Addressing an adoring crowd in Prague not long after he entered office in 2009, President Barack Obama promised to aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a major step in disarming and stopping the continued development of nuclear weapons. Later that year, when Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee “attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”
Six year later, Obama’s “aggressive” approach still hasn’t persuaded the Senate to ratify the CTBT. Instead, the US is engaged in a major push to modernize and expand its so-called nuclear “deterrent,” including building new submarines carrying ballistic missiles and new facilities for manufacturing nuclear warhead components. The refurbishment plan is now estimated to cost Americans $355 billion over the next decade and, as the existing nuclear arsenal ages and must be replaced, upwards of $1 trillion over the next three decades.
This month is the 70th anniversary of America’s nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. For decades, starting with the first US-Soviet treaty banning atmospheric (as opposed to underground) nuclear testing, we’ve been told that the Governments of the World are working to end the existential threat of nuclear weapons. Leave it to us—the governments that developed, built, and deployed the Bomb to begin with—and, we’re told, nuclear arsenals will be reduced, rogue powers will be kept in line, and over time, the threat of an atomic war will recede into nothingness. And even if this takes a disturbingly long time, be assured that a “balance of terror” will keep us safe as long as anti-nuke alarmists don’t gum up the works.
Today we must face the fact that for 70 years, we’ve been duped. No government, no state, and no international institution can or will eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. Their promises are utter hypocrisy: no government can ever be trusted with nukes, can ever be trusted to give them up, or even trusted to reveal the full extent of their capabilities. No nuclear disarmament movement that focuses on persuading or even coercing the State to give up the Bomb can ever succeed.
The only way to avoid another Hiroshima is to get rid of the State itself. The only way to get rid of the Bomb is to get rid of the State.
The Bomb is not a weapon of war. There is no military objective that requires the detonation of such a device. The Bomb is a tool of State policy: a means to control, intimidate, and coerce populations. Its unveiling at Hiroshima was the logical culmination of a war of airborne terror that began even before the start of World War II and included the Japanese destruction of Shanghai in 1937, the German and Italian air assault on Guernica, the German blitz of London, and the Allied fire bombing of dozens of German and Japanese cities (the US incinerated 67 Japanese cities before targeting Hiroshima, and kept doing so for five more days after the first nuclear attack).
From the start, many anarchists exposed and opposed the deliberate targeting of civilians by both sides in the “Good War,” even as many on the Left temporarily suspended their disbelief to defend the governments of the so-called “free world” against a fascism those governments had condoned for years. Many pacifists settled for conscientious-objector status that tacitly accepted the war. Anarchists recognized that weapons designed to be used against civilian populations, either directly or as intimidation, were different: a ratcheting-up of State power beyond anything seen in human history.
Washington today buzzes with talk of a new “strategic realism” that again sees the Bomb as a vital part of its defense policy. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference held earlier this year was basically a non-event. Efforts to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East continue to be blocked by the US, concerned about pressure on its nuclear-armed ally, Israel. International attention continues to focus, absurdly, on Iran, which may or may not develop its own bomb years from now, while ignoring the fact that all the longest-standing nuclear powers, including the US, Russia, France, and the UK are either expanding or upgrading their arsenals, or both.
The world bristles with nuclear weapons of a size and force that make Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that killed 225,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and poisoned tens of thousands more, look like slingshots. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, nine countries together possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons. The US and Russia hold the vast majority of these and maintain roughly 1,800 on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. Today, a single nuclear warhead, if detonated over a large city, could kill not hundreds of thousands but millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.
The human race has never been more threatened by the State and its ultimate weapon. Yet no one in a position of power or influence talks about eliminating nuclear weapons, except to deride the idea. “Such an impossible vision can be expressed as a hope,” wrote retired Admiral Robert R. Monroe, former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, in the Wall Street Journal recently, “but as a U.S. policy it is nonsensical and terribly damaging. America’s pre-eminent national goal—on which U.S. survival depends—must be paramount nuclear-weapons strength.”
The absurdity of the statement is hard to miss: What’s the point of “paramount nuclear-weapons strength” when an exchange between just two relatively lightly armed nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, could kill millions, poison many millions more, and devastate the earth’s climate? But consider the impact of the Bomb’s mere existence, on America and, in some form, on every other country that possesses it:
- The creation of a vast National Security State, cloaked in secrecy and largely outside political control. Ultra-secrecy in government began with the Manhattan Project, and grew as the executive branch insisted on the need to protect its nuclear secrets, nuclear bases, and nuclear command structure. (Even when human life is at stake: For years after Hiroshima, the American occupiers censored all mention of the Bomb in Japanese scientific publications, even though many thousands of people were sick from its effects.)
- The creation of a Security Industrial Complex of private-sector consultants, contractors, and high-tech developers catering to the needs of the National Security State and growing fat on the public’s money.
- Incompetence and mismanagement of the most dangerous material in the world: On numerous occasions, accidents, human error, and equipment failures have resulted in near-miss missile launches that could have brought millions of deaths. Yet, secrecy begets secrecy, and government accountability—never great to begin with—disappears. Just this year, a British Navy seaman reportedly warned that the UK’s nuclear submarine system, Trident, is a “disaster waiting to happen”; he is now in hiding. Seaman William McNeilly posted an 18-page report on the Internet, “The Secret Nuclear Threat,” outlining serious security and safety failings. McNeilly went on the run after exposing potentially catastrophic safety and security breaches.
- An “imperial presidency” that Congress is afraid to question on security matters for fear of making the commander-in-chief—and the State itself—appear weak.
- An information elite that collects and classifies vast amounts of data, seals itself off from the larger society, and refuses to consider ideas or information that don’t conform to its preconceived notions. (“Prolonged immersion in the self-contained, self-justifying, ultimately hallucinatory world of clandestinity and deception erodes the reality principle,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, in his understated way.)
- An expensive, politically connected nuclear power industry, whose profits are generously subsidized, directly and indirectly, by taxpayers. From Japan to India to Three Mile Island in the US, these operators manage their facilities with careless disregard for the day-to-day dangers they pose. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been captured by the energy companies it’s supposed to supervise. Leaky pipes buried beneath power plants have spilled millions of gallons of waste into American waterways; operators rarely have to pay the cost of clean-up. Given the failure of the nuclear power industry to figure out how to dispose of its own waste, tons of radioactive material now being stored in not-so-remote places will continue to be a human hazard for centuries.
- An ever-expanding network of nuclear engineers with expertise in uranium enrichment, many of whom can easily be recruited to apply their knowledge to Bomb-building.
- Another tool in the State’s war against indigenous peoples: Nuclear testing has consistently been concentrated in areas inhabited by the most vulnerable populations: Israel (among the Bedouin of the Negev), the US (New Mexico, Nevada, the Marshall and Aleutian Islands), USSR/Russia (Kazakhstan; radioactive fallout from nuclear testing had a direct impact on the health of about 200,000 local residents), France (Algerian desert, French Polynesia). Sometimes, locals are poisoned; sometimes they are evacuated and lose their homes and heritage. All in the interest of the State and the political-economic elite it serves.
- Degradation of political discourse: Perhaps worst of all, the State’s possession of nukes has encouraged it to adopt a “strategic” discourse derived from game theory and actuarial computation that values human beings solely as statistics. In this world, we’re actually expected to accept a political decision resulting in 2 million dead from explosives and radiation because the alternative is 3 million dead—and we’re not allowed to choose “None of the above.”
Once we accept this kind of discourse, it becomes harder and harder to ask the most basic questions: Was the State justified in building the Bomb at all? What kind of a system operating under what kind of logic would do such a thing? Who are these people and why do we accept their so-called leadership? Here’s what one “senior official” at the time of Hiroshima told historian A.J.P. Taylor: “The bomb simply had to be used—so much money had been expended on it. Had it failed, how would we have explained the huge expenditure? Think of the public outcry there would have been …. The relief to everyone concerned when the bomb was finished and dropped was enormous.”
Once the technology of the Bomb existed, according to this logic, not only State power but State legitimacy somehow demanded that it be used. It became another essential element in the collective definition of the system we live under. It became normal—and permanent. We can accept this logic, and give up hope of ever freeing ourselves of the Bomb, or we can reject the institution that created it and that it has shaped in turn.
The only way to get rid of the Bomb is to get rid of the State. Many people since Hiroshima and Nagasaki have bravely opposed the Bomb using the tools of non-violent civil disobedience. This campaign, now generations long, needs to expand and extend itself to the State as a whole. If we want to honor the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must reject the system that’s nurtured and rationalized the Bomb for 70 years. We must strip authority from the people who hold the power of life and death over us, dismantle all the tools they’ve built to control, intimidate, and coerce us, and reclaim our freedom. Anarchy isn’t easy: Building a new world around mutual aid and direct democracy requires a new approach to work and life, not just the end of government. But at least we won’t be called upon to accept the death of a city—burned, shattered, poisoned, buried—by a State that insists there is no alternative.
***Eric Laursen lives in Massachusetts. He is an anarchist organizer, writer, and scholar. Eric has been active in movements against war and imperialism and for global economic justice for many years and is an organizer of the annual New York City Anarchist Book Fair.
 John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York/Tokyo: Ishi Press, 2010; originally published in The New Yorker,1946).
 See Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1978), p. 44.