledged to work towards a nuclear-free world, to more recently propose spending half a trillion dollars across the next decade, and another half-trillion in the two decades after that, to modernize U.S. weapons and their delivery systems.

“The first obligation of every government is to protect the people it serves. The careers of politicians and military leaders depend on doing so. With nuclear weapons in the world, they are unable to meet that requirement. So they pretend to do so and we pretend to believe them. They may believe sincerely in what they do. We may believe sincerely that they are succeeding. But at some level of awareness, they know they aren’t and we know -- we should know -- that we’re kidding ourselves.”

However, Rhodes said he is cautiously optimistic we can break out of our illusions and can ban nuclear weapons from the planet. He says we have only one or two generations of time to choose between banning nuclear weapons or being destroyed by them.

If nuclear weapons make us all vulnerable, he said, “the solution is to accept that collective vulnerability and work together internationally to outlaw and eliminate them.”

He dismissed those who say nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated because the technology can’t be uninvented.

Rather he said they can be made illegal, and tough international policing can prevent nations from secretly breaking out of an agreement.

“One requirement for nuclear elimination will be continuous worldwide monitoring and physical inspection on demand as well as airtight accounting for fissile materials, for highly enriched uranium and plutonium,” he said.

Rhodes cited a positive trend that he said is setting the stage for banning nuclear weapons. He said there is a scientific consensus today that even a limited nuclear exchange, such as an exchange of several bombs between India and Pakistan, would alter global temperatures by several degrees, leading to mass starvation across the planet.

Rhodes admitted the path to nuclear zero could be arduous. He said it needs collective will. Rhodes cited the Australian diplomat, Richard Butler who, in 1995, was instrumental in extending the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Bulter told Rhodes a global ban on nuclear weapons could be done in a morning. “All the nuts-and-bolts stuff might take another five or ten years.”

“For fifteen or twenty years now we have not lacked clear knowledge of the nature of the problem, of its urgency, and of the steps that can be taken to solve it, Butler once told Rhodes. “What we’re confronted with, however, is political cowardice -- politicians kicking the can down the road. … as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will proliferate, they will be used, and any use will be catastrophic.”

Echoing Butler’s remarks, Rhodes concluded his talk saying, “We will eliminate nuclear weapons one way or another: we will agree to remove them from the arsenals of the world or we will eliminate the human world by exploding those arsenals, burning it down and freezing it in nuclear holocaust.”

[Tom Fox is NCR Publisher, is on Twitter @ NCRTomFox and can be reached by email at]

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