The Ultimate Weapon and the Race for Security
“A WEAPON of unparalleled power is being created which will completely change all future conditions of warfare . . . Unless, indeed some agreement about the control of the use of the new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human society.”—Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr. Written in 1944.
A United Nations study states: “There is . . . no target strong enough to resist the intense effects of nuclear weapons, no effective defence against a determined attack . . . In this sense, mankind is faced with the absolute weapon.”
Men quickly realized that not only could cities be blotted out within a few seconds but the devastation could be accomplished with relative ease—there would be no need to defeat an army first. With nuclear weapons a country’s population could be annihilated and its economy utterly destroyed within a day, without a single skirmish.
The realization that there was no effective defense against atomic weapons led to the concept of nuclear deterrence. In November 1945, U.S. Army Air Forces commanding general Henry H. Arnold stated in a report to the secretary of war: “Real security against atomic weapons in the visible future will rest on our ability to take immediate offensive action with overwhelming force. It must be apparent to a potential aggressor that an attack on the United States would be immediately followed by an immensely devastating air-atomic attack on him.”
Many do not agree that such deterrence provides real security. Robert J. Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist who led in the development of the atom bomb, likened opposing nuclear powers to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” More recently, President Ronald Reagan said that U.S./Soviet posture was like two people holding pistols at each other’s heads.
Attempt to Internationalize the Atom
In June 1946 the United States presented a plan to the newly formed United Nations organization. The plan called for the creation of an international agency that would have authority to control and inspect all atomic-energy activities worldwide. After such an agency was established, the United States would hand over its atomic secrets, scrap its existing atom bombs, and not make any more.
The Soviet Union asserted that atomic weapons should be done away with first. Once that was done, then control and inspection arrangements could be worked out. The issue became deadlocked, and in the cold-war years that followed, hope of UN control of atomic weapons perished.
The Arms Race: Action and Reaction
In 1949 the Soviets exploded their first atom bomb. Suspicion and distrust deepened between East and West, and the arms race began in real earnest. The U.S. response to the Soviet bomb was the development of a vastly more powerful weapon, the hydrogen bomb. The first one tested (in 1952) was about 800 times more powerful than the early atom bombs. After only nine months, the Soviets had successfully developed their own hydrogen bomb.
Next came the ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The Soviet Union was first with this in 1957. Now a nuclear strike could be accomplished in minutes rather than hours. The United States rushed to catch up and by the following year had added the ICBM to its arsenal.
In the meantime other countries worked on and tested atom bombs of their own. In turn, the United Kingdom, France, and others became nuclear powers.
The action-reaction syndrome continued unabated in the 1960’s. Both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with antiballistic missiles. Both learned how to fire missiles from submarines. Both developed multiple warheads.
The race continued into the 1970’s with the significant development of MIRV (multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicle). One missile could now carry many warheads, each of which could be directed to a separate target. For example, the modern American MX, or Peacekeeper, missile carries ten such warheads; so does the Soviet SS-18. Each missile, therefore, can destroy ten cities.
Missiles were becoming more accurate too, and this, along with the development of MIRVs, led to renewed fears. Instead of targeting cities, opposing missile bases and military installations could be and were targeted many times over by MIRVs. Some now speculated that nuclear war might be winnable. A powerful first strike might eliminate the capacity or will of the adversary to strike back.
Each side felt compelled to counter such a threat by ensuring its ability to retaliate even if the other successfully hit first with a surprise attack. Without the ability to strike back, it was reasoned, there would be little to deter enemy aggression; indeed, aggression might prove to be irresistibly tempting. So—more weapons.
Now well into the 1980’s, the arms race continues at breakneck speed. A recent addition to the gallery of arms is the neutron bomb—a small hydrogen bomb designed to kill people with radiation but to leave buildings and vehicles intact. Another is the cruise missile—able to skim through the air just above the trees (and below enemy radar) to deliver a nuclear punch with accuracy to a target 1,500 miles (2,400 km) away. The latest entry, popularly called Star Wars, adds outer space to the battlefield.
Attempts at Arms Control
Though the history of weapons development may suggest that the nuclear arms race has continued with absolutely no restraint, a number of agreements have been reached. Some of these limit testing or establish ceilings on certain weapons systems, while others inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear states.
These agreements have been reached only through painstaking, time-consuming efforts. And no agreement has significantly reduced existing weapons.
At the core of the problem is this: The superpowers deeply distrust and fear each other. Ironically, the insecurity that results merely generates a demand for more weapons. More weapons, in turn, make each side appear increasingly sinister and menacing to the other; hence, people feel less secure than ever.
[Blurb on page 5]
“When elephants fight, the grass too will suffer”
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One MX missile has the power of 300 Hiroshima bombs, enough to destroy an area of 240 square miles
MX missile blast