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A Nuclear Tipping Point

Remarks by Guy Quinlan, President, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and
Chair, Nuclear Disarmament Task Force, All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City

April 4, 2014
Public Affairs Forum
Unitarian Universalist Church
Rock Tavern, New York

Printable version

This year marks two significant anniversaries. It is just 100 years since the great powers of that time drifted and blundered into a catastrophic world war, which left much of Europe in ruins. And it is 50 years since the release of the film “Dr. Strangelove”, Stanley Kubrick’s classic dark comedy about nuclear war. The subtitle of “Dr. Strangelove”, you may recall, was “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Since then it might seem as if we have learned, if not to “love” the bomb, at least to live with it as an inevitable and permanent part of our lives. We have lived with it this long, after all, the ultimate catastrophe hasn’t happened yet, and the problems involved in getting rid of the bomb seem mind-numbingly complex. The nuclear powers have in theory endorsed the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, but with the caution that it may not happen in our lifetime. Perhaps, for now, the status quo is the best we can do.

But the trouble is, the status quo can’t last. If we don’t move forward toward nuclear disarmament, things will get very much worse. One of the people now calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons is George Shultz, President Reagan’s Secretary of State- hardly a stereotypical liberal peacenik- and Schulz has been warning anyone who will listen that the world is at what he calls “a nuclear tipping point.” There are at least three reasons for this.

First, the world has already come several times within minutes of accidental nuclear war, through human or computer error. At least one of those near catastrophes happened several years after the end of the Cold War. There have been many other brushes with disaster over the years. Nuclear bombs have been lost, nuclear-armed planes have crashed, armed nuclear missiles have been mistakenly loaded on cargo planes and shipped to unknown destinations. Looking back on some of these nuclear close calls, Robert McNamara (who was Secretary of Defense during the Cuban missile crisis) said that, to survive this far, “we had to be lucky as well as wise.” If we accept the nuclear status quo indefinitely, we are betting the future of our children and our grandchildren on the assumption that our luck will last forever.

And the risks are increasing, with the development of cyber war and the threat of hacking by terrorists. Last year the commander of U.S. Strategic Forces told the Senate that he is “very concerned about the possibility of cyber attack on nuclear command and control systems and on the weapons themselves”. The National Nuclear Security Administration has said that nuclear related computer systems in the U.S. are “under constant attack” from both foreign governments and “increasingly sophisticated non-state actors.” (“Non-state actors” is bureaucratic language for “terrorists.”)

You may recall the recent news stories about the scandals at U.S. missile bases, the allegations of alcohol and drug abuse among missile crews, and the reports of cheating on competency and safety tests. The Secretary of Defense reacted strongly, saying that the standard for U.S. nuclear forces has to be “perfection”, and that nuclear weapons leave “no margin of error.” But the problem is that no human operation ever achieves perfection. A weapons system which leaves no margin for error is an accident waiting to happen.

The second fatal flaw in the status quo is the mounting scientific evidence about the catastrophic climate consequences of any nuclear war. Recent studies by leading climate scientists indicate that soot and smoke from the fire storms of a major nuclear exchange would block sunlight for a decade, triggering another Ice Age and threatening the survival of the human species. Even a limited, regional nuclear war- e.g. between India and Pakistan- would cause global famine, putting billions of people at risk. We always knew that nuclear weapons were immoral and inhuman, because they would wreak enormous destruction on civilians and on the environment; by blast, fire and radiation; now, in light of these scientific findings on climate effects, it seems that using these weapons would be literally suicidal.

The third reason why the status quo can’t last is the growing threat of nuclear proliferation. When the Non-proliferation Treaty was signed, more than 40 years ago, it was essentially a two-part bargain: most of the world’s countries agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons, in exchange for a pledge by the nuclear powers to negotiate genuine nuclear disarmament. Continued delay in meeting that commitment is putting the entire non-proliferation system in jeopardy. A year ago the UN General Assembly voted, 147-4, to set up a new process to seek ways out of the impasse on nuclear disarmament. The United States joined with Russia, Britain and France to cast the only “no” votes. That has become an increasingly common pattern in the United Nations, with most of the world’s countries demanding quicker action on nuclear disarmament, and the U.S., Russia and other nuclear powers voting together to oppose it. Another UN resolution, also adopted by an overwhelming majority of the world’s countries, called on the nuclear powers to take nuclear missiles off ready alert, in order to reduce the danger of accidental war. Again, the US joined with Russia, UK and France to cast the only four “no” votes.

In March of last year more than 130 countries attended a conference in Oslo, organized by the government of Norway and the International Red Cross, on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions. Public health authorities from around the world testified that it would be impossible to mount any effective humanitarian response to the devastation caused by a nuclear weapon. Leading scientists reported on the research I mentioned earlier about the catastrophic climate effects which would follow from even a limited nuclear war. Diplomats from many countries attending the conference expressed shock at these findings, which were complete news to them. But, unfortunately, no representatives of the US government were present to hear these sobering facts. The United States had actually entered into an agreement with Russia, China, Britain and France not to attend the conference. And the US also agreed with the same nuclear powers to boycott the follow-up conference held in Mexico in February.

So, what can we do about this? One answer was suggested recently by one of the few US Senators who has been actively concerned with the nuclear danger, when she said that her colleagues are just not hearing from constituents for whom nuclear weapons are a major issue. That must change. Citizens need to insist on the start of serious negotiations for the mutual and verified elimination of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps you wonder whether we as citizens have any real power to influence these events. Well, we do have the power, and it is absolutely vital that we should exercise it. In off-the-record conversations with people working on disarmament in our own State Department, and in conversations with United Nations personnel, one often hears the same message: “We need you to keep up the pressure. Citizen action is essential. Real progress on nuclear disarmament won’t happen until the public demands it.”

That citizen action can take many forms- this evening I have a few specific suggestions.

First, this year a number of leading U.S. religious groups, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, have entered into an interfaith statement of conscience, calling on the U.S. government to take a leading role in the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. We have some copies of that statement here tonight. One possibility is for ministers and members of local congregations to endorse that statement and forward it to their members of Congress, urging them to take action on the issue.

Second, at All Souls Unitarian Church in NY we have formed an information network which circulates action alerts on nuclear issues to other UU congregations, and to interested churches and individuals outside the denomination. If you would like to be informed about these email alerts, just give us your contact information.

Another thing we could all do is to ask the media to give better coverage to nuclear issues. Earlier I mentioned the UN resolutions last year calling for an end to the impasse on nuclear disarmament. How many news reports about that did you read, or hear, at the time?

And finally, as to the US boycott of the Oslo and Mexico conferences on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, which I mentioned earlier: in November of this year, the government of Austria will be holding a follow-up conference, seeking next steps toward an agreement outlawing these weapons. Let’s tell President Obama and Secretary Kerry that this time the United States should be there, taking an active role. The Nuclear Disarmament Task Force at All Souls will shortly be circulating a template letter on this.

The 100th anniversary of the First World War has inspired a number of interesting books, including The War That Ended Peace, by the British historian Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan shows how government leaders of all the great powers repeatedly lacked the will to confront complex problems, and instead allowed the force of inertia to carry Europe toward disaster. And the same refrain runs through internal  documents which MacMillan quotes from the governments of all the major powers, as the war began, saying in various ways: “We never wanted this. Events left us no choice.” But, as MacMillan documents in her book, this consolation which the leaders gave themselves was false. There were always choices. The disaster could have been prevented.

As citizens we have the power to influence the course of events, in favor of a saner nuclear policy. The international campaign to ban nuclear weapons is gaining momentum in most of the countries of the world, and the United States should be leading that campaign, not joining with other nuclear powers to resist it. We need to make our voices heard.












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