If Kim Jong-un does not commit to peace it will only leave the United States with the option of military force.–Rep. Tom Reed, facebook
Once the Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb, it was clear that nuclear war was out of the question. A compromise was reached–the AEC continued to make bombs which now were to be used for deterrence. The theory was that no country would dare to use these weapons if “mutually assured destruction” would be the consequence. Eventually it became clear that significant use of these weapons would be self-destructive–nuclear winter and radiation poisoning. Keeping large numbers of nuclear weapons for deterrence no longer made sense.
About seventy years ago, my school class practiced “duck and cover.” When we saw the flash of a nuclear explosion, we were supposed to quickly duck under our school desks. I don’t know if anyone thought this would keep us safe.
We built “fallout shelters.” These were intended to create an illusion of safety, to alloy fear of nuclear war. I don’t know if Elmira was ever on a list for a nuclear bomb, but some houses here still have shelters in the basement.
In the 1960s, power company employees were shown a movie explaining that nuclear war was a realistic possibility not to be feared. The movie explained that transmission lines and transformers would survive. We were given an alternate work location in case the company offices were destroyed and told to report to work to help restore electric power as soon as the “all clear” was given. By then I knew this was nonsense.
Forty years ago, more or less, I attended a lecture in Detroit by physicist Hans Bethe on nuclear disarmament. Bethe favored disarmament, but maintained that the goal of completely eliminating nuclear weapons was unrealistic. He said the USA should retain a minimum number of nuclear weapons for deterrence, an opinion that was loudly challenged by his mostly anti-war audience.
To some extent, Bethe’s views have been vindicated. Some nuclear disarmament has occurred, the US maintains far more than a minimum of these weapons, and none has been used in war since 1945. One might think the deterrence policy has been successful, and perhaps it has been responsible for forestalling nuclear war.
The deterrence policy works when all agree that first use is unthinkable. When President Trump threatens to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons or Iran’s nuclear installations, whether the first use of nuclear weapons is threatened or not, deterrence is threatened. An attack aimed at destroying nuclear weapons whoever has them, signals the end of the policy of deterrence, since deterrence can no longer be trusted. This could have terrible consequences.
Russia and the United States aren’t the only countries subscribing to deterrence. Others include China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. I don’t think N. Korea plans war; they have too much to lose and nothing to gain. Deterrence should work with Korea as well as with other countries.
Nuclear weapons and ICBMs aren’t the only danger. Nuclear weapons might be moved to the target in a truck, a ship, or a submarine. Chemical and biological weapons are a threat to life on earth as the poisonings in Britain remind us.
I left Bethe’s lecture undecided–I respected Bethe’s opinion but would feel safer if nuclear armaments could be wiped out like smallpox. US Korea policy has prevented war for more than fifty years; nuclear deterrence has been effective even longer. I fear the consequences if either is abandoned. I fear President Trump has no advisers nearly as wise as Hans Bethe.