very man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” — President John F. Kennedy
Seventy years after the first atomic explosion lit up the New Mexican desert and nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Russia and the United States retain nuclear postures from the darkest days of their rivalry. There are almost 16,000 nuclear weapons still in the world today, and the U.S. and Russia possess 94 percent of them. Worse, 1,800 of these Russian and American weapons sit atop missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch on a few minutes notice.
Few people are even aware of these dangers. Most have forgotten about the weapons. They think the only nuclear threat is the chance that Iran might get a bomb. Or that plans are in place that effectively prevent or contain nuclear threats. They are wrong. On any given day, we could wake up to a crisis that threatens our country, our region, our very planet.
Even as proliferation risks decrease, however, the risks of accident, miscalculation or intentional use of one of the existing nuclear weapons is unacceptably high. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, we have come closer to Armageddon than many realize.
It could get worse. The world’s nuclear weapons are aging. Bombs, like cars, wear out and eventually have to be replaced. We are now in a generational transition, when the weapons built during the terrifying Cold War rivalry of the 1980’s are ready for retirement. This could be a good time for Russia, the United States and other nations to close down these obsolete arsenals and save billions of dollars.
Instead, the nuclear nations are raiding their treasuries to build an entire new generation of the deadliest weapons ever invented. As Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris point out, “nuclear nations have undertaken ambitious nuclear weapon modernization programs that threaten to prolong the nuclear era indefinitely. … New or improved nuclear weapon programs underway worldwide include at least 27 ballistic missiles, nine cruise missiles, eight naval vessels, five bombers, eight warheads, and eight weapons factories.”
Pope Francis told a conference on nuclear threats in Vienna this year that “spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations.” He questioned the morality of maintaining these huge arsenals for any purpose. These horrific weapons, he said, must be “banned once and for all.”
Seventy years after it was born on the sands of Alamogordo, there is a growing global sense that it is time to retire the Bomb.