24 April 2010

The Slow Mitigation of Madness

Curiously, very little seems to have been made of Obama's recent attempts to secure and reduce the number of nuclear weapons. As with so much in life, this baffles me. This seems to me his most important accomplishment. Nuclear weapons are predicated on the curious notion that a state's existence should somehow outlast the existence of its people. It's hard to imagine any sane future two or three centuries hence that doesn't look back at nuclear weaponry as the most curious evidence of institutionalized madness.

Perhaps the oddest news story I've read in the last couple of years has to do with LBJ, Castro, Nukes and the Kennedy assassination. Apparently, LBJ had evidence suggesting that Castro, weary of the Kennedy brothers' multiple attempts to assassinate him, arranged JFK's assassination. The evidence for this was not conclusive but was suggestive. When LBJ learned about this, he sat on the investigation. His reasoning? The American people would be so outraged at this that they'd demand retaliation and given Cuba was a satellite state for the USSR, Johnson could see things escalating into nuclear war. LBJ decided that retaliation wasn't worth such a risk.

It might be true that nuclear weapons made war so costly that simply having them made states more hesitant to engage in even conventional warfare, much less retaliation for assassination of its leaders. But the fact that we had no nuclear wars does not mean that they were impossible. The simple question is whether it is better to lower the probability of, say, 100,000 casualties from conventional war by 50% if it meant raising the probability of 100 million casualties by 5%.

The eruption of volcano [insert unintelligible Icelandic name here] recently is a reminder of how rapidly surrounding areas could be impacted by something like nuclear war. As my friend Norman pointed out the other day, even a couple of nuclear bombs lobbed back and forth between India and Pakistan would - in addition to devastating populations in those countries - likely radiate out to impact the regions around them. Imagine radioactive volcanic dust and try to project a situation like this month's volcano lasting for years. Madness indeed.

Nuclear materials are unaccounted for. Worse, the states now threatened by them were the ones to produce those materials as part of a national security program.

Most people realize that it would be awful if Iran got nuclear weapons. Because we've had generations to acclimate to the idea, we've lost the realization that it is awful that any state has nuclear weapons. Give credit to Clinton, the younger Bush, and Obama for having the sense to realize that national security and nuclear weapons don't really belong in the same sentence and working to reduce decades of build up.

Recessions come and go, as do tax cuts, health care insurance programs, and attempts to reform education. No other policy has the potential to so negatively, and perhaps irreversibly, impact humanity as nuclear weapon policy. If we're lucky, Obama's successor will continue the escalation of nuclear arms reduction and future generations won't have the strange possibility of nuclear winter to live with.


Uncle Tom said...

I agree whole heartedly... Just sure do wish Obama would push a little harder and the public would get into this one nearly as much as they got involved in the healthcare debates.

Thomas said...

Even after the cuts, the US and Russia can still destroy the earth several times over. That tends to curb my enthusiasm.

Ron Davison said...

UT - I suppose that the public can only be galvanized on so many issues a year. Probably the number is below 1.

Thomas - we rarely live long enough to see potentially fully realized - we can only cheer for a change in direction.