Avoiding Armageddon: nuke treaty now in force

A new 'START' treaty has passed into law, limiting the numbers of US and Russian nuclear weapons. A step too far – or not far enough?

This week, the US government is celebrating a significant foreign policy achievement. A new nuclear disarmament treaty has, after months of negotiation, finally taken effect. The US and Russia have agreed new reductions to their vast numbers of stockpiled nuclear weapons.

The first ever nuclear attack took place in August 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan. Witnesses remember a dazzling light, brighter than the sun, and a shockwave that flattened everything in its path.

Those close to the blast were vapourised. Others were blinded by the flash, or cut to pieces by splinters of wood and glass. Later, more began to sicken and die, victims of lingering radiation.

World War II ended shortly after, but the story of nuclear weapons was just beginning. As the US continued to stockpile warheads, Soviet Russia began to follow suit, determined to match America's destructive power.

Soon, both sides had built up vast nuclear arsenals, enough to destroy the world many times over. The underlying doctrine was called 'Mutually Assured Destruction.' Neither country could launch a strike against the other, without both being utterly destroyed.

This 'nuclear deterrent' may actually have helped keep the peace between the two hostile nations.

Neither country could afford to risk an all out nuclear war.

However, the threat of such a war never felt far away. Children learnt in schools about how to survive a nuclear strike. They grew up in the knowledge that at any second they might find themselves facing Armageddon.

The 'Cold War' between Russia and the US ended in 1989, but the nuclear arsenals have remained significant, with neither side willing to disarm before the other. Although the threat has receded, any flare up of hostilities could, perhaps, bring the world back to the brink of destruction.

One small step
So perhaps even a small reduction in stockpiles is good news. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the treaty: 'When it comes to the button that has worried us the most over the years – the one that would unleash nuclear destruction – today we take another step to ensure it will never be pushed.'

Not everyone's pleased though. Some right-wing politicians say the treaty reduces the effectiveness of America's nuclear deterrent. Others, on the left, say it doesn't go far enough. With weapons that destructive, they say, nobody should have them at all.

You Decide

  1. Nuclear weapons might keep the peace, but should any country have that much destructive power?
  2. Imagine you were in charge of America's nukes. You hear that a Russian strike has been launched. America's cities are already doomed. Do you launch your own strike? Why / Why not?

Activities

  1. Divide into groups and work out the arguments either for or against total nuclear disarmament. Then nominate a representative from each group to argue the case.
  2. Do some research on the Hiroshima bombing. Then write a fictional extract from the diary of a survivor.

Some People Say...

“Nuclear weapons have saved more people than they've killed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What exactly is a 'nuclear deterrent'?
The idea is that a country with nuclear weapons can't be attacked because, if necessary, it can unleash a nuclear strike.
And have these deterrents worked?
Hard to say. There hasn't been a world war since 1945, but then no one can really know what would have happened if nuclear weapons hadn't existed.
Do a lot of countries have a deterrent?
Quite a few. The US, the UK, France, Russia, China, Pakistan and India are all confirmed nuclear powers. Israel and North Korea are also thought to have nuclear capability.
Surely no country would actually use a nuke though?
Probably not, unless attacked first. But the more nuclear bombs exist in the world, the higher the chance that one could fall into the hands of terrorists who wouldn't be afraid to use it.

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