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Hiroshima's anniversary reminds us that nuclear war is in sight

Article by Dr. Stephen Wall
published in the The Mountaineer Aug. 2, 2020


In this critical election year we are all struggling with:

a) the economic and social costs of the pandemic with over 140,000 dead and no end in sight;

b) a growing awareness of approaching climate tipping points (100 degrees in Siberia, melting polar ice caps, highest U.S. rainfalls on record — 55 inches in 48 hours in Houston Texas and what about Haywood County?;

c) a massive awakening in the struggle against racism and for democracy.

But lurking far out of the public’s attention is a danger so vast and inconceivable that most people just block it from entering their minds. It’s the increasing danger — accidentally or intentionally — of unleashing the inconceivable destructive force of nuclear weaponry.

Seventy five years ago on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later another device was detonated over Nagasaki, historically the most Christian of Japanese cities.

It is not my purpose here to discuss the morality or necessity of these events. Between 120,000 and 220,000 people were killed, over half in the first few minutes, and the vast majority were non-combatant civilians.

The Hiroshima bomb had the explosive equivalent of 15,000 tons (15 kilotons) of TNT, or 30 million pounds of explosive. Today it is consider a rather small weapon by the nuclear ‘community.’

At one time the U.S. had 23,317 nuclear weapons, and the Soviets had over 40,000. There have been a number of well documented ‘near misses’ — false alarms and near catastrophes, which in general the American public was blissfully unaware of.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II signed by Presidents Carter and Brezhnev, in spite of great controversy and accusations of cheating by both sides, led to the reduction of nukes down to the present levels of about 1,400 active weapons in arsenals limited to about 6,000 total weapons on each side.

Every American city and military establishment (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) is still multi-targeted, as are those of the ‘other sides.’

It’s enough to end all civilization as we know it. So what are we to make of a public figure who declares, “If we have them (nukes) why can’t we use them?”

This incredibly irresponsible statement was made by Donald Trump during his last presidential campaign in August 2016.

This carelessness — to put it kindly — in nuclear matters continues unabated in the current administration. The U.S. has walked away from the Iran Nuclear treaty, so we really don’t know to what extent the Iranians have restarted their program, but they apparently have.

The President also had a now forgotten photogenic love affair with the North Korean dictator — who as of this writing is probably testing new long range missiles but has not given up one ounce of nuclear material (unlike the 24,000 pounds of enriched uranium given up by Iran).

Perhaps most dangerously, the U.S. has canceled the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty with the Russians, which through the Carter and Reagan years up to 2018 kept the nuclear arms race in Europe somewhat under control.

Now, the 2010 New Start Treaty — the only remaining tool to verify the Russian nuclear arsenal and maintain consistent communication on nuclear issues, is due to expire in February 2021. Our current president is astonishingly uninformed on nuclear matters and appears indifferent — if not outright opposed — to the New Start Treaty.

During the 2016 election campaign, he had to be made aware of the critical fact that our nuclear weapons were held in a three-pronged triad of delivery systems — submarines, strategic bombers and land based ICBMs.

He and his appointee for Department of Energy Secretary — former Gov. Perry of Texas — thought the energy department dealt only with oil and gas matters.

It had to be explained to them that the department is actually in charge of all nuclear weaponry development and maintenance.

Current plans are to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a potential cost of $2 trillion over the next decade. Russia and China will take note, as will Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, the Trump administration let it be known in May 2020 that it was considering resumption of nuclear weapons testing. No nation has crossed this international red line since 1992 — except North Korea. Not a recipe for a safer world or a proper use for our massively debt-burdened national budget.

If with foolish and shortsighted leadership the U.S. expands its nuclear capabilities, there will be little or no incentive for other countries not to do the same thing. HR 2529 is a bill currently introduced in Congress that takes on this issue and must be supported.

The bill echoes the authoritative Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has come to the conclusion that both the U.S. and the Russians violated the INF treaty, which did however greatly reduce the danger of a nuclear catastrophe in Europe.

The Bulletin calls for the urgent renegotiation and restoration of provisions of this treaty. For an in-depth analysis of the current Nuclear threat and the importance of also renewing the New Start Treaty see:

Unfortunately the confusion, lack of consistency and outright endangerment of our nation by the current administration’s nuclear policies have met with no comment or significant attention from the President’s supporters.

In particular, N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis, as a member of the Senate Armed Forces committee and a member of the Emerging Threats Subcommittee — has played zero role in critically examining the administration’s dangerous policies.

If Tillis and others who obediently say ‘yes’ to anything Donald Trump says acted responsibly in the face of the dangers of nuclear weapons brinksmanship, perhaps they would resist the push by Secretary of State Pompeo to push our nation into another catastrophic war in the Middle East, this time against Iran.

This policy could instigate another nuclear arms race instead of calmly and thoughtfully negotiating a lessening of tensions.

Selling nuclear capabilities to the brutal Saudi regime, an administration proposal, may make a lot of money for certain American corporations (and secure lucrative corporate jobs for retiring officials) but the potential spread of nuclear weapon technologies does not increase the prospects for peace in the region — or safety anywhere.

Nuclear war is unimaginable, yet it is not inconceivable. Arrogance, ignorance and impulsiveness could cause the world to stumble into a catastrophe that would, like the spiraling of events that led to World War I, accelerate out of control.

This holds especially true in the era when leadership may have less than 30 minutes to decide if the incoming radar picture is a misplaced socket wrench, a flock of geese (both did happen) or Russian/Chinese/N Korean missiles. A 3 a.m. 140 word tweet (that can be denied the next day) will not suffice in the face of a looming historic catastrophe.

The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should give us pause when we applaud leaders who posture, shout, rabble rouse, yet display little interest in the complexities of issues that may decide the fate of all of us and our children.

Stephen Wall, MD, joined Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1975 and was an active participant in its educational activities in Texas and Michigan. The 23,000 member PSR shared the Nobel Peace prize in 1985 with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Dr. Wall’s opinion are his own and not necessarily those of PSR.

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PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.