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In a Nuclear Arms Race, the World Can Be Destroyed in a Flash

The nuclear weapons dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago this week wreaked a devastation never before seen in human warfare. Yet they were firecrackers compared with the nuclear weapons that were soon developed — bombs, warheads, shells, torpedoes and other devices capable of vaporizing the human race in an apocalyptic flash.

For decades, that thought cast a pall of acute anxiety over America and the world. Whether because of that fear, a strategy of effective deterrence, chance or all the above, the United States remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in combat. With the end of the Cold War, anxiety around nuclear war has receded. Most people probably are not aware that a harrowing and expensive new arms race is now underway.

Today Americans are more likely to identify climate change as the greatest man-made threat to the planet. Last year, in the list of what Americans fear compiled annually by Chapman University, “North Korea using nuclear weapons” and “Nuclear weapons attack” ranked 27 and 29, far below “Corrupt government officials” (No. 1) or “Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes” (No. 2).

Yet even with the Cold War long over and stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the Russian and American arsenals sharply reduced through a series of nuclear arms treaties, to fewer than 6,000 warheads each, there are no grounds for complacency. The world can still be destroyed in a flash.

Nine states have nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran’s nuclear program has been the focus of intense concern for years, and Saudi Arabia has vowed that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will follow suit. Consider also that two men have the power to unleash a nuclear barrage entirely on their own — President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who are both working assiduously on modernizing their arsenals.

Mr. Trump has said he is working on a new arms control agreement with Russia and is seeking to include China in the talks. But his administration has always found it easier to tear up treaties than to sign them, especially if the result in any way restrains the United States. As the special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, boasted in May, “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic put millions of Americans out of work, spending so much money on new doomsday weapons was profligate. Now, it seems morally indefensible. This week, the Government Accountability Office said that, without changes, the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons modernization effort is on track to surpass its $1.2 trillion price tag over the next three decades. It seems as though the United States is plunging into a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China without having learned the lessons of the last one.

When briefed by the military in 2017 on the levels to which American and Russian nuclear arsenals had been reduced through arms treaties, Mr. Trump reportedly demanded that the United States increase its nuclear stockpile tenfold. According to some reports, this was what prompted the secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, to call the president a “moron.”

Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, and he has not yet extended the New START accord, the only agreement still in place limiting American and Russian nuclear forces, which was signed by President Barack Obama and expires in early February. In addition, the Trump administration was recently reported to be thinking of breaking the 28-year-old moratorium on nuclear testing.

The 75th anniversary of Hiroshima is a good time to revive serious public concern about nuclear weapons. The pandemic may leave little room for other fears, but public health and economic recovery should not have to compete for resources with a needless and enormously expensive new arms race. As Jessica Matthews, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, it would be good for the five original nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — to formally endorse the principle set forth by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at their 1985 summit, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Above all, the wrenching images of scorched rubble where Hiroshima had stood ought to be cause for serious reflection on what nuclear weapons do — and what they cannot do.

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