By the 1950s, just years after U.S. B-29s dropped the first atomic bombs, Americans prepared for nuclear war. They built underground shelters and stocked them with supplies. Children at school practiced duck-and-cover drills. In some cities, schools issued dog tags to students, ostensibly so relatives could arrange proper burials should anyone survive a nuclear exchange.
At the same time, the U.S. led the fight to prevent more countries from barging into the nuclear club. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy warned that “10, 15 or 20 nations” could have nuclear abilities by 1964. The “fate of the world and the future of the human race” hinged on preventing nuclear war, he said. Kennedy’s math was wrong; during those years only China joined the U.S., Soviet Union, Great Britain and France in gaining nuclear weapons. Today nine nations wield the bombs. Kennedy’s warning about nuclear annihilation is as accurate and menacing as it was when he spoke it.
Seven decades without a mushroom cloud doesn’t eliminate that specter: The spread of these incredibly lethal arms to dangerous, unpredictable governments, and eventually perhaps to terror groups, adds powerful incentive to the Singapore summit of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has at least 60 bombs and likely can deliver them to the U.S.
Separately, Iran, now less constrained by a nuclear pact from which the U.S. has withdrawn, may re-energize its supposedly dormant nuke program. Iran also may be developing long-range missiles that could hit Western targets. Iran’s foes, including Saudi Arabia, threaten a crash weapons program should Tehran attempt a breakout. Terrorist leaders yearn to buy a bomb or radioactive material for a dirty bomb. Imagine if Iran’s West-loathing mullahs had a few weapons to spare.
In both cases the stakes eclipse the usual geopolitical tussles among nations over territory, reputation and clout. A nuclear onslaught against any nation could devastate its populace and devastate societal structures as basic as food supply, shelter and medical care. “We believed that the danger of nuclear annihilation had gone away” after the Cold War, former Defense Secretary William Perry tells The New York Times. “We’ve never been able to re-grasp that it’s come back.”
The fact that it has looms over this Trump-Kim meeting: You don’t have to agree with Trump’s hardball rhetoric to dismiss as wishful thinking the illusion of a nuclear-free world that President Barack Obama promoted. No such world can exist while humans hold the knowledge to build nuclear weapons and the intent to use them. That’s not fatalism. That’s realism.
America is indispensable in the fight to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. No other nation has the military, economic and diplomatic might — or the will — to squelch rogue nations or terror groups from acquiring or using nukes.
In the 1950s, the nuclear arms race spawned a pushback. President Dwight Eisenhower tried to forestall proliferation with his Atoms for Peace program: Give countries nuclear know-how for energy purposes but extract a pledge they won’t develop nuclear weapons. Peaceful nuclear expertise spread, but so did weapons knowledge — to India, Israel, Pakistan.
There also have been victories: Libya scrapped its nuclear ambitions. Ukraine dismantled its Soviet-era arsenal. South Africa backtracked on its program.
Every president must decide how to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal. Every president seeks to diminish the possibility that a nuke will be fired in anger or error. And every president deals with looming nuclear threats across the globe.
Another thought from President Kennedy, this one in 1963: “I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world. There would be no rest for anyone then, no stability, no real security, and no chance of effective disarmament.”
That threat stalks the Trump-Kim summit. It stalks Western strategy toward Iran. It stalks all of us.
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