In 1946, Albert Einstein wrote, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything - - - - and we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
President John F Kennedy and USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in intensive communications during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev agreed to remove USSR missiles in Cuba if the US removed its missiles in Turkey and Italy. The two leaders reached agreement based on the common goal of preventing nuclear war.
At their summit in 1985, Ronald Reagan and Mikael Gorbachev said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. They agreed to ongoing dialogue to reduce nuclear risks and to promote non-proliferation and disarmament, paving the way to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The US has since withdrawn from the INF Treaty, while the New START Treaty has been extended, but only until February 2026.
1945 – 2023
Having witnessed the devastation which atomic bombs wrought on Japan in August 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer (the “Father” of the atomic bomb) and other scientists understood that the continued development of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to an arms race with the Soviet Union. They were right. The Soviets tested their first nuclear device four years later, in 1949. Those scientists also recognised that it was possible (as the US demonstrated less than a decade later) to make hydrogen bombs thousands of times more powerful than the weapons used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fighting a nuclear war would be equivalent to “PLANETARY OMNICIDE”.
By June 1945 President Truman knew that Japan knew was seeking terms of surrender. The US did not need to drop atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. Nevertheless, Truman authorised the bombing which led to the genocidal killing of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.
Today, the symbolic Doomsday Clock has moved to only 90 seconds from midnight – the time which marks the theoretical point of annihilation. The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists. It is set annually by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The USA and Russia together possess nearly 90% of the world’s 13,000 nuclear weapons. The top three nuclear war inventories are held by Russia with 5,889, United States were 5,244, and China with 410. Despite that, important bilateral nuclear arms control agreements have largely disappeared while the world’s nuclear armed nations continue to pour tens of billions of dollars each year into upgrading their nuclear arsenals. The US military budget is now close to US$1 trillion per annum.
The greatest danger today is nuclear war starting as a result of an error. Records reveal that the planet has come close to unplanned nuclear war more than 30 times since 1950, due to computer error, carelessness, or failed communication.
The End of the Cold War
In 1990 US Secretary of State, James Baker assured Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would expand “Not one inch Eastward” (towards Russia) That assurance came, not only from Baker but also, amongst others, from George Bush, Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, and Margaret Thatcher. Based on those assurances, Gorbachev agreed to German reunification and withdrew his forces from Eastern Europe. The end of the Cold War had created an opportunity for the US, not only to reduce nuclear weapons but to transform its relationship with Russia.
The US blew that opportunity, and 30 years later, the US-Russian relationship is at an all-time low. In 1996, ignoring its commitment, the US proposed that NATO invite Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states to join NATO. More than forty foreign policy experts expressed concern about NATO expansion, but NATO just kept expanding eastwards. For Russia, Ukraine was the last straw and it invaded in February 2022.
The danger of blundering into war is magnified by the US policy which gives the US President sole authority to use atomic weapons. This is exacerbated by America’s continuing policy of “first use” to launch the bomb. Although President Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in January 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. However, in Obama’s final year in office his military dropped more than 25,000 bombs across seven countries.
Joe Biden at the age of 81 is by far the oldest US President ever and if re-elected he will be in office until he reaches 86. If Donald Trump becomes president, he will be 78 when he takes office. He will be 82 when his term expires.
The risk of a nuclear holocaust rests in the hands of the US President.
On 28 January 2024, a drone attack on the US base in Jordan killed three US Army Reserve soldiers and injured 41 others. US President Biden announced that “The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world”, but he added that “To all those who seek to do us harm: We will respond”. Only days later, US forces carried out the first round of strikes against more than 85 Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria. This was in retaliation for the drone strike even though the US admitted that it had no evidence that Iran was behind the attack. When asked how much Iran new about the attack, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin responded, “We don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter because Iran sponsors these groups”.
The US has threatened that more is to come. So much for the US not seeking conflict in the Middle East. After all, such conflict is the US empire’s bread and butter! Before reaching for the gun, the Biden Administration might well have reflected on how JF Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev responded to the Cuban crisis in 1962, how Ronald Reagan dealt with Mikael Gorbachev in 1985, and how Nixon and Kissinger chose to deal with China in 1972, but that is no longer the American way.
Only days ago, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans suggested the United States and China enter into a comprehensive new détente, formally pledging to treat each other as “mutually respectful equals”. However, Joseph Camilleri asks, “What exactly is comprehensive détente?” He reminds the reader how Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty - INF (eliminating an entire class of missiles) in 1987 but tragically, since then, the US has withdrawn from the INF.
Camilleri also questions the meaning of each side respecting the other “as equals”, pointing out that the US maintains 750 military bases in 80 countries while castigating China for trying to secure access to a port facility in Asia or Africa. In the 20th century, the US participated in 38 armed conflicts (one every three years) and since 2000 has engaged in at least 12 wars (equal to one every two years). The principle of “equality” is meaningless unless it is given practical content.
What about Australia
Australia has not yet signed or ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) even though the Australian Labor Party adopted a resolution in 2018 committing to sign and ratify the TPNW when in government. The resolution was moved at the time by Anthony Albanese who was a vocal supporter of the Treaty. Now, in government, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has declined to offer a timeline for Australia’s signature saying that the government “Will consider the TPNW systematically and methodically and engage closely with our international partners – including the United States – as part of this process”. With the US discouraging Australia from joining the TPNW, that is not going to happen any time soon. The embarrassment for Australia is made worse by the fact that the recently appointed Executive Director of ICAN (The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) is a former Labor MP, Melissa Parke.
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