IT WAS 70 years ago today when a U.S. Air Force plane detected some unusual radioactivity during one of its missions over the Pacific Ocean. The radioactive cloud kept moving all the way toward Britain, where the Royal Air Force also detected it.
The alarms went off inside the government and detective work began. Scientists and intelligence officials soon unraveled the mystery: The Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb, joining the United States as the only nations to do so at the time.
The first Soviet atomic bomb test, on August 29th, 1949, spread political and psychological fallout that has been with us ever since.
The Cold War nuclear arms race ensued and with it, the horrifying possibility of civilization being wiped out in a nuclear war. Diplomacy during the Cold War reduced the danger of nukes and later even produced some progress on disarmament and verification systems.
We have brought down nuke arsenals from their highest levels during the Cold War. But there are still way too many of them. There are 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world today according to the Arms Control Association. About 90 percent are held by the United States and Russia.
What’s especially alarming now is that those arms control breakthroughs are being dismantled. The Trump administration recently withdrew from the INF Treaty with Russia, which had eliminated intermediate-range nuclear missiles. As a result, the United States and Russia are dangerously sliding into an escalating arms race.
There are more diplomatic failures too. The New START Treaty with Russia, reducing strategic long range nuclear warheads, has not been extended. We need to extend the treaty to keep in place limitations on the amount of these nuclear weapons. The Trump administration also has failed to get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
There is no talk of nuclear weapons elimination like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev raised hopes for during their Cold War summits. Instead, there is a move to modernize and build new nuclear weapons.
And then there is the never-ending cost of nuclear weapons, both in human suffering and monetary terms. The recent nuclear missile accident in Russia, which killed at least five scientists, is an example of how dangerous the arms race is.
When the Soviets first tested their atomic bomb in 1949, it was at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. Hundreds more tests were conducted there “with severe consequences for the local population, including high cancer rates, genetic defects and deformations in babies,” says the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty organization.
The Russian people have paid a high price for those nuclear weapons. All countries that invest in nukes do. The Congressional Budget Office says that “plans for U.S. nuclear forces would cost $494 billion over the 2019–2028 period.” Imagine where else that money could be better spent.
President Dwight Eisenhower said a disarmament program “would lighten the burdens upon the backs of the people. It would make it possible for every nation, great and small, developed and less developed, to advance the standards of living of its people, to attain better food, and clothing, and shelter, more of education and larger enjoyment of life.”
That is indeed the thrust behind the Move the Nuclear Weapons Money Campaign to “reallocate these budgets and investments to meet economic, social and environmental need—such as ending poverty, protecting the climate, supporting renewable energy, creating jobs, and providing adequate healthcare, housing and education for all.”
The alternative of wasting money on nuclear weapons is absurd. The world should aspire to do better.
What we have learned after 70 years of the nuclear arms race is that these weapons of mass destruction do not have a purpose.
Every nation would be better off in a world free from nuclear weapons.
William Lambers is an historian and the author of “Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace and Ending World Hunger.”