Richard Rhodes on nuclear war

In a March 2014 New York Times book review of Thermonuclear Monarchy, Rhodes writes:

J. Robert Oppenheimer [who helped develop the atomic bomb], once compared …the United States and Russia to “scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” Oppenheimer chose not to note that scorpions, a species almost as well known for belligerence as Homo sapiens, would sooner or later take that risk.

We humans have not done so, at least not so far. But while circling each other warily during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union occupied themselves with stockpiling enough weapons to freeze out food production with nuclear winter and destroy the human world.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was some expectation that nuclear weapons might be recognized as Cold War relics, irrelevant in a less polarized world and a common danger to all. Encouragingly, four nuclear states — Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and South Africa — voluntarily disarmed. But these most destructive of weapons turned out to have apparent value as guarantors of national security and tokens of national prestige. The superpowers negotiated reductions in their arsenals even as a secondary wave of proliferation began or continued in Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, while Iran and Iraq have so far been restrained from going nuclear with either a combination of threats and rewards or actual invasion.

Today there are still about 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world, most of them American or Russian, with a combined destructive force equivalent to 1,500 pounds of TNT for each and every man, woman and child on earth. The detonation of even a fraction of this stockpile could produce a worldwide Chernobyl, followed by a new ice age of dark starvation. Not even Dante imagined a fate so cruel for humankind.

The difficulty, despite several close calls, is that no one in authority believes the damned things will go off, and so everyone wants to play with them, like treasure hunters wallowing in a vault of golden coins laced with guardian scorpions, like children discovering the loaded gun their parents thoughtlessly neglected to lock away.


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