Socialist Worker

They really would press the button - unless we stop them first

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1804

THE THREAT of war between India and Pakistan has brought the horror of nuclear destruction back to the world. Leaders from both countries have spoken openly about the obscenity of 'first strikes' or 'second strikes', and their willingness to use nuclear warheads. A nuclear exchange between the two countries, with a combined population of 1.2 billion people, could kill ten million people in minutes. They are not the only states willing to use nuclear weapons.

Geoff Hoon, Tony Blair's defence secretary, has bragged about his willingness to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes, even against countries that have no nuclear missiles. 'I am absolutely confident, in the right conditions, we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons,' he told a shocked committee of MPs. He has repeated this statement twice.

George W Bush's government has also been aiming its nuclear warheads at targets around the world. A leaked Nuclear Posture Review produced by the US government gives a list of countries the US is prepared to blast with first-strike nuclear attacks. They include Libya, Syria, Iran and China, as well as Iraq and North Korea. It is only just over a decade ago that we were told to celebrate the end of the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union. We were told ordinary people would receive a peace dividend.

The world is a much more dangerous place today. Nuclear war is even more likely than in the Cold War. Then successive wars raised the spectre of nuclear attacks. The world was brought right to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US threatened to launch strikes against Cuba to stop it aiming Soviet nuclear weapons at the US.

But for nearly 50 years the two highly armed superpowers, vying to match each other's deadly power, imposed some balance on the system. Today there are many times more weapons in the world than at the height of the Cold War.

Some 33,000 nuclear weapons are stockpiled or in position around the world. The US and Russia's recent deal to reduce nuclear warheads was a sham. The US will continue to store most of the 4,000 warheads it will remove from active use.

These weapons are 40 times more powerful than the US nuclear devices that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is no longer just the US and Russia that have nuclear devices. China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and Britain also have nuclear weapons, with another raft of countries racing to develop them. This means regional conflicts have the capacity to lead to nuclear devastation. The terrifying fact is that around 4,500 nuclear weapons are on 'hair trigger' alert. They could all be set off in minutes.

On top of all this, the US is planning its Son of Star Wars missile defence system. This system uses satellites in space to prevent any retaliatory attacks on the US if it used nuclear weapons. Star Wars smashes the justification that for many years underpinned the nuclear arms race-that the mutually assured destruction of both sides would stop any power actually using the weapons.

It will inevitably lead to a new arms race as other powers chase the US technology. George Bush has torn up weapons treaties. Last year he declared that the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was 'a relic of the past.

'It prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future,' he said. The US is developing what it calls 'low yield' nuclear weapons. Terrifyingly, right wing politicians describe these as 'humanitarian weapons'. This is propaganda designed to overcome the special horror rightly attached to the use of nuclear weapons, with their unique capacity to kill and poison for generations. US policy makers want to 'normalise' the use of nuclear weapons and make it easier to use them.

The threat of our leaders plunging us into a nuclear holocaust is greater than ever-and it is growing. As Arundhati Roy, the Indian author and campaigner, said, 'This world of ours is 4,600,000,000 years old. It could end in an afternoon.'

Nukes are part of capitalism

THE RACE to establish military dominance in the world has come at a very high price, a price paid by the world's poor and hungry. During World War Two the US government was prepared to go to any lengths to be the first to develop the atomic bomb. The resulting Manhattan Project involved the finest scientists in the Western world.

It swallowed an incredible-for the time-$20 billion between 1940 and 1945. And all this was mobilised to produce the most destructive weapon ever seen in the history of humanity. After World War Two the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union shaped the priorities of the whole system.

Huge amounts of wealth, and research and development expertise were chucked away on developing weapons that, if used, could destroy the whole planet. In 1998 a study revealed that between 1940 and 1996 the US spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons.

And the enormous waste of desperately needed resources still goes on today. The Son of Star Wars missile defence system has a budget of around $8 billion a year, and total costs could run to $200 billion. The US is also still spending $35 billion a year on its nuclear programme. Nuclear weapons are not some irrational product of the paranoid Dr Strangeloves running the world's military forces.

Nor are they a conspiracy orchestrated by the big arms companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, though they do stand to make millions from new contracts.

Nuclear weapons are the most obscene but logical conclusion of a whole system based on economic, political and military competition. Today huge multinational corporations reach beyond the borders of their nation-state to grab profits from an increasingly global system of production.

This neverending competition carries with it the ever present threat of spilling over into military competition. But the horrors of nuclear weapons have not been accepted as normal or inevitable. Their development has created huge waves of protest. In the 1950s, when the H-bomb was developed, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised huge marches in Britain.

In the early 1980s, as a new Cold War seemed on the cards under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, CND rose again. Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe marched to ban the bomb. Today protests against nuclear weapons are once again growing.

In the past it was easier to believe that nuclear war was an aberration-something that had to be dealt with separately from the other horrors of capitalism. Today many activists see the campaign against weapons and war as part of a fight against the whole system.

After three major wars in the last ten years involving Britain, thousands can see how the terrible threat of nuclear war is linked to the global competition between capitalists.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, 'The anarchy of world capitalism expresses itself in the collision of the state organisations and in capitalist wars.'

A new generation knows that nuclear weapons do not ensure peace, and that, as Lenin wrote, under modern capitalism periods of peace 'inevitably can only be breathing spells between wars'.

Horror of the system

  • Number of US nuclear bombs lost in accidents and never recovered: 11.
  • Number of false alarms of nuclear attack in an 18-month period: 147.
  • Global military expenditure: $1 million a minute or $1,440 million a day.
  • 24,000 people a day die of hunger and 8,700 children a day die from diarrhoea and measles.
  • US military spending: $396 billion a year.
  • $50 billion a year would pay for healthcare for everyone in the world.

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Article information

Sat 15 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1804
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