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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Existential Threat

Seventy years ago today the United States detonated the first nuclear weapon over Hiroshima heralding humanity’s new capacity to orchestrate its own demise. Much has occurred over the ensuing years. Nuclear arsenals grew from zero to 64,000 in the first forty years while the number of nuclear weapons states expanded from one to six. Atmospheric tests were performed in the Pacific rendering some islands uninhabitable, forcing population relocations, and grievously damaging the health of thousands. The Soviet Union and the U.S. entered into a tense nuclear stand-off across the Iron Curtain.

Since 1986 progress has been made in dismantling much of the nuclear stockpile. Today there are about 10,000 nuclear weapons world-wide in military arsenals, not counting about 5,800 not currently in military arsenals but available for use. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 brought some international control and ended indiscriminate testing. The frightening days of the Cold War when school children learned to crouch under their desks and families contemplated back yard bomb shelters have become a distant memory. Seventy years after the catastrophe of Hiroshima it’s tempting to believe that the only existential nuclear threats are North Korea which has nuclear weapons, and Iran which has developed technology that could lead to building nuclear weapons.

But while applauding progress, the real existential threat may in fact be our growing, and false, sense of security. While the number of weapons is drastically reduced, there remain 10,000 active warheads. That’s still a big number! And since 1965 the number of nuclear weapons states has almost doubled from five (U.S., Soviet Union/Russia, the U.K., France and China) to nine with the addition of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. (see “The Nuclear Notebook,” an interactive guide from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.) Israel, India, and Pakistan have never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; Israel does not even officially acknowledge its nuclear program. Meanwhile, North Korea’s program remains unregulated by international treaty or inspections.

In other words, there remain an enormous number of nuclear weapons in the hands of a large number of state actors, some more trustworthy than others. And, while the NPT envisioned the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, it has thus far only achieved reduction with little hope in sight for the larger goal. Instead, both the United States and Russia are planning massive modernization programs.

There are other causes for concern beyond simple numbers. Since Russia’s incursion in Ukraine and the ensuing tensions with the U.S. and Western Europe, regular exchanges between nuclear scientists in Russia and the U.S., an important building block of nuclear safety and security, have been suspended. Pakistan and India remain in a tense state of hostility over Kashmir, and Pakistan sits on the fault lines of global terrorism. China grows increasing aggressive militarily, staking claims that alarm US allies like Japan and the Philippines. North Korea’s program remains veiled in secrecy with no diplomatic initiatives aimed at curbing or controlling weapons’ development or deployment under way.

Are we safer today than during the scary Cold War days many of us remember? Yes and no. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts it this way: “Today the mind numbing possibility of nuclear annihilation as a result of a deliberate attack on the other by the United States or Russia seems a thing of the past, yet the potential for an accidental, unauthorized, or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes.” Amid the intense anti-treaty lobbying efforts underway from Israel and its American supporters, it may be tempting to believe that the only existential threat from nuclear weapons emanates from Iran. But that belief is naïve and dangerous.

Why this seduction? It may be that the threat of nuclear annihilation is simply too incomprehensible, our minds impervious to these ominous numbers and statistics. Perhaps on this grim anniversary the poet offers the more powerful word. Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet,” (1961) asks the prophet to “spare us all words of the weapons, their force and range,/The long numbers that rocket the mind;/Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,/unable to fear what is too strange.” Instead, he suggests,

Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?

That same year Professor Joseph Sittler of the University of Chicago Divinity School addressed the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, calling us to the promises of obedience in this nuclear age: “This radio-active earth, so fecund and so fragile, is [God’s] creation, our sister, and the material place where we meet the brother in Christ’s light. Ever since Hiroshima the very term light has ghastly meanings. But ever since creation it has had meanings glorious; and ever since Bethlehem meanings concrete and beckoning.” Ghastly, yes. But beckoning as well. Whatever it takes – the stark data of the scientists or the evocative language of the poet and preacher – this anniversary calls for action, not complacency, urgency, not mere commemoration.

John H. Thomas
August 6, 2015

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