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Why the United States should support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By William J. Perry | January 22, 2021


For 75 years, we have allowed the idea of mass destruction to be normalized as a necessary component of our international security strategy. If we are ever going to reach the top of the mountain, we must recognize that nuclear weapons are, as Ronald Reagan described them, “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on Earth and civilization.”


Many in the field of international security have denigrated this accomplishment as insignificant, since nuclear-armed nations have not recognized this treaty. But my friend, the late Max Kampelman, would have had an answer to this cynicism. Max, who was a major inspiration for the op-eds that the four of us published, talked about the “Power of the Ought,” noting that the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence conflicted with the reality at the time, notably slavery and the disenfranchisment of women. But our democracy has been a journey from the “is” to the “ought,” as we continue the work to form a “more perfect union.” As Max once said, “The elimination of nuclear arms is an ‘ought’ that should be proclaimed and energetically pursued.”

When the United States signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, we agreed to the terms in Article VI, obligating us to “pursue negotiations in good faith…on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” However, we and other nuclear powers have failed to uphold our obligation to the NPT, a failure which the ban treaty is working to correct.


The United States signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. At the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, President Reagan made the case for eliminating these weapons. And in 2009, President Obama pledged that the United States would “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Now in 2021, a treaty has come into force that makes nuclear weapons illegal for all who sign it. America prides itself on being a nation of trailblazers; let us be the first nuclear-armed nation to blaze this new trail toward the top of the nuclear-free mountain.

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