With the invention of nuclear arms, we human beings brought ourselves face-to-face with the prospect of extinguishing the human race by our own hand. A decision to abolish nuclear weapons would represent a decision to survive. This quest for survival is the deepest, most important, and most enduring of the imperatives for nuclear abolition. Inseparable from it is the imperative of sparing the Earth’s ecosphere from irreparable damage. Nuclear war also threatens catastrophes that, although less encompassing than extinction, are still outside all historical comparison. On August 6, 1945, moments after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, a history professor living in the hills of the city turned around, and, in his words, “saw that Hiroshima had disappeared.” In a flash, the city and most of its people had been annihilated. Those who did not die immediately were exposed to unimaginable suffering. A grocer in the city later said of the long lines of the injured filing out of the city that “you couldn’t tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back.” The invention of the hydrogen bomb multiplied the explosive power of the atomic bomb by a thousand fold. Any city on earth can be razed to its foundations by a thermonuclear bomb of the appropriate size. Ten bombs can annihilate ten cities; a hundred bombs a hundred cities. A single Trident submarine can carry enough nuclear bombs to level an entire continent. Even more widely destructive than the explosive power of the weapons is their radioactive fallout, which causes radiation sickness. A hydrogen bomb with the explosive power of 1,000 tons of TNT will, given average weather conditions, send a plume of radiation downwind over an area of some 2,080 sq km (800 sq mi). Ten bombs can lethally irradiate 20,800 sq km (8,000 sq mi); a hundred bombs, 200,800 sq km (800,000 sq mi); and so on. There is, simply, no meaningful limit on the destructive power of nuclear bombs. They put at mortal risk all that we human beings are, all that we have ever been, and all that we ever will be. Antiabolitionists argue that abolishing nuclear weapons is reckless because inspection can never be adequate. Even if the hardware is eliminated, they correctly point out, nuclear know-how will remain, enabling irresponsible nations—“rogue states”—to violate an abolition agreement and build nuclear arms, whether secretly or openly. In a world in which all nations have disarmed, they conclude, any nation that comes to possess even a few nuclear weapons will rule. Removal of nuclear danger, they further maintain, will permit conventional war to break out. According to this view, nuclear weapons are a benefit because, through the discipline of the balance of terror, they prevent conventional war—admittedly, no small gain.
It would be wrong to suggest that a world without nuclear arms would be without danger, even nuclear danger. The risk of cheating would be real, as would the risk that a possible conventional war might spin out of control and spur nuclear rearmament. The point, however, is that those perils are lower by several orders of magnitude than the ones in the world of nuclear anarchy toward which our inaction points us now. We are not called to choose between danger and perfect safety but between two species of danger. Reflection shows that the level of risk under an abolition agreement is far lower than that which exists in a world without one. There are further reasons to abolish nuclear weapons. Since the destruction of Nagasaki, no nuclear weapon has been used in war. In a world of proliferating arsenals no one knows how long this good luck will hold. What we can and do know is that over the long run no civilization can be based on a willingness to kill hundreds of millions of innocent people. The nuclear powers are left with their own insistence, unrelated to any particular peril, on preserving these means of annihilation. The exploded bomb can end human life on Earth. The unexploded bomb—the incarnation of the worst impulses of human beings—spreads moral devastation within. We are brought face to face with ourselves—with the character and proclivities of the liberal civilization that now bids to dominate the world’s affairs. Can we preserve this civilization without menacing it and all life on earth with annihilation? Or has our idea of civilization come, by some twisted logic, to incorporate the threat of annihilation into its essence? Surely an acceptance of annihilation contradicts the avowed principles of our civilization at every point and, even in the continued absence of nuclear war, darkens its future. Freeing the world from this burden is yet another reason to abolish nuclear arms.