Seventy-five years ago, on Aug. 6, the United States executed a surprise atomic bomb attack on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, as Japan’s leaders debated surrender and the Soviets entered the war against Japan, a second atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki.
By the end of that year, at least 225,000 men, women and children had been killed by the immediate blast, massive firestorms and fallout, and radiation poisoning. Those who survived — the hibakusha — continued to suffer and die from the long-term effects of their radiation exposures. Their first-hand accounts are a reminder of the horrors of nuclear war.
We all still live under the dark shadow cast by those nuclear attacks. The decision to drop the bomb, and the Soviets’ pursuit of their own, triggered the dangerous and costly nuclear arms race that topped out at over 70,000 nuclear weapons and brought the world close to nuclear catastrophe on several occasions.
Decades of nuclear weapons production and 2,056 nuclear test explosions, including 528 in the atmosphere, have left a trail of toxic and radioactive contamination across the United States and around the globe.
In response, citizen pressure and hard-nosed U.S. diplomacy produced agreements that cut the number of nuclear weapons, halted their spread, and banned nuclear testing. But there are still far too many nuclear weapons — and the risk of nuclear war is growing.
There are still an estimated 13,400 nuclear weapons, more than 90 percent of which are in the hands of the United States and Russia. Seven other nuclear-armed nations have smaller, but still very deadly, arsenals.
Tensions between many of the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising. In South Asia, a military flare-up along the disputed Indian-Pakistani border, like in 2018, could easily escalate to involve nuclear weapons use. Another exchange of “fire and fury” threats between Kim Jong Un and President Trump could trigger North Korea’s use of its arsenal of some three dozen nuclear weapons.
Many dangerous Cold War nuclear weapons policies persist. The United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom (and perhaps China) maintain significant numbers of their nuclear weapons on prompt-launch status, ready to retaliate within minutes in response to a nuclear attack. Leaders in Washington and Moscow cling to the option to use nuclear weapons first and against significant non-nuclear threats. Both are also seeking new lower-yield, nuclear capabilities for “battlefield” use.
Wherever or however a nuclear exchange might start, there are no guarantees that it can be “limited.” A new simulation from Princeton researchers illustrates how a conventional U.S.-Russian conflict could escalate to general thermonuclear war and produce more than 91 million immediate casualties. Firestorms, nuclear fallout, and other long-term effects would further increase the death toll.
Making matters far worse, progress on disarmament between the major nuclear actors has stalled. The only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest arsenals is the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). It is due to expire on Feb. 5, 2021 — just two weeks after inauguration day.
But the Trump administration has failed to take up Moscow’s offer of a five-year extension to New START, which caps deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,550 each. Instead, the administration has alternated between threatening to “win” a new arms race and expressing interest in some new deal with Russia that includes China. But even former Trump officials agree there is simply no chance of concluding such a deal before 2021.
Without a five-year extension of the New START agreement, the prospects for the more ambitious deal would diminish and the risk of an unconstrained nuclear arms race would increase.
Another crucial nonproliferation agreement, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, is on life-support following the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018. In retaliation, Iran is once again ramping up its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to make weapons.
As Mayor Kazumi Matsui of Hiroshima and Mayor Tomihisa Taue of Nagasaki recently warned: “We are badly off course in efforts to honor the plea of the hibakusha — the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings — and end the nuclear threat.”
Getting the United States and the world back on track won’t be easy, but it can be done. To start, the United States should:
- Reaffirm the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
- Extend the New START agreement by five years and pursue a deal for deeper cuts. In the event of the loss of New START, Congress should only fund U.S. nuclear forces to the treaty’s limits, as long as Russia doesn’t exceed them.
- Engage other nuclear-armed states to create a framework for further progress, including pledges to halt the development of new types of nuclear warheads and destabilizing missile systems.
- Declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.
- Phase out Cold War-era launch on warning policies, a move that would significantly decrease the risk of miscalculation and catastrophe in a crisis.
- Reinforce the global taboo against nuclear weapons testing, negotiate transparency measures to address compliance concerns, and finally ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
- Re-engage in serious, sustained diplomacy with North Korea on a step-for-step plan on peace and denuclearization.
- Waive sanctions imposed on Iran since 2018 in exchange for Iran’s return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and full cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
- Renew commitment to adequately fund the long-term clean-up at nuclear weapons-related sites across the country, and expand health monitoring and compensation for downwinders under the Radiation Effects Compensation Act.
- Revise the existing $1.5 trillion, 30-year plan to replace and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is unaffordable and in excess reasonable nuclear deterrence requirements, and redirect the savings toward programs that address real human needs.
American-led global leadership, motivated by public calls to action, has successfully reduced the danger of nuclear war in the past. It is now up to all of us — and our elected leaders — to do it again and ensure that future generations never again will experience the hell on earth wrought on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago.
Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the independent, nonpartisan Arms Control Association, and publisher and contributor of the monthly journal Arms Control Today. For more than 30 years, he has researched and advocated for nuclear risk reduction initiatives.
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