This past winter, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists confirmed that their Doomsday Clock remains set at two minutes to midnight – the closest we have been to nuclear catastrophe since the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since their announcement, the situation has gotten worse. The Trump administration has brought the world’s nuclear arms control architecture – built over five decades – to the brink of collapse. It has withdrawn from the INF Treaty, taken no steps to extend the Obama-era New START Treaty due to expire in 2021, violated the nuclear deal with Iran, positioned the U.S. to restart nuclear weapons testing, and is pressing massive increases in nuclear weapons spending.
And then there’s the matter of having our current president – who repeatedly demonstrates recklessness and a lack of self-control – with a finger on the nuclear button. During this past April’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference at the United Nations, President Trump’s representative consistently refused to reiterate the Reagan-Gorbachev truth that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
As I write, many members of Congress are working to remove spending authorization for the development and deployment of extremely dangerous first-strike, so-called “low yield” nuclear weapons and to block spending for a new generation of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. But there is a more immediate threat. With the U.S. and Iranian navies playing chicken near the Strait of Hormuz and the danger that stalemated negotiations with North Korea could lead to a return to “fire and fury” threats next winter, we must do all that we can to remove Trump’s finger – and that of any future president – from the nuclear button.
Getting candidates on record committing to a U.S. policy against first use is an important and necessary step in building a firewall against nuclear Armageddon – and moving us toward a nuclear-free world.
Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry recently published an important book, "Thermonuclear Monarchy." With a striking metaphor and cold logic, she described how all life as we know it can be eliminated on the order of a single ruler of a nuclear superpower. The International Red Cross reports that neither they nor anyone else can provide meaningful assistance should even a single nuclear weapon be detonated on a city. And the Japanese and Korean* A-bomb survivors with whom I have worked for decades teach us that human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.
Unknown to most of us, from the Cuban Missile crisis to the 1976 ax murder crisis in the Korean demilitarized zone, Reagan-era miscalculations, and nuclear accidents, we have repeatedly been brought to within a hair's breadth of losing it all.
Since Trump's inauguration, we've been resisting a host of threats to people's lives, to human rights, and to the fabric of constitutional democracy: detention and deportations of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, encouragement of white supremacist violence, bomb threats against Jewish institutions, the assaults on the press and truth itself, and Trump's efforts to eviscerate spending for essential life-supporting social services while paying for the biggest military buildup in U.S. history.
Add to this list the White House's dangerous rhetoric — often uninformed and reckless — about nuclear weapons. Many have questioned if Trump can be trusted with the nuclear codes—not that anyone should be. He has challenged Russia to a new nuclear arms race. And we can wonder if, since his election campaign, he has learned what the nuclear triad (land, sea, and air-based nuclear weapons) is. He has yet to publicly disclaim his call for Japan and South Korea to become nuclear weapons states (and recent polls tell us a majority of South Koreans support their country becoming a nuclear power.) He is providing Saudi Arabia nuclear technologies. And he continues to repeat that "I can't take anything off the table."
Talk about children playing with fire! As Elaine Scarry reminds us, Trump has the authority to initiate a nuclear war – no one can now legally stop him. That’s why AFSC has joined Win Without War, the Ploughshares Fund, and a host of other organizations to launch this important petition.
*There were about 100,000 Korean slaves and other laborers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time of the A-bombings, constituting about 10% of the victims.