On September 14th 2009 an issue of Newsweek was released with the cover story “Learning to love the bomb: how nuclear weapons make the world a safer place” by Jonathan Tepperman. This article is nothing more than a deceitful piece of propaganda designed to justify US military hegemony. It is littered with inaccuracies, distortions and omissions and its main arguments are all clumsily made and they mainly rest on assumptions rather than facts.
The very first sub-heading contains the first distortion. Tepperman claims that “Obama wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons.” This statement is repeated throughout the article but no proof is given except to state that “Obama has said several times [that] nuclear weapons represent the ‘gravest threat’ to U.S. security” and even then no sources are given as to where he said it. Of course Obama thinks that other nations possessing nuclear weapons is a threat to the US but does he actually want to rid of the world of nuclear weapons like Tepperman says? The facts say otherwise.
According to Frida Berrigan, paraphrasing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scietists, “the Obama administration will spend more than $6 billion on the research and development of nuclear weapons this year alone.”1 According to the same article: “At some point early next year, the administration will complete a Nuclear Posture Review outlining the role it believes nuclear weapons should play in the American pantheon of power” and “In the meantime, the policy of the United States remains no different than it was in 2004, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy.” This policy states that the US will use the threat of nuclear weapons to destroy “those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world."2 In other words anything the US doesn’t like, since anything can be interpreted as a war-supporting capability.
According to prominent dissident Noam Chomsky, a “senior Israeli diplomat” reported “that Israel had received assurances that Obama ‘will not force Israel to state publicly whether it has nuclear weapons…[but will] stick to a decades-old U.S. policy of don’t ask, don’t tell’" and according to campaigning journalist John Pilger, Obama is currently “building a missile system aimed at Russia and China.”3 This evidence clearly shows that Obama does not want to rid the world of nuclear weapons in anything other than rhetoric.
Tepperman states that “a growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not in fact make the world more dangerous”. He gives no examples of this “growing and compelling body of research” and just moves on. A cynical observer might say that Tepperman did not support his statement because he knew it to be either untrue or only partially true but this too, would be an unsupported statement and would be no better that Tepperman’s.
Tepperman says that Obama should not pursue his “idealistic campaign” to rid the world of nuclear weapons – assuming that Obama is actually planning to – and that “there are more important measures the U.S. government can and should take to make the world a safer place”. No examples are given of these measures. Assuming Tepperman actually does have suggestions for how the U.S. could drastically change it’s role in the world and start making it a safer place I doubt that they are more important than working to prevent a nuclear war – which would have the equivalent deaths of “100 holocausts” according to Daniel Ellsberg, the former pentagon insider who made the Pentagon Papers public.4
In one case, Tepperman even uses the example of the Cuban missile crisis to prove how nuclear weapons can make the world safer. He writes that “both countries soon stepped back from the brink when they recognized that the war would have meant curtains for everybody.” To make this argument, he had to seriously ignore the facts. Despite what Tepperman may believe, nuclear deterrence did not prevent nuclear war: rather, it was prevented by the cool-headedness of a Soviet submarine officer. In “Hegemony Or Survival” Noam Chomsky writes that attendees of a conference in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of the crisis were informed that “the world was ‘one word away’ from nuclear war.” On October 27th 1962, Soviet submarines were under attack by US destroyers and thinking nuclear war had begun the order was given by two of the officersto fire the nuclear-armed torpedoes. Fortunately the order to fire was blocked by the third submarine officer, named Vasili Archipov.5 Had someone a little less cool-headed been the officer of that particular submarine the world would have been plunged into nuclear war, probably killing about 600 million people.6 The fact that the US was willing to attack nuclear-armed submarines sheds some interesting light on the effectiveness of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), and the way the Cuban Missile Crisis really played out does not lead to a conclusion that nuclear weapons make the world safer. Conversely, it shows just how dangerous keeping nuclear weapons actually is. Tepperman’s use of the crisis as an example shows not only his willingness to distort or ignore facts but also the weakness of his argument.
Tepperman writes that “the argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a non-nuclear, war between two states that possess them.”
But nuclear weapons would have been used had it not have been for the luck of the draw that the Soviet submarine officer had been level-headed. And nuclear weapons have been used, albeit not conventional ones. The nuclear weapons that have been used are called Depleted Uranium (DU) shells. The US and Britain have used them during the First Gulf war in 19917, the bombing of Serbia in 19998, the invasion of Afghanistan in 20019 and the invasion of Iraq in 200310 and Israel has used tem in Lebanon.11 These weapons have caused immense and often untold horror in the places that they have been used.12 They have spread the seeds of cancer to “40 to 48 per cent of the population” of Southern Iraq, many of whom have already died from cancer, are dying from it or will get it in their lifetime.13
Secondly, there have been two non-nuclear wars between states that possess them: The Sino-Soviet war of 196914 and the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999.15 So Tepperman’s second point is simply a distortion.
Even if you ignore his distortions and inaccuracies, the argument that conventional nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945 does not show that they bring peace. In 1913 you could say that a system of rigid bipolar alliances keeps the peace because it had so far prevented war between the major powers even though there were sparks, such as the Moroccan Crisis and the Balkan Wars. But these assumptions were shattered in 1914 when a world war did result from the system of rigid bipolar alliances. My point here is that you cannot say that something is an agent of peace just because a world war or nuclear holocaust has not yet occurred. And the closeness we have got to nuclear holocaust shows just how dangerous nuclear weapons are and disproves assumptions that they are agents of peace.
Tepperman writes that “even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and therefore not worth the effort.” As I have noted earlier, John F. Kennedy was willing to bomb Soviet nuclear-armed submarines and risk nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also refused to remove US nuclear warheads from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing all nuclear weapons from Cuba, whilst knowing that this would eliminate the grave threat of a nuclear war.16 This leaves a rational observer with one of 2 conclusions: either John F. Kennedy was crazier than any tin-pot dictator or Tepperman’s argument is seriously flawed.
And if not even the craziest dictator would fight a war with a nuclear state then why were the Vietnamese, Afghans, Iraqis and many others willing to fight against the US, the Soviet Union or any other nuclear powers?
Going again with the bad examples, Tepperman uses the India-Pakistan conflict to prove how nuclear weapons can make conflicts safer. He writes that “since acquiring atomic weapons, the two sides have never fought another war, despite severe provocations”. This is extremely misleading. Both states acquired their first nuclear weapons in 1998, although Pakistan had tested fusion weapons in 1983, with the support of the Reagan administration. Their last major war was in 1971. That means that the time without major wars before nuclear weapons was 27 years and the time without major war since the acquisition of nuclear weapons has been 11 years. That hardly proves how nuclear weapons have stopped war. And nuclear weapons have not stopped the usual animosities such as repression in Indian Kashmir, ethnic cleansing and Pakistani terror in India,17 and there has even been a war in 1999, while they both had nuclear weapons, that Tepperman ignores, as I mentioned earlier. The state of affairs between India and Pakistan has not changed significantly since the introduction of nuclear weapons, except that if another major war breaks out it could possibly destroy the whole world. This does not show that nuclear weapons make the world safer, in fact quite the opposite.
During the course of this article Tepperman attempts to disprove the notion that it is easy for rogue states to acquire and use nuclear weapons. But he completely ignores the worlds two most powerful rogue states: the US and Britain.18 And we must not forget that the US has used nuclear weapons before, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it’s carelessness, along with the Soviet Union’s, got the world one word away from nuclear war. The US currently has 9,400 nuclear warheads, more than the rest of the world put together, and Britain has 200.19 Much of Tepperman’s argument to do with rogue states and nuclear weapons focuses on the fact that the rogues that do have them have very little power and very few weapons. But the amount of Nuclear weapons owned by the two most powerful and violent rogues sheds very different light on this argument. Yes, “revolutionary Iran has never started a war” and North Korea is “a tiny, impoverished, family-run country with a history of being invaded” but the US and Britain have a history of violent conquest and in the US’ case, a history of using nuclear weapons.
Another important part of Tepperman’s argument is that we do not need to worry about terrorists (in the US sense of the word, meaning terrorists who are against the US) getting their hands on nuclear weapons. Leaving aside the possible imminent collapse of Pakistan which could make it extremely easy for terrorists to get nuclear weapons, thanks to the US supplying Pakistan with them and then arming and funding radical Islamists who want the overthrow of the Pakistani government, there is a far more dangerous threat to do with nuclear weapons that is completely ignored in this article: the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. Lawrence Wittner writes that “in September 1983, the Soviet Union’s launch-detection satellites reported that the U.S. government had fired its Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was underway. Luckily, the officer in charge of the satellites concluded that they had malfunctioned and, on his own authority, prevented a Soviet nuclear alert.” Again, we would have been destroyed by a nuclear war had it not been for the level-headedness of the particular officer. “Another nuclear war nearly erupted two months later, when the United States and its NATO allies conducted Able Archer 83, a nuclear training exercise that simulated a full-scale nuclear conflict, with NATO nuclear attacks upon Soviet nuclear targets. In the tense atmosphere of the time, recalled Oleg Gordievsky, a top KGB official, his agency mistakenly ‘concluded that American forces had been placed on alert–and might even have begun the countdown to nuclear war.’ Terrified that the U.S. government was using this training exercise as a cover behind which it was launching a nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union, the Soviet government alerted its own nuclear forces, readying them for action. ‘The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss,’ Gordievsky concluded. But it came ‘frighteningly close.’”20 The chance of a malfunctioning of nuclear programs leading to a nuclear war is shockingly high. In June 2005, Senator Richard Luger of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report on the possibility of nuclear war. When “asked about the prospect of a nuclear attack within the next ten years, the 76 nuclear security experts he polled came up with an average probability of 29 percent. Four respondents estimated the risk at 100 percent, while only one estimated it at zero.”21 With this grave threat how can Tepperman and Newsweek really argue that nuclear weapons are agents of peace?
Tepperman also writes that “nuclear weapons are so controversial and expensive that only countries that deem them absolutely critical to their survival go through the extreme trouble of acquiring them.” This completely ignores the fact that nuclear weapons are not necessary to the survival of the two most powerful rogue states. American actually has a first-strike policy for nuclear weapons.22 Even though Tepperman’s statement is entirely false, it raises an important point. If the US slowed down its nuclear proliferation and toned down, or stopped, it’s international aggression and hegemony then nations like North Korea and Iran would not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons, thus moving us a huge step towards peace. In “Hegemony Or Survival” Chomsky shows that US political and economic domination and confrontational attitude has led to Russia proliferating in recent years. Tepperman even admits that “Moscow and Beijing would likely be unmoved by anything short of unilateral US disarmament” although he draws a very different conclusion from that. He uses that to make a point that we should not disarm whereas I think that it shows that we should all work together to disarm rather than competing with each other for supremacy. I suspect that Tepperman and Newsweek would be horrified by this conclusion considering that throughout the course of this article they have bent over backwards to accept US hegemony and present it as an important part of peace.
The main logic of the article is summed up in one sentence on the second last page: “The logic of nuclear peace rests on a very scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad – conventional war – won’t happen.” This statement has two main errors: it’s main points.
Firstly this “very small chance” is a probability of 29 percent according to top nuclear security experts in Washington. Anyone who has the slightest concern with human suffering would not bargain with a 29 percent chance of about 600 million people being killed.
Secondly nuclear weapons do not prevent conventional war from happening. The sheer magnitude of wars should show that nuclear weapons do not, in fact, prevent war. Since World War II there have been approximately 143 separate wars, 28 of which have involved at least one nuclear power and these wars have resulted in between 36,865,270 and 44,865,50023 deaths, only counting the direct result of the wars. It also doesn’t count the deaths of 36,000,000 people a year from starvation despite the fact we already produce enough food to feed the entire population of the world.24 This starvation could be prevented and universal access to all social services could be achieved, with “about 10 percent of [annual] US military spending”25, the same percentage that goes to nuclear weapons.26 Also, States with nuclear weapons have actually been involved in wars far more than states without nuclear weapons have. “Between 1945 and 1997, nuclear weapons states have fought in an average of 5.2 wars, while non-nuclear weapons states averaged about 0.67 wars.”27 That does not sound like peace.
Another of Tepperman’s questionable assumptions is that the reason nuclear weapons have not been used – even though they almost were, which I’ve already discussed – is because states are afraid of using nuclear weapons because they know they will be attacked back. I have already discussed how this didn’t stop Kennedy from almost starting a nuclear war but there are even more faults to this assumption. In an article for the History News Network and Znet, Lawrence S. Wittner makes the case that Mutual Assured Destruction did not stop nuclear war: anti-nuclear activism did. In the last line he writes that “evidence certainly exists that public pressure has prevented nuclear war. Where is the evidence that nuclear weapons have done so?”28 Throughout the course of the article, Tipperman provides no evidence that the existence of nuclear weapons stopped nuclear war, beyond saying that there hasn’t been one.
If you read Tepperman’s article for yourself you will realise that not only is it full of distortions, inaccuracies, weak arguments and omissions but that it bends over backwards to support US military expansion and nuclear weapons, despite such available evidence that shows how dangerous this is. This is a dangerous game we are playing. As the US remains the most powerful, expansionist state, with a dedication to nuclear weapons other nations need to find ways to defend themselves, leading to greater proliferation and a greater threat of nuclear war. The only way we can be sure of avoiding the approximately 600 million deaths that would be associated with a nuclear war is if every nation, including the US works together to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Throughout this article I have provided footnotes with links to articles that show this and also show how nuclear disarmament is possible. If the 29 percent chance we have of nuclear war materialises, then those, such as Tepperman and Newsweek, who encouraged us not to disarm will have a lot of blood on their hands.
5 Noam Chomsky, “Hegemony Or Survival: America’s Quest For Global Dominance”
7 Robert Fisk, “The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest Of The Middle East”; John Pilger, “Paying The Price: Killing The Children Of Iraq” (documentary)
10 Mark Curtis, “Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human rights Abuses”. In this Mark Curtis writes that “between 1,000 and 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium” were used between the invasion and the fall of Saddam.
12 The effects of Depleted Uranium on Iraq are analyzed in great detail in Fisk, “The Great War For Civilisation” and in Pilger, “Paying The Price”
16 Chomsky, “Hegemony Or Survival”
17 See “Listening To Grasshoppers: Field Notes On Democracy” by Arundhati Roy for information on these animosities as well as on the danger of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan.
18 The term is apt. On the US see “Rouge States: The Rule Of Force In World Affairs” by Noam Chomsky and “Rouge State: A Guide To The World’s Only Superpower” by William Blum and on Britain see “Web Of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role In The World” by Mark Curtis.
19 International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, “Nuclear weapons Today”, http://www.icanw.org/nuclear-weapons-today As I write this there is a misprint: the amount of nuclear warheads in Russia is listed as 15,000 when it in fact, and is written later as, 1,500.
22 See Chomsky, “Hegemony Or Survival” for the US’ first strike policy relating to it’s nuclear space program and see John Pilger, “Mr Nixon’s Secret Legacy” (documentary) for the origins of the first strike policy, which Obama is continuing in his own way: In the article “Power, illusion & America’s last taboo” http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=545 John Pilger writes that Obama “is building new tactical nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.”
24 United Nations, “The Right To Food: Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2002/25”, the particular point reads: “Considers it intolerable that there are around 815 million undernourished people in the world and that every year 36 million people die, directly or indirectly as a result of hunger and nutritional deficiencies, most of them women and children, paticularly in developing countries, in a world that already produces enough food to feed the whole global population”
25 Noam Chomsky, “Rogue States: The Rule Of Force In World Affairs”, citing UNICEF. The International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons also quotes the UN that the “cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food and clean water and safe sewers would amount to roughly $40 billion a year” which is that same 10 percent of US annual military spending. http://www.icanw.org/nuclear-weapons-today