Born in 1946, nuclear weapons have been a reality all of my life. The first atomic bomb test took place soon after I was conceived and before I was born the two bombs were dropped on Japan. I grew up with the reality of the nuclear arms race and the strategy of mutual deterrence. It's not a very subtle strategy: if you drop atomic (and later hydrogen) bombs on us, we'll drop more on you, so you better not do it, or else. It's a rather primitive strategy, something you might expect two bickering siblings to concoct. That's a kind of comforting analogy, though, because two siblings, whatever their scrap, don't risk ending human life on the planet. But this is exactly what is likely to happen if there were a nuclear war.I should have been terrified, growing up with the possibility of nuclear war. But we humans are pretty good at protecting ourselves from feeling terrified and children have particularly ingenious ways of doing this. As I look back on that time, I realize now that one of the psychological mechanisms I was using was what's called identification with the aggressor. This is something not uncommonly seen in people who are in powerless situations, such as being taken hostage. They identify with the hostage takers and even want to protect them as a way of trying to somehow equalize the massive power differential between them. The primitive reasoning going something like this: If I'm like them, maybe they won't hurt me. It's irrational, of course, in the sense that it rarely prevents the threatening party from inflicting harm. But it does have a certain psychological logic to it that can relieve anxiety.
I remember one late Autumn afternoon in the early 1960s riding back to high school on the school bus after a cross country meet at another school. The radio was on and I heard the announcer say that the Soviet Union had detonated yet another in a long series of hydrogen bomb tests in a remote region of Siberia. This one was the largest yet, 100 megatons (equiva-lent to 100,000,000 tons of TNT). This was 5,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Talk about feeling helpless.
Those days of mutual deterrence are over now. Not because Russia doesn't have nuclear weapons, it still has thousands. But because we all know the world has changed and that the greatest threat of nuclear weapons being used against us comes not from Russia but from states and entities, particularly terrorists, whose use of nuclear weapons is not subject to the calculus of mutual deterrence. They attempt to inflict maximum harm with little or no concern about the retaliation that may result from their actions. How can we feel safe when we don't even have the fragile balance of mutual deterrence to ward off nuclear catastrophe?
In the November/December issue "Foreign Affairs," Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal, in an article entitled "The Logic of Zero," propose a daring solution that may be an alternative to the nightmarish situation we find ourselves in now. Starting from the premise that the sole reason for having nuclear weapons is to prevent other countries from using them against us (i.e., for deterrence), the next question is whether there is a better way to prevent their use. Their answer is that eliminating them from the planet is a better way to prevent their use because it eliminates the terrifying possibility that nuclear weapons would be launched by mistake (a real and frightening possibility) and it also would make it impossible for irresponsible agents, including terrorists, to use them.
If we agree that the elimination of nuclear weapons from the planet would be useful, how could this goal be achieved? The United States, as the strongest nuclear power, could play, and would have to play, the leading role. Daalder and Lodal outline four steps toward this goal. First, the U.S. could establish as official policy that the purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others. Second, once we have established a policy of limited use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. could reduce its nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,000 weapons (we now have many times that number). This would be more than enough to convince anyone that the U.S. has the capacity to respond to a nuclear attack. Third, the U.S. must take the lead in organizing a worldwide effort to develop the technology required to implement a comprehensive international nuclear-control regime that can account for and monitor nuclear materials. This will not be a simple matter; however, a great deal of the necessary technology already exists and, if the world were united in common purpose and led by the example and ingenuity of the United States, there is a good chance that we could develop the necessary technology. The fourth step would be an intense diplomatic effort to convince the world to embark on the difficult path of reducing and, ultimately, eliminating all nuclear weapons and forging the international agreements necessary to implement the monitoring and control regime that would be a critical component of this process.
It would be a bold undertaking. Some might even call it an unrealistic goal. Yet today the world is awash in nuclear weapons and nuclear-bomb-making materials. There are more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world (with Russia and the U.S. accounting for more than 95 percent). In addition, there are more than 3,000 tons of fissile material (radioactive material used to make bombs) stored in more than 40 countries. This is enough to produce another 250,000 nuclear bombs. How could we ever feel safe in a world where an ever increasing number of nations have the bomb and where the possibility of non-state entities (terrorists) producing a bomb and using it are both real and ever increasing?
It's a daring solution, committing ourselves as a nation to the elimination of nuclear weapons from the planet. But, as Daalder and Lodal argue, it could be done and we, as the most powerful nation on the planet, could lead the way. Some people might think such a goal is too idealistic, too unrealistic, and even too dangerous. Yet existing nuclear weapons, and those that could be produced in the future, pose an enormous risk to the existence of humankind. We've somehow managed to live with these weapons for almost 65 years. But given their proliferation already to at least nine nations (and more are surly on the way), and given the increasing likelihood that they will fall into the hands of terrorists, many of us are beginning to get the uneasy feeling that our luck is running out. The real and terrifying danger that nuclear weapons pose may be one of those problems that only the most daring efforts can solve and the United States, the most heavily-armed nuclear power, is in a unique position to set an example and lead the way to a safer world.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is professor of psychology at Kutztown University and has a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown. He submits a weekly editorial column to Berks-Mont Newspapers.