Two related events—the 75th anniversary of the January 24, 1946 UN General Assembly Resolution 1 (which established a commission to plan for the abolition of nuclear weapons) and the January 22, 2021 entry into force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (designed to finally implement that goal)—should be a cause for worldwide celebration.
In fact, however, they are a cause for shame. The nine nuclear powers have refused to sign the treaty and, instead, today continue to engage in a nuclear arms race and to threaten nuclear war—a war capable of destroying virtually all life on earth..
This reckless pattern characterized the nuclear arms race that emerged out of World War II and continued for decades. Shortly after the U.S. government used atomic bombs to obliterate the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a bid to force Japan’s surrender in the final days of the war, it made the fateful decision to retain its nuclear weapons monopoly and to develop an atomic arsenal. The Soviet government, in turn, rushed to produce its own nuclear weapons, as did the British. After the Soviet Union became a nuclear power in 1949, the U.S. government began a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb, a weapon with vastly greater destructive power. And the Soviet and British governments were not far behind. In short order, they were followed by the French, the Chinese, the Israeli, and the South African governments, which succeeded in entering the nuclear club. Meanwhile, the world teetered dangerously close to nuclear war, particularly during violent conflicts that erupted over the fate of Korea, China, Vietnam, and Cuba.
But, in response to the nuclear danger, upsurges of popular protest, led by peace and disarmament organizations, succeeded in reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. This activism not only helped stigmatize nuclear weapons and their military use, but fostered nuclear arms control treaties and unilateral actions that dramatically curbed nuclear testing, inhibited nuclear proliferation, and halted the growth of nuclear arsenals. Beginning with a U.S.-Soviet-British moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958, these measures included the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (which banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water), the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (an agreement by non-nuclear powers to forswear development of nuclear weapons and by nuclear powers to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons), the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 (which reduced the incentive to develop strategic ballistic missiles by prohibiting the deployment of anti-missile defenses), and the SALT Treaties of the 1970s (which capped the production of strategic nuclear weapons).
In the late 1970s and 1980s, another wave of mass antinuclear protest, the largest thus far, led to even more dramatic advances. Governments approved the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 (which banned all Soviet and U.S. intermediate-range nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles), the two Strategic Arms Reduction (START) Treaties of the 1990s (which reduced the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 (which banned all nuclear weapons testing).
Admittedly, threats of attack by nuclear-armed nations continued during the postwar decades, as did disastrous and near-disastrous nuclear accidents. Furthermore, although the nuclear powers claimed that the significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals that they undertook satisfied their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations to disarm, they did not, with the exception of South Africa, fully disarm. But, overall, thanks to the advance of popular resistance and the accommodation to it by numerous governments, the level of nuclear danger declined and the world avoided nuclear attacks in the three quarters of a century since 1945.
Unfortunately, however, as the nuclear danger receded, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the nuclear disarmament campaign ebbed. As a result, government officials, no longer constrained by popular pressure, began to revert to their traditional behavior, based on the assumption that nuclear weapons promoted national “strength.” India and Pakistan became nuclear powers. North Korea developed nuclear weapons. In the United States, Senate Republicans blocked ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999, and the subsequent administration of George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty and pressed hard to begin building “mini-nukes.”