Throughout the Middle Ages, the heavily armored nobleman mounted on a charger was considered the pinnacle of military power. Few were surprised when the French put their faith in such knights. But at Crécy and Agincourt the French discovered that noblemen could be defeated by British yeoman armed with longbows. The Carthaginians committed to elephants as the ultimate weapon, only to be utterly destroyed by the Romans. British officials were convinced that battleships were the most important measure of a nation’s strength. Their infatuation blinded them to changes in technology, and they poured millions into building these warships long after it was plain that they would soon be obsolete. World War II brought that realization with a shock — torpedo boats, submarines, and dive bombers had ended the reign of battleships as “must-have” weapons. Refusing to think about what might happen if a weapon becomes obsolete can lead to military defeat (or worse).
Nuclear weapons, I would argue, bewitch us. They cast a spell on us so that they fill our field of vision — we see only the threat and reality blurs into the background. This is all very much like the way a spellbound person can only see what the spell allows. Nuclear weapons gaslight us, insisting they are the center of our world, constantly trying to convince us that the dark, ominous, and indistinct landscape they put before us is reality. But of course, they’re lying.
For the last seventy years, nuclear weapons have twisted our worldview. This distortion is especially present in the idea that nuclear weapons can never be eliminated. Seen from the nuclear perspective, this assertion seems like absolute reality. Everyone wants powerful weapons and nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapons in the world. They will always be powerful. So, they will always exist. As long as human beings long for weapons of power, nuclear weapons will loom over humankind.
Because experts have been saying this sort of thing for decades, this sounds plausible to most. Perhaps it even seems obviously true to you. But look closer, change your perspective, and it turns out that this is a somewhat strange way of looking at the world.
First of all, no product of human hands lasts forever. Everything eventually goes away. Work your way through the evidence of history and you will find there are no exceptions to this rule. Percy Bysshe Shelley made this point vividly in 1818 in a poem in which a traveler in the desert comes upon the remains of a monument, broken and half-buried, with a plaque reading:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
We know that everything will one day go away. But somehow we forget this when experts insist — with an authoritative tone of voice — that nuclear weapons will be with us “forever.” Peculiar, isn’t it?
Part of the reason this belief in their permanence is so widely accepted is that for sixty years, no one was allowed to talk about the possibility that nuclear weapons might go away. Not even questions — hypotheticals — were allowed. This prohibition was sternly policed. Just speculating about elimination could label you as a malcontent, crank, or worse. Experts who even attempted to debate the question found themselves isolated and excluded.
Then, in 2006, four former officials with a great deal of standing and authority — two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, and a former senator — declared that it was possible that nuclear weapons could be eliminated someday. This may seem like a small and not very difficult concession to make to reality, but at the time, it rocked the nuclear weapons world. This admission by the “Four Horsemen” is still thought to mark a sea change in thinking. For the first time, it was possible for experts in the field to talk — very, very guardedly — about eliminating nuclear weapons. Those experts still had to hedge their points with qualifications — “only in the far distant future,” “as unlikely as it may seem,” “maybe in a hundred or a hundred and fifty years,” and so on — but after 2006 it became possible, for the first time, to raise the issue without ending your career.
Nuclear weapons are certain to go away because human beings improve all our technology over time. There are no exceptions. So if we know nuclear weapons will eventually be displaced, doesn’t it make sense to discuss that eventuality?
Not that this argument is now the accepted view. Quite the contrary. Most still say — emphatically — that nuclear weapons will always be with us. Only dreamers and idealists (carried away by their unrealistic hopes), they argue, believe that nuclear weapons can ever be eliminated. Now that the knowledge of how to make these weapons exists, human beings will always be tempted to build them. Eliminating nuclear weapons, they say, is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Which raises the question: why this adamant unwillingness to discuss the issue? Why is it so dangerous to discuss eliminating nuclear weapons? Where’s the harm? There are, in fact, a number of compelling reasons to have such a discussion.
First and foremost, doesn’t it make sense to explore all possibilities? What is so dangerous about the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons that we dare not speak its name? If it is a hare-brained scheme, the debate will make that plain, won’t it?
Second, the reality is that technology churns all the time. New devices are adopted and old ones fall out of use every day. Rotary phones are replaced by pushbutton phones, landlines are supplanted by large, clunky, walkie-talkie-sized cellular phones that are themselves overtaken by smaller phones, which are in turn superseded by Blackberries, which are eventually shoved aside by smartphones. Name one technology that has survived unchanged throughout six thousand years of human civilization, if you can. But I doubt you can do it — not because the evolution of technology is shaped by a kind of determinism. But because of the way people deal with technology. We constantly seek to upgrade our tools, to make them stronger, faster, more useful. The process by which human beings develop technology is a process of constant evolution. Nuclear weapons are certain to go away because human beings improve all our technology over time. There are no exceptions. So if we know nuclear weapons will eventually be displaced, doesn’t it make sense to discuss that eventuality?
Third, even if we are convinced that nuclear weapons are the best weapons for waging war, the most decisive weapons there are, there are good reasons to wonder if we might be wrong. Several times in the past, nations convinced themselves they possessed a winning weapon that would never lose its military value only to find they were shockingly wrong. Knights, elephants, battleships and other weapons stand as reminders that today’s “ultimate weapon” may not stay ultimate forever.
Finally, dangerous technologies are the ones that tend to fall out of use most quickly. Safe technologies may linger — where’s the harm in keeping them around? — but technologies where there is a considerable potential for destruction and death tend to be phased out quickly once the danger is revealed or workable substitutes are discovered. Petards — explosives on the end of long poles in the Middle Ages — eventually fell out of use because it became clear that the people trying to use them in combat were as likely to be killed by them (hoisted by their own petard) as their adversaries. They were more dangerous than useful. Nitroglycerin was phased out in its unstable form because its users kept dropping or jostling it and getting blown up. The world abandoned fast ocean liners that raced through iceberg-filled waters overnight after the Titanic was sunk. Until sonar could be developed, steaming fast in ice-filled waters was simply too dangerous. If nuclear weapons are dangerous technology (which they surely are), and if dangerous technology tends to be retired more quickly, surely nuclear weapons might fall out of use suddenly and unexpectedly. Doesn’t it make sense to prepare for that day by discussing how elimination might safely be handled?
Seen in light of these commonsense arguments, the assertion that these weapons will never go away now looks rather odd. It is the equivalent of imagining a weapon invented in the Middle Ages that had never changed. A thousand years went by, other technologies evolved all around it, but this one technology stayed exactly as it was. It is a fanciful idea, a highly unlikely idea, and one that has no support in the actual historical record.
The unwillingness to talk about the demise of nuclear weapons seems strange and inexplicable. It is certainly not based in realism. Asserting categorically that these weapons will “always be with us” is a dogmatist’s view, not a realist’s. A realist would insist that at least examining the possibility that nuclear weapons will go away is the best way of preparing for the future.
So we can find some small modicum of encouragement, a little hope for the future in the fact that nuclear weapons will not always be with us. Their end, in fact, is entirely certain. Perhaps, horribly, that end will only come after a catastrophic nuclear war. Perhaps they will be elbowed aside by newer, better weapons. Or perhaps we’ll suddenly realize that they were never very useful weapons after all. But whichever of these possibilities is the one that eventually occurs, their end will come. It may take fifteen years, it may take twenty. But it is inevitable.
Ward Wilson is an award-winning writer focused on challenging fundamental ideas about nuclear weapons, the author of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, and Executive Director of RealistRevolt. He is at work on a book of realist arguments for eliminating nuclear weapons.