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Nuclear threat is still a potent one

Last week brought the nuclear issue back on stage when the United States announced it was no longer targeting non-nuclear states for a strike from the potent American arsenal, providing they were not seeking nuclear status.

Last week brought the nuclear issue back on stage when the United States announced it was no longer targeting non-nuclear states for a strike from the potent American arsenal, providing they were not seeking nuclear status.

The nuclear age began with a blinding flash and a roll of thunder early one summer morning down in New Mexico 65 years ago. The destructive effect of the fireball and subsequent shockwave made nuclear fission a weapon of war, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated convincingly a few weeks later. The radiological effects of the atomic bomb took longer to become fully appreciated. About 40 years ago I got an eyewitness reaction to the vastly greater power of thermonuclear weapons. I was chatting at a social function with a witty and humorous intelligence officer from Britain’s Royal Air Force. Israel and Egypt were effectively at war with one another at the time and I made a flip remark about the Israelis possibly dropping a nuclear bomb on the Aswan Dam, 700 kilometres from Cairo, as a kind of demonstration. The Britisher looked at me in horror, and asked in subdued tones, “Have you ever seen a nuclear explosion?” On my saying I had not, he went on, “Well I have. The incredible force is utterly beyond belief. Once you have seen it, you would never joke about using one.” He had witnessed only the test of a British hydrogen bomb, not actual use against an inhabited area, but the man’s dismay at my casual attitude remains clear in my mind.

The initial nuclear weapons were controlled by the United States. From the start there had been those Americans, like Major General Leslie Groves in charge of the wartime bomb-making project, who resented sharing the new technology with their British ally. The Soviet Union was also an ally, but not admitted to the secret, which it sought through espionage. More importantly, the Soviets had top grade nuclear scientists able to replicate the American-British project. The Soviet Union and Britain quickly became nuclear powers. The “nuclear club” slowly but steadily expanded over the decades that followed. There are now eight acknowledged members, North Korea being the most recent, if only marginal. The membership of Israel has always been murky and South Africa soon renounced its brief claim.

The premise of the major powers who initially gained nuclear status was always that their leaders are responsible people who would use the weapons only when absolutely necessary. Some of their leaders have in truth made that premise seem shaky. But there are worse persons in the world who gain power and easier access to the technology and fissionable material increases the risk of some megalomaniac or scoundrel becoming nuclear enabled. Had the abortive Nazi nuclear program presented Adolph Hitler with a usable bomb, would he have hesitated for a minute to use it, even with Soviet tanks overrunning Berlin? Did the undeniably bellicose Saddam Hussein regret on the gallows that his earlier nuclear program had not given him something to hurl against the American invaders? As time passes, the odds increase for nuclear weapons in less inhibited hands.

St. Albert resident David Haas frequently comments on world affairs.