“A better world shall emerge”

Michel Duguay Nuclear Weapons

Michel Duguay

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 3 Autumn 2015

Lessons from the past can help change the mindset
of the planet on nuclear disarmament

World War II ended formally on September 2, 1945, when General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Pacific armed forces, led a ceremony onboard warship USS Missouri, during which Japanese representatives signed the surrender papers. In a brief speech MacArthur urged all people “to rise to that higher dignity” so that “a better world shall emerge.”

Given the present 16,000 nuclear weapon arsenal, it is imperative that all of us strive to understand what MacArthur’s words could mean today.

Trend to wider planetary cooperation

Today we see many signs of a general trend toward wider planetary cooperation, which is essential to achieve nuclear disarmament. An articulate and science-based advocacy of this trend was formulated in early 2015 by evolutionary anthropologist Elizabeth Crouch Zelman in her book Our Beleaguered Planet, Beyond Tribalism. In it she explored the evolution of Homo sapiens over the last six million years and concluded that humans must leave tribalism behind if we are to solve severe problems such as climate change, pollution, and the threat of nuclear war.

xtending our empathy to all humankind and cooperating on a global scale constitute an alternative to tribalism. Zelman makes a vital contribution to the current humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament.

Because all planetary problems are interconnected, the recent Encyclical letter Laudato Si on the environment, published in June by Pope Francis, is another step in the right direction of international cooperation.

The laws of probability

Current “atomic revitalization” projects in the United States, with a collective price tag of up to one trillion dollars over the next 30 years, aim to modernize nuclear weapons and missiles (Broad & Sanger 2014). Modernizing our planetary mindset to promote human dignity and individual self-worth would be far less expensive and much more enjoyable. Increased cooperation among all nations, especially among the nine nuclear-armed countries, does much more to promote peace and nuclear disarmament.

The belief that updating nuclear weapons will definitely prevent accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation is mathematically equivalent to a belief that the laws of probability will be suspended for the next 30 years. The probability of an unauthorized nuclear detonation cannot be calculated because human behaviour is a fundamental uncertainty. However, the laws of probability tell us that an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation could occur in the future and that the longer we wait the higher the probability.

Earlier this year the Hoover Institution published an excellent book edited by George P. Shultz and James E. Goodby: The War That Must Never Be Fought: Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence. Benoît Pelopidas (ch. 1) and Steven Pifer (ch. 3) document several occasions in which we were ‘’lucky’’ that various political crises and accidents did not trigger nuclear bomb detonations. Pelopidas wrote, “The limits of safety, the limits of command and control, and the persistence of sloppy practices even in the US nuclear forces, suggest that the role of luck is likely to have been even more important than we can document here” (p. 19).

Author Eric Schlosser came to the same conclusion in his 2013 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The last three words in the subtitle underline the fact that many times we were lucky to avoid accidental nuclear weapon detonations.

“Not to target cities”

Taking cities off nuclear target lists would be a great step forward. Currently 6,779 Mayors for Peace (from 161 countries) are running their 2020 Vision Campaign, seeking to achieve the global elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020. In the United States, 204 members of Mayors for Peace cooperate with the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), which has 1,407 members. According to a recent letter by counsel for the Western States Legal Foundation, “in 2004, 2006, and each year since, the USCM has unanimously adopted resolutions introduced by U.S. members of Mayors for Peace calling on governments of nuclear-armed states not to target cities, and for constructive, good faith U.S. leadership in implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the disarmament obligation. The policy positions adopted at the annual meetings collectively represent the views of the nation’s mayors and are distributed to the President of the United States and Congress” (Western States Legal Foundation 2015).

Ocean targeting for nuclear missiles

Programming nuclear missiles to hit oceans, with verification, is one simple step that probably could be accomplished in a single week and would cost almost nothing. It would eliminate the most dreadful aspect of the nuclear arsenal: 1,600 missiles in a state of high alert. Ocean targeting would considerably reduce the probability of a nuclear detonation over a city and would be a significant step in changing the planetary mindset.

Ending preemptive strikes

The concept of a nuclear preemptive strike is one of the scariest scenarios envisaged by the U.S. and Russian militaries. Their promoters invoke the principle of self-defence: attack them first before they attack us.

Promoters of the present U.S. policy of drone-mediated targeted killings in other countries argue that the targeted persons were suspected of preparing attacks on the United States, and so a preemptive strike was justified. In February 2014 the European Parliament condemned this policy by a vote of 534 to 49.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice declared that the threat or use of nuclear weapons violates international humanitarian law. Doesn’t the aiming of nuclear-armed missiles at cities constitute an unacceptable threat by making possible a preemptive strike?

World War I lesson

Historian Margaret MacMillan’s book The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 reminds us that armament races can lead to war. In 1914 the prevalent military wisdom was that the party that attacked first would likely win the war. The First and Second World Wars disproved that view. Why do we still hear today that a so-called preemptive first strike by nuclear means will assure victory?

MacMillan noted that the decisions that led to the First World War were taken by only a few men. She summed up the causes of the war: ‘’First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.’’ The importance of these last four words must be conveyed to the 99 per cent of the world’s persons who do not want nuclear war or its threat.

Lessons from July 20, 1969

On May 25, 1961 John F. Kennedy announced the ambitious project of landing men on the Moon within a decade. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, saying, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Isn’t it time for humankind to make another giant leap? What stands in our way?

To protect urban dwellers from an accidental or unauthorized nuclear missile attack, why don’t we explore ways of bringing potentially responsible key persons to court NOW by invoking the principle of preemption? Let’s move preemption from attacking people to protecting them, by bringing the nuclear-responsible parties to court BEFORE they launch nuclear attacks.


Broad, William J. & David E. Sanger. 2014. U.S. ramping up major renewal in nuclear arms. The New York Times, September 21.

Western State Legal Foundation. 2015. Letter to the Clerk of the Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, July 17, 2015.

Michel Duguay is a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Université Laval.

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