The Hiroshima anniversary: 5 things you should know about nuclear weapons today

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The imprint on public consciousness of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred 73 years ago Monday, has faded greatly. The hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which killed more than 130,000 and left tens of thousands of others with horrendous injuries, have been the most ardent proponents of nuclear abolition. Now they are few in number, and nuclear-armed states seem deaf to their pleas.

This anniversary arrives at a time when the “nuclear enterprise” in the United States is gearing up to spend more than $1 trillion on new missiles, bombers, and submarines over the next three decades. Meanwhile, the competing “arms control enterprise” is unraveling:

There are at present no negotiations underway to reduce US and Russian nuclear forces, while China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are increasing theirs. Yet at the same time, the situation isn’t completely bleak. Here are five key points to keep in mind about nuclear weapons on this somber anniversary:

1) The taboo against using nuclear weapons in warfare has held since 1945 — contrary to expectations

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few were so bold or foolish to predict this. Instead, there was widespread fear and dread after the bomb’s surprise unveiling that it would become an instrument for surprise military attacks, a decisive “war winning” weapon, and — the greatest fear — a civilization-ending weapon. It hasn’t turned out that way — so far. The bomb could have been used by the Truman administration to end the Korean War, or by the Eisenhower administration either in Korea or in Indochina (to bail out France from its losing military campaign there), but it wasn’t. Mushroom clouds could have appeared by accidents, breakdowns in command and control, or during the Cuban missile crisis.

Despite close calls, we humans have been extremely fortunate. Sure, the concept of deterrence and the prospect of retaliation have induced caution, but deterrence is all about threats to use nuclear weapons — and threats generate more threats.

Diplomacy was essential to curtail dangerous military practices and, eventually, to achieve deep nuclear arms reductions, such as the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which still permits each side to retain 700 deployed missiles and subs.

Overall, US and Russian stockpiles are down around 85 percent from Cold War highs. Such nuclear excess makes it all the more remarkable that, for different reasons at different times, a seven-decade record of non-battlefield use has held. When it comes to the bomb, this taboo is the best thing we’ve got going for us.

2) Nuclear weapons are becoming too provocative to test

Russia hasn’t tested since 1990, the United States since 1992, China and France since 1996, India and Pakistan since 1998. The biggest outlier, North Korea, recently declared a closure of its test site…


This article originally appeared in Vox on August 6th, 2018. To continue reading, click here.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. 

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