The Second Coming of the Nuclear Age

Courtesy Reuters


Half a century after it began, the nuclear drama has reached the conclusion of its first act--a rather happy ending in spite of the gloomy prospects for civilization that darkened the stage at the outset. This respite, though, is not a lasting redemption from the dangers of nuclear warfare. Whether by accident, because of a terrorist act, or as part of a military campaign, a nuclear bomb might explode someday, unleashing forces that would transform the international system far more profoundly than did the collapse of the Soviet empire. The end of the present era, in which nuclear weapons are plentiful but never used, would be sudden, and the major nuclear powers are ill prepared for the revolution in strategic thinking this event would compel.

Fifty years ago the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an immense emotional impact. The long period of nonuse that followed has shriveled public awareness of the bomb's power to merely a faint apprehension. Just one or two destructive nuclear detonations would revive that anxiety everywhere, and Americans would find it much harder to cope with these reawakened passions than in August 1945. After their great victory in World War II, Americans rode a wave of optimism and were comforted by the knowledge that, at least for a while, no other state possessed atomic technology. Unlike after a future nuclear explosion, in 1945 there were no threats of nuclear revenge, no arsenals with thousands of nuclear warheads, no nuclear "guarantees" that had abruptly disintegrated, no disproved theories of deterrence, no failed safeguards and controls. Above all, there was no worldwide presumption of continued nonuse that had unexpectedly been shattered. Before such a calamity occurs, the United States must lead the great powers in planning for the international control of nuclear weapons.


The nuclear threat appears to have faded only because no nuclear bomb has been detonated in the past 50 years, except at secluded test sites. And for

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