Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 22, 2010
You can see in Robert Oppenheimer’s eyes the terror of his own creation. The old newsreels reveal a stark figure with the weight of Armageddon on his shoulders. He was one of the first to understand that the nuclear bomb meant a prodigious achievement for man coupled with an imminent threat to all civilization.
The New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia is an effort to reduce that threat. Now it’s caught up in the political cold war of congressional partisan bickering, with many Republicans against it because Obama is for it. The truth is, the treaty is probably too little too late given the proliferation of nuclear arsenals around the world, but it represents a step in the right direction.
Sixty-five years ago, the Americans and Soviets faced off with hands ready on their six-shooters in a cataclysmic showdown. Proliferation became the word of the day. We got the bomb in 1945, and the contagion spread. Russia got the bomb in ’49, the U.K. in ’52, France in ’60, China in ’64, Israel in ’67, India in ’74, Pakistan in ’90, and North Korea in ’06. Reminder: Osama bin Laden is thought to be in Pakistan, where they have at least a hundred nukes.
These are some of the sobering facts you learn from the film “Countdown to Zero,” an advocacy documentary for the Global Zero agenda of reducing the nuclear threat. This film is important because the world remains a precarious place more than six decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the world to weep.
As a kid growing up in the Sixties, I was taught the “Duck and Cover” strategy at school in case of a nuclear attack from Russia. Ducking under your desk and covering your head was the avoidance gesture, which made us feel like ostriches. Had the bombs dropped, we would have been fricasseed nonetheless.
Today, we seem to not even worry about nukes. “Countdown to Zero” dispels this myth by revealing how much nuclear bomb grade uranium has gone missing and that graduate students in some university science programs are routinely challenged to build detonating devices, which most of them can do handily.
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The film reveals that, at the height of the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia, 100 million people would have been killed in a full-blown exchange. We came perilously close to that outcome during the Cuban Missile Crisis and have skirted it ever since.
Today, there are some 23,000 nukes worldwide, a considerable reduction from the peak of 60,000. The U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nukes armed and ready to fire at each other. Some say this is a safety against having to use them. Others warn that faulty firing systems and false alarms could set off an automated war without provocation or fail safe.
System failures pale when compared to terrorism. “Countdown…” points out that thousands of shipping containers arrive in the U.S. every day, and that it would be easy to smuggle a bomb inside one. Significant quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) are readily available on the black market, and the technical know-how to build, arm and transport a bomb are within reach of rogue nations and terrorist cells.
If a terrorist bomb ever does go off, intensified security measures would cripple the world with a lockdown. International commerce would become prohibitive, civil liberties would be curtailed, and suspicion would run rampant. If today’s airport pat-downs seem inconvenient, imagine the wake of a nuclear bomb plot. Personal freedom would be jeopardized and open societies would end.
The New Start treaty needs to be ratified to cut that risk, that is if Republican hawks can resist their love of mass destruction arsenals. For many Republicans, more weapons mean more security. This is the strange logic of Mutually Assured Destruction and the dramatic message of the apocalyptic film, “Doctor Strangelove.”
“Countdown to Zero” urges a reduction of warheads and of getting missiles off the “ready launch” mode. It is equally important to stop refining more HEU and to strictly account for it as if our lives depend upon it, which they do.
After Oppenheimer had witnessed the devastation of the nuclear bomb, he summoned the message of Vishnu: “Now I have become death – the destroyer of worlds.” In order to lay Vishnu to rest, we need a rational global policy on nukes and support for the Global Zero movement.
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