The Ongoing Danger of Nuclear War

world-in-nuclear-balanceThis August, when hundreds of Hiroshima Day vigils and related antinuclear activities occur around the United States, many Americans will wonder at their relevance.  After all, the nuclear danger that characterized the Cold War is now far behind us, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, it is not.

Today there are nine nuclear-armed nations, with over 23,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals.  Thousands of these weapons are on hairtrigger alert.

Admittedly, some nations are decreasing the size of their nuclear arsenals.  The United States and Russia–which together possess about 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons–plan to sign a treaty this year that will cut their number of strategic weapons significantly.

But other nations are engaged in a substantial nuclear buildup.  India, for example, launched the first of its nuclear submarines this July and is also developing an assortment of land-based nuclear missiles.  Meanwhile, Pakistan has been busy testing ballistic missiles and cruise missiles that will carry nuclear warheads, as well as constructing two new reactors to make plutonium for its expanding nuclear arsenal.  Israel, too, is producing material for new nuclear weapons, while North Korea is threatening to resume its production.

In addition, numerous nations–among them, Iran–are suspected of working to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

But surely national governments are too civilized to actually use nuclear weapons, aren’t they?

In fact, one government (that of the United States) has already used atomic bombs to annihilate the populations of two cities.

Moreover, nations have come dangerously close to full-scale nuclear war on a number of occasions.  The Cuban missile crisis is the best-known example.  But there are numerous others.  In October 1973, during a war between Israel and Egypt that appeared to be spiraling out of control, the Soviet government sent a tough message to Washington suggesting joint — or, if necessary, Soviet — military action to bring the conflict to a halt.  With President Richard Nixon reeling from the Watergate scandal and drunk in the White House, his top national security advisors responded to what they considered a menacing Soviet move by ordering an alert of U.S. nuclear forces.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in the Kremlin, and the sudden confrontation eased short of nuclear war.

Of course, nuclear war hasn’t occurred since 1945.  But this fact has largely reflected public revulsion at the prospect and popular mobilization against it.  Today, however, lulled by the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we are in a period of relative public complacency.  In this respect, at least, the situation has grown more dangerous.  Without countervailing pressure, governments find it difficult to resist the temptation to deploy their most powerful weapons when they go to war.  And they go to war frequently.

Furthermore, while nuclear weapons exist, there is a serious danger of accidental nuclear war.  In September 1983, the Soviet Union’s launch-detection satellites reported that the U.S. government had fired its Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was underway.  Luckily, the officer in charge of the satellites concluded that they had malfunctioned and, on his own authority, prevented a Soviet nuclear alert.  The incident was so fraught with anxiety that he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Another nuclear war nearly erupted two months later, when the United States and its NATO allies conducted Able Archer 83, a nuclear training exercise that simulated a full-scale nuclear conflict, with NATO nuclear attacks upon Soviet nuclear targets.  In the tense atmosphere of the time, recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a top KGB official, his agency mistakenly “concluded that American forces had been placed on alert–and might even have begun the countdown to nuclear war.”  Terrified that the U.S. government was using this training exercise as a cover behind which it was launching a nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union, the Soviet government alerted its own nuclear forces, readying them for action.  “The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss,” Gordievsky concluded.  But it came “frighteningly close.”

Furthermore, today we can add the danger of nuclear terrorism.  Although it is very unlikely that terrorists will be able to develop nuclear weapons on their own, the existence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and of the materials to build them in national arsenals opens the possibility that terrorists will acquire these items through theft or black market operations.

Overall, then, the situation remains very dangerous.  Dr. Martin Hellman, a Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Stanford University who has devoted many years to calculating the prospects of nuclear catastrophe, estimates that the risk of a child born today suffering an early death through nuclear war is at least 10 percent.  Moreover, he cautions that this is a conservative estimate, for he has not included the danger of nuclear terrorism in his calculations.

In June 2005, Senator Richard Lugar, then the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, produced a committee report that was even less sanguine.  Asked about the prospect of a nuclear attack within the next ten years, the 76 nuclear security experts he polled came up with an average probability of 29 percent.  Four respondents estimated the risk at 100 percent, while only one estimated it at zero.

Thus, Hiroshima Day events provide a useful context for considering the ongoing nuclear danger and, conversely, the necessity for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Lawrence S. Wittner

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers).

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

LA Progressive


  1. John Peeler says

    Nonproliferation simply hasn’t worked, and for a very basic reason. The United States, as the first nuclear power, never offered to disarm itself. The whole structure of the nuclear arms race is built upon the US as the first nuclear power. Remove that foundation, and the justification for other nuclear arsenals disappears. If we really want a world without nuclear weapons, we need to start at home. That must be the mission of the American peace movement.
    Like the abolitionists, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, we must stand for what is right, even against long odds. By taking and holding that stand for the long run, we lower the odds against us and raise the prospect of our ultimate success. We owe that to those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we owe it to the Indians and Pakistanis, to the Iranians and Israelis who are at risk now; we owe it to our grandchildren.

  2. jacksmith says


    We have the 37th worst quality of healthcare in the developed world. Conservative estimates are that over 120,000 of you dies each year in America from treatable illness that people in other developed countries don’t die from. Rich, middle class, and poor a like. Insured and uninsured. Men, women, children, and babies. This is what being 37th in quality of healthcare means.

    I know that many of you are angry and frustrated that REPUBLICANS! In congress are dragging their feet and trying to block TRUE healthcare reform. What republicans want is just a taxpayer bailout of the DISGRACEFUL GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT health insurance industry, and the DISGRACEFUL GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT healthcare industry. A trillion dollar taxpayer funded private health insurance bailout is all you really get without a robust government-run public option available on day one. Co-OP’s ARE NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR A GOVERNMENT-RUN PUBLIC OPTION. They are a fraud being pushed by the GREED DRIVEN PRIVATE FOR PROFIT health insurance industry that is KILLING YOU!


    These industries have been slaughtering you and your loved ones like cattle for decades for profit. Including members of congress and their families. These REPUBLICANS are FOOLS!

    Republicans and their traitorous allies have been trying to make it look like it’s President Obama’s fault for the delays, and foot dragging. But I think you all know better than that. President Obama inherited one of the worst government catastrophes in American history from these REPUBLICANS! And President Obama has done a brilliant job of turning things around, and working his heart out for all of us.

    But Republicans think you are just a bunch of stupid, idiot, cash cows with short memories. Just like they did under the Bush administration when they helped Bush and Cheney rape America and the rest of the World.

    But you don’t have to put up with that. And this is what you can do. The Republicans below will be up for reelection on November 2, 2010. Just a little over 13 months from now. And many of you will be able to vote early. So pick some names and tell their voters that their representatives (by name) are obstructing TRUE healthcare reform. And are sellouts to the insurance and medical lobbyist.

    Ask them to contact their representatives and tell them that they are going to work to throw them out of office on November 2, 2010, if not before by impeachment, or recall elections. Doing this will give you something more to do to make things better in America. And it will make you feel better too.

    There are many resources on the internet that can help you find people to call and contact. For example, many social networking sites can be searched by state, city, or University. Be inventive and creative. I can think of many ways to do this. But be nice. These are your neighbors. And most will want to help.

    I know there are a few democrats that have been trying to obstruct TRUE healthcare reform too. But the main problem is the Bush Republicans. Removing them is the best thing tactically to do. On the other hand. If you can easily replace a democrat obstructionist with a supportive democrat, DO IT!

    You have been AMAZING!!! my people. Don’t loose heart. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy saving the World. :-)

    God Bless You

    jacksmith — Working Class


    Republican Senators up for re-election in 2010.

    * Richard Shelby of Alabama
    * Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
    * John McCain of Arizona
    * Mel Martinez of Florida
    * Johnny Isakson of Georgia
    * Mike Crapo of Idaho
    * Chuck Grassley of Iowa
    * Sam Brownback of Kansas
    * Jim Bunning of Kentucky
    * David Vitter of Louisiana
    * Kit Bond of Missouri
    * Judd Gregg of New Hampshire
    * Richard Burr of North Carolina
    * George Voinovich of Ohio
    * Tom Coburn of Oklahoma
    * Jim DeMint of South Carolina
    * John Thune of South Dakota
    * Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas
    * Bob Bennett of Utah

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