Nuclear weapons have become symbolic weapons, for display only. They are not weapons of war. They have played no part in the wars of the last few decades. When nations felt threatened, they did not look to their nuclear arsenals for a sense of security.
No wonder, as a report from the Pentagon says, the men who operate America’s intercontinental missile force are suffering from low morale. Once up a time they felt they were the front line of their country’s defence. Now they feel irrelevant.
When east-west tension in Europe rises over Ukraine, Putin refurbishes his nuclear forces, the Pentagon announces plans for a new long-range cruise missile and cancels proposals to withdraw its few remaining nuclear bombs from Europe.
But these are not preparations for nuclear war. They are signals to the other side, and to their own peoples, that they are very annoyed at the way things are going.
In the Far East North Korea is testing missiles with longer and longer range and making sure the world knows about it. But this is to assert its place among the big boys. It is not preparation for nuclear war, which would be suicidal however far their missiles can reach.
So are there are any reasons to worry about all these nuclear weapons if they are going to stay put and never be used to kill people?
Yes there are. First and most simply, there is the cost. The United States plans to spend $1 trillion over the next ten years maintaining and improving its nuclear forces. The arguments over allocating this amount have already started within the Administration. There are other things to spend the money on which would benefit most Americans more, if not Lockheed and Boeing.
Second, there is the chance that someone in some country may miss the point and begin to think of nuclear weapons as a way to inflict damage on an enemy, or as a desperate measure. There is no knowing who or what group will come to power in a future North Korea or Pakistan.
Third, accidents can happen. There have been accidents already, in which fuel has caught fire, one in Wisconsin killing two people. Six nuclear warheads were transported across America by mistake and left unguarded and unnoticed on a runway for a day. Who knows what accidents have occurred in other countries’ nuclear forces, where procedures and operations are not as tightly controlled?
Fourth, and probably most important, there is the chance that symbolic nuclear weapons can cease to be only symbolic and can become a threat. This happened in the Cuban missile crisis, when the world came the closest it has ever come to nuclear war.
The crisis began when the Russians secretly installed missiles in Cuba that could reach the United States. Americans were told that these missiles threatened American cities. But the symbolism was stronger than the military reality. President Kennedy admitted to his cabinet that it was not the game-changer it appeared to be: the Russians already had missiles and bombers that could reach American cities from Russia.
However, he had previously responded to criticism that he was weak on Cuba by promising that he would never allow offensive weapons to be placed on Cuba.
“Last month I should have said we don’t care,” he said in the privacy of the cabinet room. But after what he had said, to allow the missiles to remain would show weakness which the Russians could exploit, in Berlin, for instance, which was a potential flashpoint. Those missiles had become a symbol of American resolve. So he stood firm. He instituted a naval blockade to prevent any more missiles coming in, and put American forces around the world on alert. Nuclear war threatened.
Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technologies that have ever been produced, with the power to wipe out civilisation. New causes for conflict between nations will arise. Nuclear weapons, whatever their role today, make it possible that conflict could threaten the whole human race. The need to control them, reduce them and finally abolish them remains as great as ever.