Seconds Away

Wayland Kennet

  • ‘Peace’ of the Dead: The Truth behind the Nuclear Disarmers by Paul Mercer
    Policy Research Publications, 465 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 9511436 0 3

Species come and go, but their coming and going remains, we rather think, unremarked by any species but our own. That is one thing which distinguishes us from all the others. Another is that we bother about what distinguishes us from all the others. Another again is that we bother about destiny and free will. Yet another is that we wear clothes.

And another is that we recently invented a way of getting rid of ourselves if we ever find ourselves unbearable, and that was nuclear weapons. We have to say ‘was’, because we have now invented a second way: we could perhaps now also do it by having an artificial winter caused by ‘conventional’ weapons dropped on the plant of the petro- and other chemical industries, and on forests. Obviously, like all the other species, we could do away with ourselves unintentionally; in our case, that might be by pollution or by not reacting to Aids.

The knowledge that we were the first auto-destructible species ever to walk the earth, since it can be grasped quite simply and is felt very deeply, led to a confused, passionate and continuing debate on what to do about it. The debate has concentrated on how to treat the invention itself: nuclear weapons. Part of it has gone back to various questions which were already debated long before the nuclear age: what is a just war; when is force justifiable; what to do with weapons in general; whether we can discontinue war; whether there can be world government; whether safety lies in individual or institutional improvement. All these debates are intrinsically enthralling, as everything must be which touches on the question of our survival, whether as homo economicus, politicus, moralis or, as in this case, simply ens. But only one of them has shown up at the political level, only one has caused people to vote and march: the debate about how to treat the invention itself. It has taken the form: ought a state to get rid of all its nuclear weapons, and if so should it do so by multilateral agreement or by one-sided and unconditional renunciation? To consider the validity of this debate we must proceed historically. Nuclear weapons appeared. We must start with the question: who did it, what did they do, and why did they do it?

Five sovereign states in the world publicly acquired nuclear weapons. Three or four more have done so clandestinely, but this does not affect the main argument. Each of the five states did so for fear of the nuclear weapons of some other state. The first nuclear weapons programme in the world, which was American-British-Canadian with Free French and German refugee help, was undertaken out of fear that Nazi Germany was acquiring nuclear weapons. The fear, though well grounded in possibility, turned out to be groundless in fact. This Allied programme became in 1945-6 a unilateral United States programme. The second state to acquire nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, did so, first out of fear of possible Nazi German weapons, and later out of fear of the real American ones. The third state was Britain: we did so out of fear of the Russian ones, which by then naturally expressed itself as a fear that our allies the United States might not be prepared to risk their own existence to protect us against the Russian ones. France acquired nuclear weapons for the same reason. China acquired them because she had been expressly threatened with nuclear bombardment, first by the United States (when the Soviet Union did not come to the rescue), and then by the Soviet Union. A progression of sovereign states acquired weapons out of fear.

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