How I Came to Support the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons

About three years ago, in November 2017, I was honored to be one of about a 100 people invited by the Vatican to an international symposium, “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” It was the first global gathering conducted after 120 nations at the United Nations approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

This treaty, which is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, was adopted by the U.N. on July 7, 2017, and needed 50 countries to ratify it in order for it to come into force. The purpose for the treaty was to get world leaders and citizens to consider nuclear weapons as immoral and illegal as chemical and biological weapons, whose use the U.N had previously prohibited.

Pope Francis himself was very invested in the issue. He gave the keynote address in which he condemned not only the threat of their use, but also the possession of nuclear weapons and warned that nuclear deterrence policies offered a false sense of security. He also personally thanked each of the attendees individually.

The majority of those attending the conference, especially those who had personal experience with these weapons, including survivors of nuclear attacks, found it hard to believe that the majority of nations would not move in the direction of ratifying and implementing the treaty. However, approximately three years later, and in spite of opposition by several major powers, including the United States, that is exactly what happened,.

Earlier this year, on Oct. 24, Honduras became the 50th nation, of the 85 who had signed the treaty, to ratify it. This brought the treaty to the legal threshold required for TPNW to enter into force. As a result, on January 22, 2021, some 75 years after nuclear weapons were first used, TPNW will become international law and prohibit participating nations from developing, possessing, testing, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allow them to be stationed on their territory or assist others to do so.

While this is a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done. None of the nine nuclear States, including the United States, have signed the treaty, let alone ratified it. The United States not only did not sign the treaty, but the Trump administration actually sent a letter to other governments that have signed or ratified it urging them to reverse their decision for making what they labeled a strategic error. Moreover, the United States has still not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) passed about 15 years ago.

The U.S. position on this issue is not surprising. For too long, too many people in the U.S. military, in government, and in the general public have not fully contemplated how disastrous using these weapons was and could be. I saw this myself in and outside of government.

Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, I and my fellow classmates routinely participated in duck-and-cover drills to prepare us for a nuclear attack, but did not think much about them. These drills were so routine that they did not appear to be any more important than our physical education classes in the gym.

I joined the Navy in the summer of 1962 and was halfway through Officer Candidate School (OCS) when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Although we now know how close the United States came to actually having a nuclear exchange with the former Soviet Union, the seriousness of the crisis did not appear to register on me or my fellow servicemembers.

After getting my commission and wings in 1963, I was undergoing training in San Diego to get ready to join Patrol Squadron One.who carried out maritime patrol, anti-submarine warfare, and other responsibilities.  A speaker at one of our sessions was Navy Admiral Frederick Ashworth, who was the atomic weaponeer onboard the B-29 carrying the Batman nuclear weapon in 1945. According to the admiral, the crew of the B-29 had to have a visual sighting of the target before dropping it.

But when the B-29 Superfortress went to its first target, Kokuna, it was shrouded in clouds and haze, so they diverted to Nagasaki, the backup target. When they arrived there, this city was also covered in clouds. Since they had to drop the bomb by 11 a.m. or abort the mission, the situation raised concerns among the crew. None of them wanted to return to their base still carrying the bomb or drop it under these conditions. However, during his talk, the admiral jokingly claimed that just before 11 a.m. the heavens opened up and they had enough visual sighting to enable them to drop the bomb on the intended target. Unfortunately, neither myself, nor my colleagues, showed much concern about the admiral speaking so cavalierly about dropping a nuclear weapon in the wrong place on such a large city.

When I got to my squadron, I was assigned as the nuclear weapons duty officer for my crew and routinely had to supervise loading dummy, or inert, nuclear weapons on our plane. My squadron mates and I never thought much about it. Moreover, we were never told where the real bombs were or what our targets might be. Nor did we seem to care.

When my squadron deployed to Iwakuni, Japan, in 1964, I decided to visit Hiroshima but could not get any of my squadron mates to come along. Seeing that city even 19 years after the bombing was overwhelming. I followed it up with a visit to Nagasaki, where I discovered that despite what the admiral had said, the bomb did not come anywhere close to its intended target. In fact, it exploded almost on top of a Catholic church, about two miles from where it was supposed to hit.

During my time serving in the Reagan administration, I came to realize that the only nuclear strategy we had was massive retaliation, which would have made the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem almost trivial. But my admiration for President Ronald Reagan on this issue grew when I realized that his often-mocked Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or Star Wars), was an attempt by him not to have to rely on massive retaliation to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack, even if it involved a small number of weapons. In fact, the president decided that he needed SDI during the 1980 presidential campaign when he discovered that the only option a president had to even a small nuclear attack was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). My admiration for him on this issue was further enhanced when he and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, almost agreed to get rid of all nuclear weapons at their conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, a position that was openly criticized by many members of the nuclear priesthood, the group of strategists in government who actually contemplate how best to use nuclear weapons. They did agree to the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear weapons and laid the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

In many ways Reagan was actually following in the footsteps of some of his predecessors, going back to President Dwight Eisenhower. Unfortunately, our current president does not seem to realize how disastrous a nuclear bomb attack can be. Not only is he tearing up all of our nuclear agreements but he reportedly contemplated restarting nuclear testing. Too bad he’s never visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

If Reagan was still alive, he would be taking a leadership role, along with Pope Francis, in trying to get other nations, especially those with nuclear weapons to ratify the TPNW. And, at a minimum, to get the United States back into the arms control agreements from which the Trump administration has withdrawn, something President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to do.  Like the framers of TPNW, Reagan believed, and said publicly, that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The world needs to listen to the words of Reagan and the Pope in order to accelerate progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons.

Photo: Hiroshima, Japan. Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Lawrence Korb

Senior Fellow at American Progress; former Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryKorb).