The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump ignores the history of nuclear weapons at our peril

The U.S, must lead the effort to eliminate these weapons, not spark a new arms race.

Mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M., on July 16, 1945. (AP)

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb, we may be headed into a new arms race with Russia and China following President Trump’s plans to resume nuclear testing. According to a Washington Post report, the Trump administration has been holding discussions on carrying out nuclear test explosions for the first time since 1992.

This news alarmed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who stated, “The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous.”

It’s vital that we remember our responsibility as the first nation to test a nuclear weapon to lead the world in controlling and ultimately eliminating them. In fact, this idea has been embedded in nuclear policy since the beginning.

There was a real fear that Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb first, and the Manhattan Project began a race during the war to make sure that did not happen. There was also increasing alarm about the potential of a postwar world with nuclear weapons in the hands of many, recognizing the inevitability of this dangerous technology eventually reaching the Soviet Union and others. Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned President Harry Truman about the danger of other nations and even rogue groups developing an atomic bomb. They knew they could not keep the knowledge of how to build the bomb a secret forever.

Thanks to the successful secret research efforts of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the Army detonated the first atomic bomb, code name Trinity, on July 16, 1945.

Just weeks later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end World War II in the Pacific. Some cautioned against using the atomic bombs at all during the war, and following the war, these warnings again emerged to shape nuclear policy. In 1946, after studying the effect of the atomic bomb, the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey stated: “As the developer and exploiter of this ominous weapon, our nation has a responsibility, which no American should shirk, to lead in establishing and implementing the international guarantees and controls which will prevent its future use.”

And so, while the United States expanded its nuclear arsenal, it also crafted strategies for controlling and preventing its use. President Dwight Eisenhower made nuclear arms control a priority with his 1953 Atoms for Peace speech, which argued for diverting nuclear power to peaceful purposes. Eisenhower’s Open Skies proposal for mutual aerial inspection and a nuclear test ban treaty started diplomatic outreach with the Soviet Union.

Signifying its bipartisan nature, President John F. Kennedy picked up Eisenhower’s push for a test ban when he entered office in 1961.

The shock of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which brought the United States and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war, further increased the urgency for diplomacy. A hotline between the United States and the Soviets was set up to improve communications to prevent nuclear war.

Kennedy, one year after the Cuban missile crisis, achieved a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and space. Underground nuclear tests continued. The landmark treaty was pivotal for reducing tensions and showing it was possible for the Cold War rivals to negotiate successfully. There was the realization that a continuing arms race posed both massive dangers and costs that could not be sustained.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson achieved the Non-Proliferation Treaty which committed the United States and other nuclear powers to eventually disarm. While U.S. policy during the 1970s was primarily aimed at nuclear arms limitations and confidence-building measures to reduce the threat, under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, negotiators were able to turn toward actual arms reductions.

Beginning in 1985, Reagan held summit meetings with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, and these led to breakthrough treaties including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces pact eliminating short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. Reagan’s famous “trust but verify” line came about as verification was essential to make sure treaty commitments were being honored. Getting the Soviets to agree to inspections of their nuclear facilities was a huge diplomatic achievement.

When George H.W. Bush took office, he carried over Reagan’s momentum and secured the original START Treaty reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads. President Bill Clinton worked toward getting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed. His successor, George W. Bush, achieved a treaty with Russia reducing strategic nuclear warheads.

President Barack Obama, like Reagan, stated his desire for a nuclear weapons-free world and achieved the New START accord with Russia, further reducing both nations’ arsenals. Obama also achieved an agreement with Iran to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon.

But while for over 60 years presidents in both parties worked to reduce nuclear weapons and the likelihood of their use, Trump has begun unraveling these efforts. Trump has withdrawn the United States from arms treaties including the landmark INF agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Additionally, he has failed to extend the New START accord, which expires early next year.

If it expires without renewal or a replacement, then we will have no treaty in place controlling the two largest nuclear arsenals. There will be no trust, no verification. Today, there are about 14,000 nuclear weapons worldwide according the Arms Control Association, most of them held by the United States and Russia. We constantly live with the fear of more nations, perhaps even terrorists, acquiring these weapons of mass destruction.

Yet Trump continues to reject nuclear diplomacy including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear test explosions. Trump has also gone forward with expensive nuke modernization plans that will further drain America’s precious resources, forcing billions of dollars each year to go toward nuclear weapons.

All nations share the burden of nukes and every country would benefit from diverting resources from nukes toward feeding the hungry, fighting disease and climate change.

But this demands American leadership on the issue. As Eisenhower said about disarmament in 1955, “It would ease the fears of war in the anxious hearts of people everywhere. It would lighten the burdens upon the backs of the people. It would make it possible for every nation, great and small, developed and less developed, to advance the standards of living of its people, to attain better food, and clothing, and shelter, more of education and larger enjoyment of life.”

The first atomic bomb changed our world in July 1945. It was the ultimate weapon, a product of World War II and a trigger for the Cold War nuclear arms race to follow.

But as we remember this moment in history, we cannot lose sight of the dangerous consequences nuclear weapons continue to have on the world today. We must not become complacent about this threat after so many years and just casually accept their existence. Seventy-five years after Trinity, banning nuclear testing and working toward eliminating nukes is the only sensible path forward. Nuclear weapons must become part of our history only, not a threat to our future.