Next week marks the 70th anniversary of the first use of atomic weapons, when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit by atom bombs that ultimately claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and left tens of thousands more injured and suffering the effects of radiation.
Back in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an important speech in Prague, where he focused at length on the ongoing nuclear threat and the continued existence of thousands of nuclear weapons, which he described as “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”
Fast forward to today, and it is time for the President to again speak on this issue. This is what he should say on August 6:
“Seventy years ago, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we learned about the awesome destruction that nuclear weapons can cause. Seventy years. The Bible says it is the span of a human life. And it is also the age of a dangerous myth that should be allowed to live no longer.
“For 70 years, we have told ourselves that nuclear weapons make us secure. But it is time to reject this fantasy and recognize that nuclear weapons are, in fact, the primary threat to our security — that far from protecting us they pose an existential threat to our civilization, and perhaps to our survival as a species.
“It is easy to understand why we thought these weapons would make us safe. For most of human history we were more secure if we had more powerful weapons than our potential enemies. But as Einstein so eloquently said, nuclear weapons have changed everything except the way we think. If the use of our own weapons will destroy us, then they are no longer agents of our security. And that is the reality which we must face: Our nuclear weapons are, essentially, suicide bombs.
“In the last few years, climate scientists and physicians have shown that a large-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia would drop temperatures across the planet to levels not seen since the last Ice Age, killing much of the human race in the process. Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has raised the danger of such war to the highest level since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, even a very limited nuclear war, such as one that might take place between India and Pakistan and that saw the use of less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenals, would cause enough cooling to disrupt agriculture across the globe and spark a global famine that could kill as many as 2 billion people. The missiles on just one of our Trident submarines could also produce such a catastrophe; we have 14 of them.
“Some argue that because these weapons are so destructive they will never be used. But such complacency is misplaced. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and Soviet Union came perilously close to using them. On at least five occasions since, computer glitches and miscalculation have led either America or Russia to prepare to launch a nuclear attack in the mistaken belief that the other side had already done so. Now, military leaders tell us that it is possible that a terrorist could hack into our command systems and possibly trigger the unauthorized launch of a nuclear missile.
“We have been incredibly lucky. Our nuclear policy today is essentially the hope that our good luck will continue. This policy must change.
“More than 100 nonnuclear weapons states are now committed to a treaty to outlaw the possession of nuclear weapons as a way of pressuring the nine countries that have these weapons to eliminate them. The United States will embrace this effort and will work to make it succeed.
“But we cannot disarm alone; we must do it in conjunction with all the other nuclear weapons states and as part of a controlled, verifiable, and enforceable process. We can, though, provide leadership to this process.
“The Joint Chiefs have established that we could unilaterally reduce our deployed nuclear arsenal from 1,550 warheads to 900 without compromising our national security. I am not going to do that, but I am going to reduce our arsenal by 100 warheads and challenge President Putin to match that reduction. If he does, I will undertake further reductions, as long as they are matched by Russia, until our arsenals are down to the level of the other major nuclear weapons powers. At that point I will work with all of them to negotiate a treaty establishing the framework for the elimination of the rest of the world’s nuclear weapons.
“While we reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal, I will take our remaining weapons off hair-trigger alert, lengthening the time it takes to launch them and reducing the danger that they will be launched by accident or by a cyberterrorist.
“Russia may or may not join this effort, but we will not know unless we try, and that is what a great nation like the United States should do. Some say that it is a fantasy to think that we can get rid of nuclear weapons. I think it is a fantasy to think we can continue to maintain these vast nuclear arsenals and not see these terrible weapons used.
“In Prague, in 2009, I said that I sought the security of a world free of nuclear weapons, but that it might not happen in my lifetime. I hope I was wrong. No one knows for sure the span of his life, but I will not reach 70 for another 16 years and we simply cannot tolerate this threat to our survival for that long. We must change the way we think and our actions must reflect the real danger posed by nuclear weapons, not some myth that they make us safe.”
Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and past president of IPPNW’s U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility. IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.The views expressed are the writer’s own.