Published on December 10th, 20120
The Return of the Nuclear Bomb, Part I/III
Jo Jakobsen, NTNU
The so-called nuclear taboo stands a good chance of being broken in my lifetime. A nuclear war looms on the horizon. It does not have to be an all-out nuclear exchange involving thousands of warheads – that is in fact quite unlikely – but some state will eventually push the big red button and end the tradition of non-use. This article, the first of three parts of which is presented today, explains why this is so.
Titles can be deceptive, though this one is not. It is true that something which has never physically left us cannot return, which is the case with the nuclear bomb. It is also true, however, in a less overt way, that nuclear weapons have not really been on the world’s agenda since the Cold War effectively ended 23 years ago. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to ask the question if the nuclear bomb will eventually return.
A short elaboration is perhaps required nonetheless. The post-Cold War era has certainly been replete with references to nuclear weapons as well as to the ideologically-laden, imprecise concept of weapons of mass destruction (WMD, which also encompasses the far less destructive biological and chemical weapons). These references are almost exclusively made in the context of the battle between the U.S.-led world community and so-called ‘rogue states,’ the most notorious examples of which are North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq (before 2003), and Libya (before 2011).
Of that motley group, though, only North Korea has succeeded in actually producing a nuclear bomb. Iran, if they really harbor such intentions at all, still have a long way to go and will perhaps never reach the end of that road; Syria have and will continue to have other worries; while the despised, bomb-flirting regimes of Iraq and Libya have long since been taken care of. This leaves North Korea. But the hermit regime represents no current threat to any nation – not a nuclear one anyway – given their inability to mesh the bomb (of which they might have a couple) with any appropriate means of delivery (in this case, ballistic missiles).
Which means that the fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons to international-system rogues is a fight against a threat that has yet to (and might perhaps never) materialize. The same is true if we move our attention to international terrorism. Notorious al-Qaeda certainly do not have the bomb. They would like to, that’s for sure. But, luckily enough in this case, wishes seldom come true in a malevolent world.
A nuclear weapon isn’t something you can just assemble in your kitchen on a Tuesday evening; and states generally do not queue up to hand murderous and fanatical al-Qaeda the ultimate weapon. Besides, the bomb is practically useless without a delivery vehicle such as a ballistic missile, a bomber plane, or a submarine, all of which are well out of reach of that or any other non-state group. The nuclear threat from international terrorism – and from ‘rogue states’ – is vastly overrated. But in particular for the U.S., it makes perfect political and strategic sense to exaggerate such threats.
The focus on rogues and religious fanatics, however, diverts attention from what is – or, more precisely, should – unquestionably be considered the real nuclear issue: namely, the thousands of existing atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight of the world’s states (or 13, if we count, which we admittedly rarely do, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, each of which hosts a handful of U.S.-owned B61 nuclear gravity bombs). These eight are Israel (somewhere between 80–200 nuclear warheads); India and Pakistan (about 100 each); France (ca. 300); Great Britain (160); China (ca. 240); and the nuclear superpowers Russia and the United States, each of which controls about 10,000 nuclear warheads (around 20 percent of which are deemed ‘active’).
What can these thousands of nuclear weapons potentially do? Well, considering that one nuclear bomb, say the relatively small one that was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, can wipe out a medium-sized city and its inhabitants, the answer is: a great deal. Consider also that the Hiroshima bomb, sardonically named Fat Man, exploded with an energy of 16 kilotons of TNT, which is only a fraction of the explosive power of the many megaton bombs that have since been manufactured. One nuclear warhead equals the end of a city, even a major one. Tens of warheads, say aimed at U.S. cities, would spell the end of urban America. Hundreds of warheads, ‘appropriately’ targeted, could certainly eradicate all the world’s large urban areas. Thousands of warheads would, to use a cliché, mark the end of civilization as we know it.
Should we be afraid? No, not really. Not yet anyway. This threat is existential, in the sense that it poses a potential peril to the existence of the human race; but it is also, as the adjective implies, only potential. In fact, the use, and the threat of the use, of nuclear weapons is currently anathema in international politics; it is unthinkable, inconceivable, unimaginable. It falls way beyond the accepted tools of the makers of foreign policy, even in times of war. Even to start thinking or hinting that the bomb could be utilized is, and would by every reasonably sane state or military leader and his dog be perceived as utterly preposterous.
Scholars call this phenomenon the ‘nuclear taboo’ – a social prohibition, effectively a social ban on the threat or actual use of the bomb. It hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945; time passes, and the tradition of non-use – and the taboo with it – only strengthens. It would be nice, then, if we could finally rest assured convinced that we do not any longer live under the shadow of the nuclear bomb. And given this 67-year hiatus, maybe we really do have grounds for resting assured. Except that taboos can be broken.
And I, for one, am utterly convinced that the nuclear bomb will eventually return, and likely too quickly for comfort. The nuclear taboo stands a good chance of being broken in my lifetime, the halfway mark of which (sad as it may be) I reckon I have already crossed. A nuclear war looms on the horizon. It does not have to be an all-out nuclear exchange involving thousands of warheads – that is in fact quite unlikely for reasons I do not have space to explicate herein – but some state or states (hopefully the singular version is the correct one) will eventually push the big red button and effectively end the tradition of non-use.
In the article’s Parts II and III, to be published in Popular Social Science Wednesday and Friday, respectively, I will explain why this is so by pointing to a handful of disturbing yet inevitable developments and possible future chains of events.
*Cover photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives. Second photo by Karl Baron. Third photo by F. I. Andres. Fourth photo by National Archief.