Skip to content Skip to footer

Growing Nuclear Dangers: What Would Dr. King Say?

In just over a week, we’ve seen two US military strikes and an alarming increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

April 4 was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarkably prescient speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” in which he laid bare the relationship between US wars abroad and the racism and poverty being challenged by the civil rights movement at home. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” Tragically, Dr. King was assassinated exactly one year later.

In that speech, he also said:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

King also said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

In just over a week, we’ve experienced two shocking US military strikes and an alarming increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Two days after major newspapers reported that a chemical attack had occurred in a village in Syria, killing and injuring many civilians, the US launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase — its first direct military attack against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This despite the fact that there had been no investigation by any international agency that might confirm that a chemical weapons attack had occurred or who was responsible — and in violation of international law. This bombing was unquestioningly welcomed by most of the mainstream media and Democratic leadership in Congress. Bombing, apparently, is considered “presidential.”

On April 13, seemingly out of the blue, the US dropped a 22,000-pound bomb on an ISIS/Daesh cave complex in Afghanistan. This Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB — misogynistically called the “mother of all bombs” was the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used by the United States on the battlefield. What signal was being sent? And to whom?

The next day, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced the successful field test of a B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb at the Nevada Test Site.

Meanwhile, amidst speculation about a potentially imminent nuclear weapons test by North Korea, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen to the highest level in decades, as US and North Korean officials posit threats and counter-threats of preemptive military strikes. Even hawkish former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned, “We have the potential for a nuclear war that would take millions of lives. So I think we have to exercise some care here.”

This isn’t the only nuclear flashpoint. Tensions between the United States/NATO and Russia have risen to levels not seen since the Cold War, with the two nuclear giants confronting each other in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Syria, and an accelerated tempo of military exercises and wargames, both conventional and nuclear, on both sides.

At the moment, Donald Trump has a warm and fuzzy view of Chinese President Xi Jinping, but at the same time, the US is facing off against China in seas where other Asian nations are contesting Chinese territorial claims. And India and Pakistan remain locked in a nuclear arms race amid mounting diplomatic tensions.

While our ability to discern what’s actually going on is shrouded in an unprecedented web of intrigue and a blizzard of propaganda, there can be no doubt that the dangers of wars among nuclear-armed states are growing.

But I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump. I want to talk about continuity in US nuclear weapons and national security policies. Donald Trump’s ability to launch massive military strikes on a whim while threatening global annihilation, within the first 100 days of his presidency, is only possible because of the vast military-industrial complex he inherited.

On December 22, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump ominously tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” In a February 2017 interview, President Trump said: “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

Trump’s initial budget request signals his administration’s intention to prioritize reliance on the nuclear threat. While it’s only a small portion of his proposed $54 billion increase in military spending, the $1.4 billion increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear weapons research and development, is a proportionally higher increase at 11 percent than the 8 percent increase the Pentagon would get.

In an increasingly volatile world, this is consistent with US national security policy in the post-World War II and post-Cold War eras, despite dramatically changed geopolitical conditions.

During the 1980s, fear of nuclear war was by far the most visible issue of concern to the American public. In the early ’80s thousands of people rallied and were arrested in nonviolent acts of anti-nuclear protest. Yet following the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons — especially US nuclear weapons — fell off the public’s radar screen.

Meanwhile, deeply embedded in the military-industrial complex, Pentagon planners and scientists at the nuclear weapons labs conjured up new justifications to sustain the nuclear weapons enterprise. Following the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991 Colin Powell, then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared:

You’ve got to step aside from the context we’ve been using for the past 40 years, that you base [military planning] against a specific threat. We no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for. What we plan for is that we’re a superpower. We are the major player on the world stage with responsibilities … [and] interests around the world.

In 1997, nearly 10 years after the Cold War ended, President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive-60, reaffirming the threatened first use of nuclear weapons as the “cornerstone” of US national security, and contemplating an expanded role for nuclear weapons to “deter” not only nuclear but chemical and biological weapons. The Bush doctrine of “preventive” war was a continuation and expansion of programs and policies carried out by every US administration, Republican or Democrat, since 1945, when President Harry Truman, a Democrat, oversaw the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

His soaring rhetoric notwithstanding, President Obama left office with the United States poised to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain and modernize its nuclear bombs and warheads, the submarines, missiles and bombers to deliver them, and the infrastructure to sustain the nuclear enterprise indefinitely.

Over the past couple of years, the US has conducted a series of drop tests of the newly modified B61-12 gravity bomb at the Tonopah test range in Nevada. The Russian foreign minister has declared these tests “provocative.” The B61-12 has a “selectable” yield, making it up to four times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It has a new tail kit which provides precision guidance. This capability, along with the selectable yield, raises concerns that it could be considered more militarily usable. Each new bomb will cost more than twice its weight in solid gold. And of the 480 B61s slated to become B61-12s, approximately 180 will be deployed at six NATO bases in Europe.

More than a quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons, most an order of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, more than 90 percent held by the US and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable threat to humanity and the biosphere. Recent studies show that a nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs dropped on cities could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A drop in average surface temperatures, depletion of the ozone layer and shortened agricultural growing seasons wouldlead to massive famine and starvation, resulting in as many as 2 billion deaths over the following decade.

The good news is that much of the world has come to its senses regarding nuclear weapons. In December 2016, over vociferous objections by the United States and Russia, the United Nations General Assembly voted to hold negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. Incredibly, here’s how the President Obama’s UN Ambassador Robert Wood explained the US objection: “… a treaty banning nuclear weapons will not lead to any further reductions because it will not include the states that possess nuclear weapons. Advocates of a ban treaty say it is open to all, but how can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatize and eliminate them.”

The first week of the negotiations took place at United Nations headquarters in New York the last week of March, with 130 countries participating. On the opening day, Trump’s US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley held a press briefing outside the conference hall. Flanked by nuclear allies including the UK and France, and claiming to represent almost 40 UN member states, Haley — proudly identifying herself “first and foremost” as a mom, a wife and a daughter, who wants to keep her family safe — announced that they will be boycotting the negotiations.

To realize the full value of a “ban” treaty, we must demand that the nuclear-armed states recognize the existing illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons under international law protecting civilians and the environment from the effects of warfare. The governments of these states must finally act to meet their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, and participate in good faith in the negotiations as unanimously mandated by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion.

However, it’s unlikely that much progress will be made on nuclear disarmament until there is a significant trend toward demilitarization in general. In 2015, the US spent $596 billion on its military — more than twice as much as China and Russia together, and more than one-third of all the world’s countries combined.

The bottom line is that security must be fundamentally redefined. Instead of “national security” — security of the nation-state — premised on the threat of overwhelming military force and nuclear annihilation, we need a new concept of human security, defined by a previous head of the United Nations Development Program as “the security of people, not just of territory; the security of individuals, not just of nations; security through development, not through arms; security of all the people everywhere — in their homes, in their jobs, in their streets, in their communities and in their environment.” This new concept of human security is “universal, global and indivisible.”

Addressing nuclear dangers must take place in a much broader framework, taking into account the interface between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons and militarism in general, the humanitarian and long-term environmental consequences of nuclear war, and the fundamental incompatibility of nuclear weapons with democracy and human well-being.

Nuclear disarmament should serve as the leading edge of a global trend towards demilitarization and redirection of military expenditures to meet human needs and protect the environment.

We must reject the apocalyptic narrative and summon the imaginations of people everywhere to envision a vastly different future. There is no inevitability to the course of history, and a mobilized citizenry can redirect it toward a positive future.

Progress towards a global society that is fairer, peaceful and ecologically sustainable is interdependent. We are unlikely to get far on any of these objectives without progress on all. They are not “preconditions” for disarmament, but, together with disarmament, are preconditions for human survival. In our relationships both with each other and the planet, we are now hard up against the choice Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about 50 years ago: nonviolence or nonexistence.

Urgent message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $24,000 in the next 24 hours. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.