Almost everyone who works actively against nuclear weapons is, at some level, appalled by the immorality of nuclear weapons. This makes sense because the indiscriminate killing of children, grandparents, people with disabilities, and a host of other ordinary folks is appalling.
As a result, the first argument that almost all activists reach for is moral. They bring forward hibakusha to put a human face on the immorality. They talk about the indigenous people who suffered during the mining and production of nuclear weapons. They show graphic pictures of the destruction, the burns, the radiation sickness, and other catastrophic damage done by the bombings. They say, in effect, “Look at the immorality!” They sometimes point to it with a hint of outrage in their voices. How can people not be moved by these horrible, immoral acts?
And yet here we are, 78 years later, in the midst of a second nuclear weapons arms race. Every nation that possesses nuclear weapons is either expanding or upgrading its nuclear arsenal. How can this be?
It seems undeniable, after the better part of a century has passed, that moral arguments are not enough to eliminate nuclear weapons. When a strategy fails for 78 years, it’s probably time for a rethink.
I believe most people—including national leaders—hesitate to eliminate nuclear weapons not because they are heartless, or lack any sense of morality, or are idiots, but because they believe, for some reason, that nuclear weapons are necessary. After all, people often set their moral feelings aside when they believe their survival is at stake.
In the case of nuclear weapons, many people believe that nuclear weapons are such powerful weapons that they can guarantee a country’s safety. Therefore it makes sense that most countries secretly want such powerful weapons, and as a consequence, nuclear weapons will always exist. They are such desirable weapons, in other words, that even if you could ban them, someone would inevitably build an arsenal in secret. So it’s impractical to even think about eliminating them.
If this analysis of how people feel is right, then there are, in fact, two parts to the nuclear weapons elimination equation: morality and necessity. You can only solve the equation if you take on both parts. But you have to solve the parts in the right sequence. Before you can move people with moral discourse, you have to first remove the roadblock in their heads that tells them that their country must have nuclear weapons to keep them safe.
The key to eliminating nuclear weapons, then, is to start with the practical consideration. Make a case that nuclear weapons could reasonably, realistically be eliminated, neutralize that part of the equation, and the morality argument falls like a hammer blow.
“But Ward,” a devil’s advocate might argue, “there are no practical arguments for eliminating nuclear weapons.” Well, actually, there are. A lot of them. Let me point out just three.
First, you may have noticed that when Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons again and again in Ukraine last fall, a number of establishment sources suddenly spoke up, making the case that nuclear weapons actually aren’t very good weapons. The New York Times, The Institute for the Study of War, and even Gen. David Petraeus all argued that using nuclear weapons on the battlefield wasn’t very militarily useful.
And if you look back over past wars, military commanders have repeatedly turned away from using nuclear weapons—not because of moral concerns, but because of practical doubts about the military value of the weapons.
It has been an open secret in Washington for decades, apparently, that battlefield use of nuclear weapons was militarily inadvisable. When President George H. W. Bush ordered the removal of all but a handful of 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons from Europe in 1991, there was no open revolt among military officers. Apparently, they were fine with the decision. So there is a good deal of evidence, based on the advice of military officers, that nuclear weapons aren’t such great weapons.
Which brings us to another argument: What about using nuclear weapons not on the battlefield but against an enemy’s homeland? Well, if your adversary also has nuclear weapons, that option is, if anything, worse. When your adversary strikes back, your country will be devastated. It is clearly a suicidal option. And if your adversary doesn’t have nuclear weapons, it’s not war, it’s genocide.
Finally, many people argue that nuclear weapons are important because of nuclear deterrence. But even a 12-year-old can effectively show that deterrence is fatal over the long run. After all, human beings are fallible, aren’t they? And human beings play a critical role in nuclear deterrence. Human beings make the threats, evaluate the threats, and decide how to respond. If human beings are prone to folly—and we are—and if human beings run the deterrence process, then nuclear deterrence is inherently flawed. It will fail. Over the long run it cannot be safe. Eventually, human failure will lead to a catastrophic nuclear war.
Moral arguments are powerful in the fight against nuclear weapons. But a roadblock prevents moral arguments from working. In fact, it causes them to boomerang and actually turn people off. But if you’re willing to argue against nuclear weapons with a two-step process—first showing that the necessity argument is false and only then arguing that the weapons are horrible and immoral—there’s a clear pathway to elimination.
 Korea and Vietnam are covered in John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 119 and 125. “The outcome of these investigations was not particularly encouraging. Army Chief of Staff General J. Lawton Collins expressed himself as ‘very skeptical’ about the military advantages; Chinese and North Korean forces were deeply entrenched along a 150 mile front, and recent bomb tests in Nevada had proven ‘that men can be very close to the explosion and not be hurt if they are well dug in.’” The Gulf War comes from Colin Powell, My American Journey: An Autobiography, (New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 485-6. “I told Tom Kelly to gather a handful of people in the most secure cell in the building to work out nuclear strike options. The results unnerved me. To do serious damage to just one armored division dispersed in the desert would require a considerable number of small tactical nuclear weapons. I showed his analysis to Cheney and then had it destroyed. If I had had any doubts before about the practicality of nukes on the field of battle, this report clinched them.”
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