Four decades after the million person protest march in New York against the build-up of nuclear arms, and 25 years after the signing of the Landmine Treaty in Ottawa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams amplifies the call to stop the proliferation of these terrifying weapons of mass destruction as the world faces the heightened possibility of a nuclear attack by Russia.
Forty years ago, on June 12, 1982, I was one of the estimated million people who marched through Central Park to protest the buildup of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was the largest disarmament demonstration in the history of this country. The march did not immediately produce any concrete results but five years later the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first time in history that the superpowers had agreed to shrink their nuclear stockpiles.
That was the beginning of multilateral efforts and agreements to try to reign in the nuclear arms race and stop the proliferation of these terrifying weapons of mass destruction. Yet four decades later, instead of seeing the elimination of all nuclear weapons, now nine countries are nuclear-armed and about 90 percent of the estimated 12,700 nuclear warheads in the world belongs to the United States and Russia. Today, there is only one nuclear weapons agreement remaining between the U.S. and Russia – New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in 2026.
Many people think international treaties are useless, but that depends on the seriousness of verification and compliance mechanisms. Having been deeply involved in the campaign that resulted in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and subsequent work on compliance, I have no doubt that a serious treaty can work.
As the world faces the heightened possibility of a nuclear attack, all I can think of is growing up during the “duck and cover” generation of the late 1950s, when, in grade school, we actually had to practice curling up in tight balls under our small wooden desks so we’d know what to do if attacked by nuclear weapons. And then came the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was certain we were going to die in a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
The intense fear generated by all of this is what drove me to protest nuclear weapons in New York. I believe we must renew that movement. Rather than be happy that we have nukes to “defend” ourselves with, I believe that now is not only the time to remember how close to nuclear war we have come, but also to revive efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Obama’s Nuclear Buildup
The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 promised to harken a new era of nuclear weapons policy, but that did not turn out to be the case. Obama came to office touting a vision of nuclear disarmament with a speech he made in 2009 shortly after his inauguration. Who could not see the possibility of a different future when he spoke of the country’s commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons"? He seemed to back his words with concrete actions. When his administration completed the third post-Cold War review of America's nuclear posture in April of 2010, it called for "a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide."
Instead of pursuing that vision however, Obama ended up agreeing to “modernize” existing warheads, develop new nuclear delivery systems and resilient command networks, and open new industrial centers to produce nuclear hardware. In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the new expenditures, when added to the cost of maintaining the existing arsenal, would total $348 billion between 2015 and 2024.
Instead of moving toward a nuclear-free future, his policy represented the biggest U.S. buildup of nuclear arms since the end of the Cold War. Instead of a world free of the terror of nuclear weapons, we continue to naively believe that the world is made secure through “nuclear deterrence.” That possessing nuclear weapons protects a nation from nuclear attack, through the threat of “mutually assured destruction.” In other words: I have my nukes, you have yours. Neither of us could survive a nuclear war, ergo the threat will remain always at the ready, in the background -- a nuclear insurance policy against actually using the deadly weapons.
This blind belief in having nukes and nuclear deterrence as a sane security policy has brought us to where we are today, facing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use “tactical” nuclear weapons as his war of aggression against Ukraine continues to bog down.
Putin’s Nuclear Threats and the Ukraine
Not long after ordering his “special military operation” against Ukraine on Feb. 24, Putin began threatening to use “tactical” nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory. It seems he had expected a rapid conquest of Ukraine and a joyous reception in the country as his soldiers invaded. Instead, the invasion was met with a strong resistance and Ukrainian troops have been able to recover territory in the eastern part of the country where Russia began fomenting conflict in 2014.
This is not the first time Putin has made nuclear threats. In 2014 during Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Russian leaders talked openly about putting nuclear weapons on alert. Then in 2015, Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons on Danish warships if that country joined NATO’s missile defense system. Yet, those threats did not seem to rattle the world the way Putin’s most recent and ongoing nuclear threats have.
As the Russian military continues to demonstrate its ineptness and thousands protest and flee the country to avoid fighting after Putin’s order to conscript 300,000 men, Putin’s consideration of nuclear weapons of any type has only grown more worrisome. After a major defeat in the east around the beginning of October, Chechen warlord and key ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, called directly on Putin to use tactical nukes in response. Although Russian media responded by distancing the country from Kadyrov’s statements, Putin promoted him to general several days later.
To nuke or not to nuke – these are the two options Putin is weighing while unrest from various sectors of Russian society continues to grow and his army keeps losing ground on the battlefield. Putin is unlikely to accept defeat quietly. Will a nuclear attack be his swan song? What might a tactical nuclear weapon attack against Ukraine look like? And what might be the broader impact of such use?
When most people think about nuclear weapons – if they think about them at all -- Little Boy and Fat Man, the “special bombs” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, are probably what come to mind. Most people are likely unaware that “small” or “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons exist.
Tactical nuclear weapons have been around since the Cold War and it is estimated that today, Russia has nearly 2,000 stockpiled. The U.S. has about 100 tactical nukes deployed in Europe and another 130 stockpiled. Tactical nuclear weapons are also known as non-strategic nukes because their small nuclear warheads and delivery systems are intended for use on the battlefield, or for a limited strike. Strategic nukes, on the other hand, are intended to raze entire cities.
But that does not mean that strikes with non-strategic nukes would not have devastating, far-reaching effects. These weapons have yields between less than 1 kiloton and up to around 50 (though the U.S. has some reaching 170 kilotons). The yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. The bomb killed and injured an estimated 135,000 people immediately – about half the population of the city at that time. Over time, tens of thousands more people died from the effects of radiation. Not only would a tactical nuke spread radiation but it could escalate any armed conflict exponentially. There has also long been the fear of a “nuclear winter” -- a years-long planetary freeze brought on by airborne soot from these smaller nukes. A recent multinational study that looked at these potential effects of such a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan found that, if they were to each set off 50 Hiroshima-size bombs, the world would likely experience unprecedented food shortages and mass starvation. In other words, tactical nuclear weapons are not just another battlefield weapon.
Some say that Putin has already broken the “nuclear taboo” with his various and ongoing threats of using his battlefield tactical nukes. It was frightening to hear the bravado of the French foreign minister when he responded to early threats by reminding Putin that NATO has nuclear weapons too. It is not as if these two men are challenging each other to a duel in which one or the other individual might die.
The use of nuclear weapons could bring on a “nuclear winter” and destroy life on this planet.
As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began to unfold at the end of February, followed not long after by veiled threats of using any means necessary to achieve his goals, which have morphed into openly threatening the use of tactical nukes, I could not help but think once again about being part of the “duck and cover” generation. Instead of feeling safe knowing how to curl up to avoid death by nukes and reassured by the relatively peaceful resolution of the Missile Crisis, I grew up terrified at the thought of nuclear war.
I never could understand the absurdity of the planet living with the real possibility of nuclear destruction. It seemed to me then, as it still does now, an insane proposition that “leaders” could choose to eliminate life on earth in nuclear war.
I hoped, as Putin continued his nuclear diatribes, that people would finally recognize that a safe and secure world must rest on nuclear disarmament and not on deterrence through the possibility of mutually assured destruction.
Now that the possible use of nuclear weapons is being openly talked about in the war in Ukraine, how might that shift thinking about “small” nukes on the battlefield? In 2018 then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee, “I do not think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.”
But what the world needs now is a different “strategic game changer.” We need a non-nuclear, negotiated settlement to Putin’s war and move seriously to eliminate all types of nuclear weapons. We need people in all sectors of society to work hard and to work together to make that vision a reality. A framework exists.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively abolish nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the civil society campaign that helped make the treaty a reality, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The treaty has 91 signatories and 68 ratifications, none of which include the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations. . It is time to add nine more names to the list. Together we can make that happen.
Op-Ed first published 6 November 2022 in the Houston Chronicle. Re-published with permission of the author.