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Suddenly, the 'nuclear age' is today

Suddenly, the 'nuclear age' is today

There's an epidemic of loose talk about the use of weapons that could lay waste to the world as we know it

Analysis | Global Crises

In 1946 reporter John Hersey published a harrowing report from Hiroshima that followed the travails of a number of survivors of the Bomb, including those of Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a Jesuit missionary from Germany.

On a search for water for some of the wounded, Kleinsorge came across a group of survivors

“…about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eye-sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel) Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot.”

Passages such as these revealed the horrors Japanese survivors endured in the aftermath of the American nuclear attack. Hersey’s Hiroshima became, in the view of essayist Roger Angell, “part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust.”And throughout the Cold War, the idea of fighting a nuclear war was anathema to the respective leaders of the American and Soviet superpowers — a revulsion that found its ultimate expression in the pledge made by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear cannot be won and should never be fought.”

Yet little by little, as the Cold War has receded into memory, American and Russian leaders have torn up a series of arms control measures beginning with the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (2002), the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty (2019), and the Open Skies treaty (2020). For its part, in 2023 Russia unilaterally withdrew from both the Convention Armed Forces in Europe treaty and suspended participation in the landmark New START treaty.

And one of the more worrisome developments in a time which does not lack for them has been a worrying epidemic of loose talk about the use of nuclear weapons.

Of late, the Russians have been the worst offenders. Yet perhaps even more troubling is the blithe disregard with which some American analysts dismiss Putin’s stated readiness to deploy these weapons. As Brown University professor of Slavic studies Vladimir Golstein memorably puts the matter:

“Putin conducts nuclear exercises, Putin warns the densely populated areas in Europe, Putin talks about going to heaven as the result of nuclear confrontation — what else does one need? Knowing Russians, I am extremely certain that they would respond. Sooner or later, but they would.”

Consider the, well, explosive language coming from former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to the revelation, made by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski on May 25, that the U.S. “told the Russians that if you detonate a nuclear bomb, even if it doesn't kill anyone, we will hit all your targets and positions in Ukraine with conventional weapons and destroy them all.”

Medvedev responded with threats of his own:

“Americans hitting our targets means starting a world war, and a foreign minister, even of a country like Poland, should understand that. And third, considering that yet another Polack, [President Andrzej] Duda, has recently announced the wish to deploy TNW [thermonuclear weapons] in Poland, Warsaw won't be left out, and will surely get its share of radioactive ash. Is it what you really want?"

According to a May 28 report in the Chinese-state run news service Xinhua, Russia has accused NATO forces of “practicing nuclear strikes against Russia.” This accusation comes only a week after reports that Russia itself has launched tactical nuclear drills in “response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation,” according to the Russian defense ministry.

And then there are the alarming statements coming from Russian analysts and government advisers. A video circulating on social media shows Russian political scientist Konstantin Sivkov issuing nuclear threats against Poland, while the noted academic and Kremlin adviser, Sergei Karaganov published an article calling for Russia to launch limited nuclear strikes on Western Europe. As theBulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out, Karaganov’s “proposal and other Russian political and military thinking about nuclear weapons raise profound questions about whether Russia might attempt to conduct a so-called limited nuclear war.”

As can only be expected, certain American politicians are pitching in to make things worse. Within the last few weeks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called for Israel to do its very worst by invoking the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as justification. A month into the Israel-Hamas War, a member of the Israeli cabinet issued his own irresponsible nuclear threat, while the U.S. continues to run diplomatic cover for Israel by denying the existence of its nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, recent statements coming out of Iran hinting at a potential change in its nuclear doctrine have raised alarm bells with the International Atomic Energy Agency which is meeting this week in Vienna to discuss the matter.

Amidst the madness, there’s a silver lining.

There remain multiple organizations that have been doing valuable, utterly necessary work to raise awareness about the omnipresent threat of nuclear catastrophe, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative, NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth, and Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy. The founder of the latter two groups, the activist and award-winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Lazaroff, believes citizen action is needed — and soon.

“We all have a voice,” says Lazaroff, who urges citizens to “contact their Congressional representatives and tell them how worried they are about the growing threat of nuclear war. Urge them to hold congressional hearings on escalating nuclear dangers,nuclear winter and the catastrophic humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and to co-sponsor legislation like: H. Res. 77 and H.R. 2775 to back us away from the brink and eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all.”

The nuclear age is not past. It is our present — and one that the next administration needs to urgently confront, and ultimately, dismantle.

Nuclear 'Operation Cue' tested human ability to survive atomic bombs. These mannequins at 7,000 feet from ground zero were part of thermal radiation test. April 4, 1955. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

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