Nuclear deterrence theories are obsolete

  • April 24, 2009
{mosimage}Most people in 21 countries, nuclear-armed and not, now support the elimination of nuclear weapons, according to a survey conducted late last year by the Washington-based polling organization World Public Opinion.

In 20 of the 21 nations surveyed — the total included Canada, the United States, Russia and most European powers — majorities ranging in size from 62 to 93 per cent favoured an international agreement that would lead to the destruction of existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and halt the spread of nuclear weapons technology to countries that don’t have it. (The single exception to this pattern was Pakistan, where only 46 per cent favoured such a scheme.)

These statistics are, of course, good news for Catholics (like the present writer) and others who support the Vatican’s consistent opposition to the existence and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It’s worth noting, however, that there are numerous Catholics, and sizable minorities in most of the countries polled by World Public Opinion, who do not believe that the eradication of nuclear weaponry is a good thing for humankind.

While I have no privy knowledge of the minds of these minorities, I don’t think their reasons for believing as they do are very hard to guess.

The notion that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had decisively shortened the Second World War, at least in Asia, was drilled into the heads of American and other young people coming of age in the years just after the end of the conflict. Another element in this indoctrination, after the Soviet Union’s first successful nuclear detonation in 1949, was the American-inspired belief that only an enormous nuclear arsenal, and the readiness to unleash this deadly force, would protect the non-communist world from Soviet aggression.

The men and women who got this training are today, or were until recently, at the helm of most governments, businesses, media outlets and policy think-tanks in the industrialized West. In retrospect, the coaching they received (wherever the truth behind it may lie) seems to have been part of the U.S. government’s post-war propaganda campaign meant to rally support for the post-war expansion of the U.S. nuclear and conventional arsenals and its domination of the post-war world stage. But at the time the horrors of the Second World War were fresh in mind; the theories were believable, and millions believed them.

If, indeed, they were just theories. While the case of Japan in 1945 is still being debated, the minority who still believe in the power of nuclear weaponry to avert catastrophe do have one mighty fact they can appeal to: the absence of a nuclear holocaust during all the decades when the United States and the Soviet Union were quite able, and officially willing, to destroy each other.

But even if this long period of fraught, uneasy peace between the superpowers was one result of what pundits during the Cold War called “the balance of terror” — something I doubt — recent events have radically and permanently changed the nuclear discussion. The imminent danger is no longer global war launched by great powers symmetrically arrayed against each other behind huge arsenals of hydrogen bombs. It is rather the insidious creep of a kind of nuclear mentality among regional, developing nations that have hitherto not been members of the so-called “nuclear club” of advanced industrialized societies.

This conviction that nuclear weapons can protect anything or anyone is deeply, dangerously obsolete. But that hasn’t stopped Pakistan and North Korea from exploding nuclear devices, or Israel from developing them, or Iran from acquiring the technology necessary to fabricate them.

In most countries infected by this lethal mentality, Catholics can make little direct difference in the situation. But we can support the efforts of the Vatican, acting through the United Nations and other international agencies, to witness against the culture of death, and for a renewed global culture of life.

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