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from issue no. 05 - 2008

NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION. Brief history beginning with the Cold War

The focus is again on the nuclear weapon

Proper control of nuclear weapons; preventing proliferation; not underestimating threats launched in the mass media that summon the spectre of arsenals still packed with nuclear warheads

by Benedetto Cottone

The Catholic Cathedral of Urakami, in Nagasaki, destroyed by the atomic bomb on 9 August, 1945

The Catholic Cathedral of Urakami, in Nagasaki, destroyed by the atomic bomb on 9 August, 1945

On 17 June 1945 Winston Churchill received a visit at his home from the adviser of U.S. President Truman, Henry Stimson, who laid before him a piece of paper on which was written: “Children born in very good health”. It was code for the successful testing of the first atomic device. Churchill said that the next day Stimson told him that the device had been exploded in the Mexican desert, at the top of a tower thirty meters high, and that to observe the effect the scientists had taken shelter fifteen kilometers away behind massive shields of reinforced concrete.
During the Second World War the most powerful bomb used was the American Blockbuster, ten tons of tritolium, capable of destroying an entire block. After the Blockbuster the U.S. made the atomic bomb. Strong in their possession of the new weapon, they demanded unconditional surrender from Japan, but the Japanese government refused, and so on 6 August the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and, immediately afterwards, the second on Nagasaki. The result was the immediate surrender of Japan and the end of the war.
Each of these two “kiloton” bombs, had the explosive power of 15,000 tons of tritolium and the effect, as we know, was terrifying.
After a while the technology progressed from the kiloton bomb to type A bomb (with an explosive potential ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 tons of tritolium) and later to the monstrous “megaton” bomb, type H (hydrogen), which had a potential one thousand times greater than the A type (from 2,000,000 to 20,000,000 tons of tritolium).
But what and how much damage could be caused by an unwished-for nuclear conflict? Impossible to specify! And that is the real universal anguish.
Science, which has indeed created nuclear energy – beneficial, moreover, when applied for peaceful purposes – does not possess, at least so far, forecasting and analysis systems capable of imaging the complexity of the effects of the explosion of an atomic bomb. Some of these effects were discovered by chance. But how many others and of what kind remain unknown?
Some examples: When in 1954 the U.S. exploded a nuclear device equivalent to the potential of 8 million tons of tritolium in the coral reef of the Marshall Islands, it was foreseen that the limit of the fallout (the radioactive rain) would be 18,000 square kilometers, but instead it contaminated a much wider area. A Japanese fishing boat, sixty kilometers outside the perimeter of the danger area predicted, was struck and its crew immediately showed the various tremendous symptoms of radiation sickness. The atoll of Rongelap, one hundred and fifty kilometers away, was also effected by fallout, and even though the population was evacuated after only two days, children suffered thyroid damage, resulting in retarded growth, and a few years later a young lad was operated on for thyroid neoplasms though at the moment of the explosion he was still in his mother’s womb. In 1958 two nuclear devices exploded on Johnson Island in the Pacific caused the loss of radio signals more than a thousand kilometers away for some hours, an effect due to the rending of the ionosphere, the region in the atmosphere at an altitude between fifty and five hundred kilometers that reflects radio signals back to earth. Another effect of nuclear explosion, not foreseen, was found when the electromagnetic pulses released destroyed the electronics of computers, with the consequent paralysis of all technological activity.
A large number of nuclear explosions could cause partial or total destruction of the atmospheric layer of ozone that protects all living beings from ultraviolet radiation, and the extent, intensity and lasting effects of such destruction remain unknown. It is certain that it would upset the ecosystem that enables life on our planet.
In recent years unfortunately nuclear proliferation has occurred and various countries have developed their own atomic bomb.
The phenomenon known as “globalization” that came into being some thirty years ago so far concerns only the economy. Globalization is still very far from having enabled all the nations of the world to adopt the principle of democratic pluralism, respect for political freedom and human rights. Open and democratic societies are still faced by many closed ones in the grip of ideologies, and furthermore an inhuman international terrorism has made its appearance. So it is absolutely necessary not only to control atomic weapons properly, but also to heighten awareness in the broadest possible manner to what would be the apocalyptic consequences of the crazy use of nuclear weapons.
Once the war in Europe was over, as early as June 1946, namely within a year of the end of the conflict, the West had demobilized. The U.S. had reduced its armed forces from 8,500,000 to 1,730,000; Britain from 5,000,000 to 790,000, and other countries had also downsized their armies.
Only the Soviet Union kept its forces intact and on a war footing. The USSR did not feel safe after the victory, and from that moment on the fear of being attacked was not to leave it.
It should not be forgotten that when the U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall set out at Harvard University the plan for European Reconstruction (ERP), better known as the Marshall Plan, he offered American aid to both Western Europe and Eastern Europe, but on 4 July 1947 the Soviet Minister Molotov refused the American offer for Eastern Europe: the USSR evidently feared siege and aggression.
In 1948 the UN approved the plan of the American financier Bernard Baruch for nuclear disarmament (at the time only the U.S. possessed the atomic bomb), but the former Soviet Union vetoed it in the Security Council. It was clear that the USSR also wanted the atomic bomb, not only out of fear of being isolated and exposed to aggression, but also and especially in view of its political program to subject the world to communism.
Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bomb on 6 August 1945

Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bomb on 6 August 1945

After the USSR had finally made its own atomic bomb, thanks to espionage activities that gave it possession of American scientific secrets, the nuclear arms race began.
Between 1970 and 1972 the Soviet Union – which had already installed three types of intercontinental ballistic missile and every year launched eight submarines with sixteen missiles each – finally reached nuclear parity with the U.S. and from then on, and for years, the two superpowers confronted each other on the basis of a “balance of terror”. Both powers possessed “second strike capability”, namely deterrence based on the fact that both powers would be able to absorb a first surprise attack and respond with a second strike.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismemberment of the USSR, the tension between the two superpowers faded, but we still can’t say today that relations between Russia and America are altogether relaxed.
However, one can make a claim in which there is more truth, I think, than paradox: had it not been for the atomic bomb war would have broken out between the US and the USSR some time ago.
Something one may wonder about: during the second Cold War did the two superpowers both understand that atomic war would have been a holocaust for all? In my view the US understood from the very first moment, so much so that President Truman responded with an absolute “no” when, during the Korean War of 1950-53, various American generals asked for the atomic bomb to be used on North Korea, but I think the USSR had also understood, and that one could even indicate precisely when it happened: the day when Kruscev, threatened by Kennedy, withdrew the missiles from Cuba.
Given that a nuclear war would so diminish the prospects for survival of animals and vegetation on our planet, can one be sure that there will be no more world wars?
Let us always keep in mind Voltaire’s famous apothegm: “The only thing that gives an inkling of infinity is human folly.”

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