Note: “Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons” is a speech delivered November 4 in a plenary session of the fifth Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in Japan. Nagasaki was the second city destroyed in August 1945 by a US nuclear bomb. The citizens of Nagasaki are committed to assuring that it is the last city to suffer the effects of a nuclear detonation. Krieger has been a featured speaker in all five of the Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assemblies.
To understand how to delegitimize nuclear weapons, it is necessary to understand and deconstruct their legitimization. Let us explore some of the beliefs by which these weapons have been legitimized.
Nuclear weapons ended World War II.
Nuclear weapons prevent war.
No rational leader would use nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons make countries more secure.
Nuclear weapons are needed to protect against a nuclear attack.
Let’s examine these beliefs and check their basis in fact.
Nuclear weapons ended World War II. At the end of World War II, Japan was trying to surrender. Nearly all of its major cities already had been destroyed by conventional bombing. With the Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific on August 9, 1945, Japanese leaders knew they had no chance to prevail. It wasn’t nuclear weapons that ended World War II. It was the Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific. Nuclear weapons caused massive suffering and death in a country that already was defeated and trying to surrender.
Nuclear weapons prevent war. It is said that the threat to use nuclear weapons has prevented war, but actually many wars have occurred during the Nuclear Age. Nuclear weapons have not caused wars, but they also have not prevented wars. Countries with nuclear weapons have thankfully been reluctant to use them, even when losing a war. Examples include the United States in Vietnam, the United Kingdom in the Falkland Islands and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
No rational leader would use nuclear weapons. Actually, a presumably rational leader, Harry Truman, did use nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no guarantee that another rational leader in possession of nuclear weapons will not decide that the use of these weapons is in his or her country’s best interests. In addition, not all national leaders are rational at all times and particularly in times of stress. Some national leaders are simply not rational, even under normal circumstances.
Nuclear weapons make countries more secure. They actually do not. If a country has nuclear weapons, it is certain that it will also be targeted by nuclear weapons. The ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons does not assure that another country will not attack you by accident or design; it only assures that you can retaliate. This would be small compensation after a nuclear attack.
Nuclear weapons are needed to protect against a nuclear attack. Not so. The best protection against a nuclear attack is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. If there are no nuclear weapons on the planet, no country can be attacked.
What Nuclear Weapons Really Are
To delegitimize nuclear weapons, people need to understand what nuclear weapons really are and really do. They need to understand that nuclear weapons undermine their security rather than enhance it. They need to call these weapons by their true names: devices of mass annihilation and instruments of omnicide (the death of all).
When we speak of nuclear weapons, we refer to the most deadly and dangerous weapons ever created. This is how retired Air Force General George Lee Butler, once in charge of all US strategic nuclear weapons, describes nuclear weapons:
“Nuclear weapons give no quarter. Their effects transcend time and space, poisoning the Earth and deforming its inhabitants for generation upon generation. They leave us wholly without defense, expunge all hope for survival. They hold in their sway not just the fate of nations but of civilization.”
Religious leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has an equally strong view of the nature of nuclear weapons:
“Nuclear weapons are an obscenity. They are the very antithesis of humanity, of goodness in this world. What security do they help establish? What kind of world community are we actually seeking to build when nations possess and threaten to use arms that can wipe all of humankind off the globe in an instant?”
Importance of Hibakusha
No group of people can reach the hearts of their fellow humans and make clearer what these weapons really are than the hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is why their words and their pleas are so important. They have lived with the pain and sounded the warning. Because the hibakusha are growing older and becoming fewer, their message to the world is even more precious and comes with a greater sense of urgency. I urge young people to reach out to hibakusha, learn from them, and help in conveying their message to the world; make their conclusions about the need to abolish nuclear weapons also your own message to the world.
Nuclear weapons endanger all of us. In the crisis of shared danger, comes the possibility of shared action to overcome that danger. The hibakusha and civil society organizations are helping to lead the way out of the Nuclear Age. They are leading, but the nuclear weapons states are not yet demonstrating the political will to follow.
Nuclear weapons are an absolute evil. They are the ultimate suicide note to the planet. They could render the planet uninhabitable for humans and other complex forms of life, but the planet itself would survive the worst we could do. It is not the planet that is endangered; it is we humans.
I believe we humans need a new ethic to see us safely through and out of the Nuclear Age. For me, this new universal ethic would have the following elements:
– Reverence for life. This is the central philosophy of Albert Schweitzer. It requires us to care for our fellow humans and for all creatures. We must be kind and good stewards of the planet.
– Earth citizenship. We owe our allegiance to the Earth and to people everywhere. Our problems are global, and our solutions must be global as well.
– Universal human rights, including the sacred right to peace. All humans are entitled by virtue of being human to the basic rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the United Nations has declared, there is also a sacred right to peace.
– Universal human responsibilities. With rights come responsibilities, including each generation’s responsibility to pass the planet on intact to new generations.
Nuclear weapons are incompatible with these ethical foundations. As the ultimate mass killing device, they are the antithesis to reverence for life. They divide countries and their inhabitants into nuclear haves and have-nots. They are an assault on human rights and life itself, and their possession and threat of use are a violation of our responsibilities to humankind as a whole and to future generations.
Immediate goals include:
– Either a treaty or individual pledges by all nuclear weapons states of No First Use of nuclear weapons.
– De-alerting of nuclear arsenals.
– Commencement of negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.
Our best hope for the human future is to unite in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons. National security must give way to planetary security through the acts of individuals joining together with compassion, commitment, creativity and cooperation, and acting with courage. We need to awaken from our slumber and be the noble people we are capable of being. When nuclear weapons are abolished, it will be time for a new C: celebration. We can celebrate our gift to ourselves and to the future.
Why Work to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
I will conclude with 12 reasons to work to abolish nuclear weapons.
We can change the world in important and necessary ways.
We can take a giant step forward for humankind.
We can join with others in demonstrating good stewardship of the planet.
We can take control of our most dangerous technology.
We can help shape a more decent common future.
We can end the threat of omnicide posed by nuclear weapons.
We can uphold international law for the common benefit.
We can lead the way toward ending war as a human institution.
We can meet the greatest challenge confronting our species.
We can put compassion into action and action into compassion.
We can help to protect everything in life that we love and treasure.
We can pass on a more secure world to our children and grandchildren and all future generations.