At their recent meeting in Geneva, United States President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to discuss the control of nuclear weapons.
Before looking at decisions the US took in recent years that increased the danger of nuclear war, it is useful to recall how the nuclear age began.
The US developed the first atomic bomb at the end of World War II, following research led by physicist J Robert Oppenheimer.
After he saw the horror caused by the first uses of the weapon, a shaken Oppenheimer said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The quote is from the Hindu god Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita.
The US first used the nuclear weapon to bomb two cities in Japan — Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
President Harry Truman — who ordered the bombings — lied at first, saying the US had bombed military targets. In reality, the targets were the civilians in the two cities. According to Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were killed instantly, and many others died over time from radiation poisoning and cancers. The US puts the figure much lower.
The US government then convinced the majority of the US population that the bombings were necessary to save American soldiers’ lives — a myth most Americans believe today.
The facts are well known. Japan was already defeated and ready to surrender before the US carried out its war crime.
Why did the US choose Japanese cities to bomb? Could it have been because the killing of non-white foreign citizens would be more palatable back home, especially to whites? Many Black soldiers were reluctant to kill other people of colour during the war, as retold in And Then We Heard the Thunder by John Oliver Killens.
For most of WWII, Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps, but not German or Italian Americans.
Why weren’t the bombs exploded in sparsely populated areas, or even out to sea, where their terrific power would be demonstrated just as well? To show the world the US had a nuclear bomb and would have no moral compunction about using it against the people of any enemy country.
Sections of the left in the US at the time sounded the alarm. They recognised that the intended audience for this demonstration of destruction and US power was the Soviet Union (USSR).
The US and Britain launched the Cold War against the USSR in 1947 — 30 years after the Russian Revolution. It would take some time to convince the American people that the USSR was the new enemy — after all, most looked favourably on the Soviets for their resistance to the invasion by German imperialism under the Nazis. They regarded the USSR as a friend during the war.
The whipping up of anti-Communist and anti-Soviet fervour was intended to prepare the US public for a new war against a former ally.
This was cut short when the USSR developed nuclear weapons in 1949 — the beginning of the nuclear arms race that continues today.
In the course of the Cold War, agreements were eventually reached between the US and the USSR to stop testing new nuclear bombs, limit the number of weapons and reach an equilibrium, based on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, in the event of a war.
However, with both sides heavily armed with nuclear weapons, capable of delivery by intercontinental ballistic missiles in a short time, a miscalculation or mistake on radar screens by either side could rapidly escalate a situation into full nuclear war.
When the USSR was overthrown and capitalism restored by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — the party of the ruling bureaucracy — Russia held onto the nuclear arms.
With Russia much weaker than the former USSR, the US began to push for nuclear advantage. First, under President Barack Obama, it launched a program to “modernise” its nuclear arsenal. One trillion dollars was projected to be spent over ten years.
It became known that this program included developing new, smaller nuclear warheads, designed for battlefield use. This is known as “limited nuclear warfare” — an oxymoron, because any use of nuclear weapons would invite wider retaliation.
Russia then followed suit with its own program.
This has raised the danger of nuclear war.
In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which limited both nations in fielding both short-range and intermediate-range land-based ballistic missiles that could house nuclear or conventional warheads.
After the Cold War ended, the agreement continued between the US and Russia, until President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the treaty in 2019. This should be seen as related to Obama’s program for smaller nuclear warheads.
Russia then also withdrew from the treaty.
During his campaign for president, Biden promised to renew the treaty. However, since being elected, he has reneged.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) recently reported that global spending on nuclear weapons last year grew by US$1.4 billion, with the nine nuclear countries spending a total of $72.6 billion.
The US led with $37 billion, three times more than the next country, China, which spent $10 billion. Russia was next with $8 billion, followed by Britain, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.
Biden’s proposed budget will take US nuclear weapons spending to $43 billion next year.
There is not much hope that the US-Russia talks on nuclear weapons will accomplish anything significant.
NATO threat to Russia
As the Cold War was ending, Reagan assured Gorbachev that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not expand to the east. Another promise not kept.
The US led the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics over the following years.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were incorporated into NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined in 2004. Albania and Croatia were added in 2009. Montenegro and then North Macedonia were included in 2017.
NATO is not an economic alliance, but a military one, and is now openly described in Washington as an “anti-Russia alliance”.
Three more countries are now being considered for incorporation into this alliance: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine.
“Red lines” were drawn at the Biden-Putin meeting. Two were emphasised. In one, Putin threatened war if Ukraine — with its large border with Russia — becomes part of NATO. He also said that in the event of a Ukrainian offensive against Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Russia will fight.
If Georgia is made a member of NATO, this could also lead to war with Russia, as there is conflict between Russia and Georgia over two small enclaves of Russians in Georgia. NATO members also pledge to fight together in any war involving other NATO countries.
Biden’s “red line” concerns ransomware cyber attacks on US companies by criminal organisations that the US believes are operating in Russia. Biden threatened that unless Russia stops these groups from targeting essential industries in the US, cyber warfare capabilities will be launched against Russian industries, including oil and gas pipelines serving Europe.
Neither the US nor Russia wants a nuclear war. But the continued arms race and the vast nuclear arsenals held by both — and potential complications if any of the other nuclear powers should blunder into use of such weapons — means this Sword of Damocles remains held over the world.
Nuclear weapons should be abolished. The US, as the most powerful nuclear power, could begin this process by declaring it wants to do this, and bringing the other nuclear powers together to achieve abolition.
But it refuses. It wants to keep the nuclear threat alive as part of preserving and possibly expanding its global empire.