During the Cold War we talked and worried about nuclear missiles and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.
Many of us in school in the 1950s participated in air raid drills in which – at the sound of a shrill siren – we quickly ducked under our desks for protection. The drills were ludicrous, as if a desk could protect against nuclear attack.
I lived in South Dakota in the 1970s and 80s and while traveling to various of the Sioux reservations, regularly passed by some of the 1,000 silos in the Upper Midwest – Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Wyoming – where nuclear missiles were targeted at large population centers in the USSR. We assumed Soviet missiles were also targeted at U.S. large cities. During the 1980s some of us demonstrated against the nuclear targeting and were detained or imprisoned for varying lengths of time. Today the Cold War has ended and the U.S. has decommissioned just over half of its land-based missiles in the Upper Midwest.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal has dropped from our consciousness.
Because Americans are now in near-panic over the danger posed by terrorists, the nuclear threat seems diffuse and far away, while the prospect of a deranged fanatic shooting up a cinema is as vivid as today’s news. Perhaps the danger posed by nuclear weapons appears less dangerous because no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945. Voices trying to alert us to the true threat are drowned out in a frenzy of over-the-top campaign speeches and TV rants about crazed terrorists.
There are many reasons, however, that we must continue to focus on shrinking the number of nuclear weapons:
• When the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed, there were only five nuclear powers: the U.S., Russia, UK, France, and China. Since then, others have developed their own, compounding the risk of error or irrationality: India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, and perhaps North Korea.
• The number of types in the current U.S. arsenal has grown to include warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.
• U.S. nuclear bombs have been lost in accidents and never recovered. For example, a number of hydrogen bombs were accidently released in 1961 from a U.S. Air Force B-52 that broke up in midair over Goldsboro, N.C. None detonated, but the destruction of one of those bombs would have been some 260 times more powerful than that dropped on Hiroshima.
• Many nuclear weapons-related waste dumps are unsecured. An underground fire caused at least five explosions in a long-closed-down, low-level radioactive waste dump in the desert of Nevada.
• Each of the 450 land-based 335-kiloton hydrogen bombs remaining in the Upper Midwest is ready for launch within 30 seconds of a presidential order to destroy the people in entire cities , or, perhaps more likely with these decades-old and strategically obsolete missile systems, an equipment malfunction or operator error. Because of this launch-on-warning policy, these land-based missiles are particularly susceptible to accidental launch from which they cannot be recalled.
• That danger, however, pales beside an emerging new one. The president has proposed a frighteningly wrong-headed plan to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal at the unfathomable cost of about $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Nuclear “modernization” increases the prospect of true devastation. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry warns that if the plan becomes real, disputes among nations will be “more likely to erupt in nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.” Resources would be much better used to counter climate change and address human needs and infrastructure.
On March 7, John LaForge, who since 1992 has worked on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, will speak in Oberlin while promoting the revised edition of “Nuclear Heartland: A Guide to the 450 Land-Based Missiles of the United States.”
He will speak twice: at 4:30 p.m. in 106 King at Oberlin College and at 7:15 p.m. in Heiser Auditorium at Kendal at Oberlin, on “The Case for Eliminating U.S. Land-based Nuclear Missiles: Why 450 Minuteman III Missiles in the Upper Midwest Are a Danger to Us All.”
Well-known Australian physician, author, and anti-nuclear advocate Helen Mary Caldicott describes the revised edition of Nuclear Heartland as “one of the most frightening books” she has ever read and cautions us all that, “If you’re not concerned about the dangers of nuclear warheads, you suffer a mental illness.”
Dwight Call, a 1968 graduate of Oberlin College, holds a doctorate from Drew University where his focus was the intersection between religion and anthropology. He worked in community development on the Sioux reservations in South Dakota and in international education both in Vermont and Georgia, as well as abroad in Japan, Cameroon, and Australia. Call lives at Kendal at Oberlin but continues to explore the world.