While reading The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan (I told you more posts were coming,) one of the distinct impressions that the reader cannot help but receive is that Carl Sagan thought nuclear weapons were/are one of the most irresponsible creations of science – and this comes from a man whose main message is promoting science. He makes several points about who has the responsibility for weapons of massive effect, and while not presenting a conclusion, it seems clear that he feels scientists have to be aware of what they bring forth.
This is a debate in and of itself, one that rages on. Technology alone is neutral – without someone to wield it, it means nothing. But does anyone who creates the process, or applies it to weaponry, bear the responsibility of how it is used? Should the various scientists of the Manhattan Project, constructing the first atomic bomb, have rebelled against their orders in the face of the great damage that could only be done with nuclear weapons? Or does the responsibility for their use lie with those directly charged with the weapons’ deployment and activation, the military? Putting it another way, does the scientist bear the weight of predicting how human nature will handle the power and potential detriments?
I’m not posting, however, to talk about that – I tend to avoid debates where personal opinion is the only factor that can be presented. Instead, I’m going to raise a question, one I admit that I don’t have an answer to, in order to provoke some examination. And the question is this: Did nuclear weapons provide, and in fact directly cause, a period of peace in the latter half of the twentieth century?
First off, I am well aware that it was hardly “peaceful” then – the US alone engaged in a ridiculous number of military actions. Ostensibly, many of these were for “humanitarian” reasons, and doubtlessly, some certainly were. Others, viewed through sources other than Wikipedia that do not feel obligated to define “neutral” as “unoffensive to Americans,” see a large number of these actions differently. And this says nothing of all of the other countries busy duking it out in that time period. However, we were in a situation with two massive superpowers vying for greater control of Europe. I’m sure many people will protest, “But the US wasn’t trying to control Europe!” Unfortunately, the idea of American imperialism is still a hot topic, which certainly raises some honest questions for a country that finds itself so innocent and upstanding. The US has military bases in 63 countries. How many military bases for any other country can be found on the US continent?
“But we were there holding back the Soviet Union!” Yes, I’m sure. And the Soviet Union was there holding us back, if you were to ask them. Bear in mind, much of the info our leaders provided us about falling behind the Soviets (i.e., the Missile Gap) we now know was utter bilgewater – we were virtually never behind the Soviets in weapons, and usually well ahead. So who’s right? Either way, what you’re looking at is the idea that expansion was a serious consideration between the US and USSR after WWII. And both held thermonuclear weapons ready at hand. Thousands of them.
Curiously, no strategic nuclear weapons have ever been used since the two dropped on Japan at the end of WWII, and the evidence for even tactical (smaller, battlefield-intended) nukes is haphazard at best, not standing up well to critical scrutiny. There were a few tense moments, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis – ones that many people believe were a mere sneeze away from mutually assured destruction. The general public viewpoint has always been that the two militaries waved these weapons around wildly like a psychotic holding hostages, and there was certainly plenty of saber-rattling from politicians – some of it more for the sake of their own countries than someone else’s (see Ronald Reagan, Armchair Warrior.)
But, to go back to the most prominent example of close calls, what happened when missile bases were discovered being built in Cuba? Did the US immediately, and effortlessly, hit those bases before completion with an airstrike? No, we immediately fired off a series of exchanges with Khrushchev et al in the USSR to hash things out, diplomatically. And reached an agreement: no Soviet missile bases in Cuba, no American missile bases in Turkey – something that was largely unknown to the public for years. It was these US missile bases on their doorstep (also convenient to the Middle East) that the USSR was retaliating against in the first place. No ultimatums, no combat. Lots of bluffing, but the progress was made peacefully. Contrast that with the US behavior towards Iraq. Lots of negotiation there, right? Or did the US react forcefully because the threat was so much bigger? No, the US took off on a valiant pre-emptive strike against a country that, it turns out, was well known not to pose a threat. Funny that.
It may be a case of, when the weapons become big enough, the idea of using them balks even the frothiest of power-hungry politicians and warmongers. Especially when the war economy stands to receive little benefit from it (I hold no illusions that human life plays any part in such considerations.) Even the use of small tactical nuclear weapons is considered to be enough provocation to escalate a conflict. The Soviet Union failed to expand further, and faltered under its own economic shortfalls. And the US remained confined to the Western Hemisphere for the most part, with little playing about in the Middle East. While it may seem that WWII provided a lesson about global warfare, the various military actions that have taken place since then don’t really support that idea.
We have enough difficulty with history as it is. The underlying factors and motives behind certain actions of world leaders, the true sequence of events that were unrecorded, determining the authenticity of multiple conflicting accounts… history is, as often as not, the story arrived at only through general consensus. It’s even worse for future speculations, such as what might have happened if an assassination attempt had succeeded (or not.) So it’s little more than wild guessing how things might have turned out had nuclear weapons not been invented. There remains a distinct possibility, however, that another massive conflict may have taken place in Europe, or perhaps the Middle East, because the reasoning behind it would have been balancing the cost of lives and materials from a conventional conflict against the potential gains. One side can generally win a land or sea battle – this is almost certainly not the case with a nuclear exchange.
I feel very confident saying that nuclear weapons were inevitable. Once the binding energy of atoms was understood, the method of releasing it could not be far behind. Much fuss is made about the stockpiling of weapons, which does indeed pose a risk – but not half as much as the idea that only one nation on the planet might have nuclear capability. While we might like to believe that it is the ethical consideration of the victims that prevents the use of such firepower, it is far more likely to be the consequences of retaliation – witness the number of people who immediately bring up the option of nuclear strikes when smaller countries like North Korea appear less than cooperative. It may be that these weapons remain quiescent only as long as they remain balanced among potential opponents. It is little wonder that many nations quickly chose to align themselves along either NATO or Eastern Bloc lines, to gain the protection inherent within.
My goal here isn’t to condone or even excuse nuclear weapons, only to examine them with the knowledge of how nations act. Having grown up in the cold war, and watched at least one president who seemed prepared to welcome Armageddon, I’m quite familiar with the anxiety over their potential. But what we perceived at the time, and what was really happening, might be two entirely different things.
As a final note, “nuclear” is pronounced “new-KLEER” and has only two goddamn syllables. Look at the fucking letters.