What’s so special about nuclear weapons? (Or, when did “WMDs” become a thing?)

Throughout the present century, the corporate media here in the United States, and much of international discourse, has been in a furor over “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Why, in 2003, the (G.W.) Bush administration even led an international coalition to go into the once-proud country of Iraq and, basically, destroy the whole country’s infrastructure and society because of some vague claims that the country might be building “WMDs”! (This claim was later completely disproven.)

WMDs! WMDs! WMDs! They sound so scary! But when and why did this concept ever rise to the top of the international agenda?

The term was reportedly first coined in 1937, to refer to (and condemn) the intense bombardment of Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War. Eight years later, in August 1945, the United States dropped the first two, very much more deadly, atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the 45 years that followed, as the United States, Russia, and a number of other countries (including Israel) developed ever larger and more deadly nuclear arsenals, the term WMDs was generally used to refer only to those arsenals.

Then, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Nine years earlier, Israeli bomber planes had bombed Iraq’s only nuclear reactor, which Iraq had claimed was pursuing only peaceful research. So in rallying global support for the large-scale military effort needed to push Iraq out of Kuwait, Pres. George H.W. Bush started referring to the special danger of Iraq’s “scary”, but non-nuclear weapons… and combating these “Weapons of Mass Destruction” became a watchword of the whole of the U.S.-led world order in the post-Cold War period.

This focus on WMDs had two advantages for the United States (and Israel):

  1. It distracted attention from the fact that the United States had strong– and for many countries, disquietingly threatening– dominance, globally, at the level of nuclear arsenals, just as Israel did within the region of the Middle East.
  2. It gave the United States and its allies a tool with which it could continue to harass governments with which it disagreed and which, it knew, did not now have any nuclear-related programs.

Thus, as we have seen, allegations concerning “WMDs” were the main pretext Pres. G.W. Bush used when he invaded Iraq in 2003, and allegations about WMDs were what Pres. Obama used in 2014 and 2018 when he used cruise missiles to destroy various locations in Syria.

Meanwhile, throughout the whole post-Cold War period (as during the Cold War), Washington has continued to issue very pointed threats that it might use its own, extremely destructive, nuclear weapons in numerous attempts to intimidate and coerce governments around the world, principally Iran and North Korea.

The key phrase U.S. leaders use to deliver these threats is to underline that “All options are/remain on the table.” Only Pres. Trump was crude enough to get into an open contest with Pres. Kim Jong-Un regarding the “size” of each guy’s “nuclear button”. But “All options are on the table” serves the same purpose of conveying a clear, generally plausible, and globally well understood, threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, successive U.S. Presidents since 1945 have all resisted the entreaties of those around the world who have pleaded with Washington to commit itself clearly to a policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons. That threat remains.

In recent months, since the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pres. Vladimir Putin has also been uttering well-understood, though still lightly veiled, threats that there are Ukraine-related scenarios under which he might use nuclear weapons. Many corners of the Western discourse have responded with outraged, pearl-clutching screeches along the lines of “How dare he!”

The most sensible, high-level response I’ve seen, however, was that penned in early July by Kjell Magne Bondevik, a former Prime Minister of NATO member Norway. “Europe can never be secure while Russia has nuclear weapons,” he argued in his headline and in the body of the piece. Then, he continued with this:

Any realistic approach to eliminating Russia’s nuclear weapons implies a negotiated elimination of all nuclear weapons, worldwide… While any state has nuclear weapons, no state is safe.

NATO, Europe, and the entire international community must therefore urgently renew and reinvigorate serious multilateral efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons completely—in Russia and worldwide.

For Mr. Bondevik and for many others throughout the “West”, Putin’s use of crude nuclear threats has acted as a potent wake-up call to alert us all to the continuing, long-existing threat of annihilation that the world’s nine nuclear arsenals– but especially the largest two of them– pose not only to all of humankind, but quite possibly also to far broader swathes of life on earth as we know it.

So now, it’s past time to sweep away all the flim-flam the corporate media have poured over us like a torrent for the past 30 years about “WMDs this…” and “WMDs that…” We need to reconnect with the understanding that used to be common: that nuclear weapons pose a threat to humankind and all life on earth that is many orders of magnitude greater than those posed by the other two classes of “WMDs”: chemical weapons and biological weapons. It is time to focus on nuclear weapons and on the urgent task of dismantling all the world’s nuclear arsenals.

There are two main reasons why nuclear weapons are uniquely dangerous and threatening:

** First, is the sheer level of the destructive force they contain.

I have been to Hiroshima, where a then-ageing survivor of that terrible day gave my family and me a sobering tour around the “Peace Park” that the city laid out in the area of the epicenter of the 1945 bombing. The explosive-energy “yield” of the one nuclear bomb dropped on the city was equivalent to that of roughly 15,000 tons of TNT: hence it was described as a “15 Kiloton” bomb. (It did not actually itself weigh 15 Kilotons… ) Prior to that bombing, the U.S. and British air forces had sent in massive sorties of bomber planes to try to create similar firestorms in cities in Germany and Japan. But in Hiroshima, and later Nagasaki, the U.S. air force achieved an equally (or more destructive) effect to what they’d achieved in Dresden, Hamburg, or Tokyo– with just one bomb.

That one bomb dropped in Hiroshima in 1945 killed nearly 200,000 people, roughly 90% of them civilians.

In 1952, the United States started developing thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs), in which a Hiroshima-style “fission bomb” is used just as the trigger for a broader “nuclear fusion” explosion. Hundreds of these are now in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, each with an explosive yield of 300 or 800 times that of the bomb used in Hiroshima. (The photo above is of the infamous H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll, in 1954.)

Russia and probably Israel also have hydrogen bombs in their arsenals.

For several decades after 1945, and after the tests of the much bigger bombs that Russia and the United States tested in various spots around the world, scientists carefully studied the long-term effects of those bombs on the affected people and animals. There was complete incineration; there were burns, and devastating short- and longer-term effects from radiation. There was the broad mortality stemming from destruction of medical facilities and other basic infrastructure, like water systems.

Then, in the 1980s, researchers started also looking in depth at the impact that the large amounts of soot lofted into the atmosphere by nuclear-weapons-induced firestorms could be expected to have on all life on earth.

Click on image to enlarge. The x-axis shows years after the initial explosion. From Robock et al., 2007, p.5

Looking at the (cooling) effects of nuclear-explosion soot was a relatively new approach. In 2007, Alan Robock et al. modeled the likely effects of nuclear explosions whose firestorms lofted 5 Teragrams (Tg), 150 Tg, or 150 Tg of soot into the atmosphere. They found that the cooling effects of all such nuclear firestorms would last for years. After five years, the expected cooling from soot in those quantities would still be 1, 3, or 7 degrees Centigrade respectively (see graph.) As many have noted, the effects would be less like a nuclear winter than a “nuclear twilight”.

… By comparison, the effects of the use of any other type of “WMD” are, as we know, both (a) infinitesimally smaller, and (b) much more localized.

** Second is the hair-trigger, chain-reaction nature of doctrines governing the use of nuclear weapons.

Because of the uniquely destructive nature of nuclear weapons, all countries that have them have also developed sets of rules (doctrines) governing their control and use that aim above all to avoid having their nuclear arsenals destroyed in the early moments of a conflict. The first principle followed by such doctrines is that, if the nuclear commanders feel their weapons are threatened, they should “use them or lose them.” But as the arsenals of, in particular, the United States and Russia grew and diversified, those doctrines also became more complex. For example, nuclear planners in both those countries (and Israel) concluded that the best way to retain nuclear-weapons capability even after an opponent’s first strike on all their land-based NWs would be to hide some of their weapons on submarines prowling deep in the oceans.

In 2017, Daniel Ellsberg published The Doomsday Machine, a spine-chilling memoir of the time he spent in the late 1950s and early 1960s– before he started working on Vietnam issues– as a nuclear-weapons planner at the USAF-sponsored RAND corporation. Ellsberg was working on contract at high levels of the Pentagon to review and revise the United States’ nuclear doctrine, now commonly called the SIOP– the Strategic Integrated Operations Plan. He was working on that task during the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962, the time when the United States and the Soviet Union came the closest they ever came to actually using the substantial nuclear arsenals that each commanded.

In two riveting chapters Ellsberg details what he knew then, and what he subsequently came to learn, about the high-level decisionmaking of both leaders during that crisis. He concludes that the two countries came “within a hairsbreadth” of mutual annihilation. And this, on p.221:

What a true history of the Cuban missile crisis reveals is that the existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of the leaders of the superpowers, the United States and Russia– even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as any we have ever seen– posed then, and still [does], intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.

The ultra-fast, chain-reaction nature of all envisaged nuclear planning scenarios is what, along with the sheer destructive capability of the weapons themselves, makes them different from any other weapons ever known, including chemical weapons and biological weapons. Chemical and biological weapons can inflict terrible suffering, true. But they have been used in one form or another for many centuries. In the old days of medieval sieges, the besiegers would try to toss diseased animals over the walls of a fortress city, to infect all those inside, and so on. Chemical weapons were particularly widely used during WW-1, and left tens of thousands dead or incapacitated…

But in none of the many known cases of the use of BWs or CWs, did their use lead to any unstoppable “chain reaction”, in the same way the nuclear weapons doctrines of at least the United States and Russia– and probably also those of the other nuclear-weapons-owning states– predictably would.

It thus makes no sense at all, when considering the dangers of nuclear weapons, simply to lump them in with other kinds of weapons under the broad and fuzzy rubric of “WMDs”. But that is what both the United States and Israel (which produced its own first nuclear weapons back in 1967) have been systematically trying to do since 1991.

The United States, for its part, has joined and been eager to promote support for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention. But it has steadfastly refused to perform on the pledge it and the other nuclear-weapons states signed onto in Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), that it would engage in negotiations for a speedy and general disarmament; and it has shown nothing disdain for the broad international campaign that led to the conclusion of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

To be fair, none of the other eight states that have nuclear weapons have signed the TPNW, either. (As for Israel, it always refused to sign even the NPT.) But the fact remains that the American efforts to distract attention from the continued retention and upgrading of its own nuclear arsenal by launching repeated, often flimsy accusations about the ownership or pursuit of “WMDs” by various states in the Global South have been a massive disservice to all those who want, with good reason, to ban all nuclear weapons forever.

Enough with all that distracting talk about WMDs! Let’s focus on nuclear weapons and working to get them banned. And actually, since that will necessarily have to be a cooperative effort involving a broad range of actors from all around the world, once we have a global NW ban the atmosphere for dismantling a whole range of other potentially harmful arsenals should also be considerably improved. But let’s focus on nuclear weapons first.