Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism

—   Nu - Nz   —

NUCLEAR WAR — Close Calls
Because of the outrageous preparations by imperialist powers for yet another world war, next time almost certainly involving nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and because of the arrogance and recklessness with which these imperialist powers operate, there have already been a number of very close calls where all-out nuclear war could have easily begun. The most famous of these was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in which the U.S. was determined to start such a war if Khrushchev did not back down about stationing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba (in the same way that the U.S. had already done in Turkey and aimed at the USSR). There were other very tense political periods during the Cold War as well, and serious considerations by the U.S. about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam and against China in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
        In addition to these periodic political tensions and threats there were also a number of occasions when the outbreak of nuclear war through accident came close to happening. (See first quote below.)
        Although the old Cold War ended with the collapse of the state-capitalist Soviet Union in 1991, a new Cold War is now gradually building up, this time between the U.S. again and China (or a possible alliance of China with Russia). The world will be very lucky indeed if an inter-imperialist world war involving the extensive use of nuclear weapons does not occur in the 21st century. Capitalist-imperialism continues to be a very dangerous threat to the continued existence of humanity.
        See also:
DOOMSDAY MACHINE,   IRAQ—U.S. War Against (1991) [Richard Rhodes quote]

“On November 9, 1979, a computer problem led NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) to make a false report of an incoming full-scale Soviet attack on the United States. The USA made emergency retaliation preparations before data from early-warning radar systems showed that no attack had been launched. On September 26, 1983, the malfunctioning Soviet Oko nuclear early-warning system reported an incoming US missile strike. The report was correctly identified as a false alarm by the duty officer at the command center, Stanislav Petrov: a decision that has been credited with preventing thermonuclear war. It appears that a war would probably have fallen short of causing human extinction, even if it had been fought with the combined arsenals held by all the nuclear powers at the height of the Cold War, though it would have ruined civilization and caused unimaginable death and suffering. But bigger stockpiles might be accumulated in future arms races, or even deadlier weapons might be invented, or our models of the impacts of a nuclear Armageddon (particularly of the severity of the consequent nuclear winter) might be wrong.” —Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence (2014), p. 357 note 12.

“The ‘button’ can also morph into a perverse temptation for an unstable leader. In 1974, during his impeachment proceedings, President Richard M. Nixon said to reporters: ‘I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.’ Worried about Nixon’s state of mind at the time, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger asked to be notified before any nuclear launch order from Nixon was executed.” —Editors, “Take Nukes Off a Short Fuse”, Scientific American, March 2017, p. 10.

[During the Cold War] “Actions that were justified domestically as defensive were perceived by the other side to be hostile. In 1983, shaken by the Reagan administration’s belligerent military buildup, and misjudging the intent of a major NATO field exercise in West Germany called Able Archer, which included a practice run-up to nuclear war, the Soviet leadership under Yuri Andropov had very nearly launched a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. Though it all but escaped public notice, the Able Archer incident was the Cuban Missile Crisis of its day. By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, both sides threatened each other with total and mutual annihilation. ‘If one country keeps building weapons while the other one doesn’t do a thing,’ Gorbachev told Richard Nixon in the summer of 1986, ‘the one that arms will not gain anything from it. The weaker party could just explode its nuclear stockpile, even on its its own territory, which would mean suicide for it and slow death for the opponent.’” —Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs (2010), p. 5.

NUCLEAR WAR — Regional

[Speaking of the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union:] “While the threat of global nuclear war between two hostile superpowers had faded, the risk of regional nuclear war among nations with seemingly modest nuclear arsenals had intensified. A regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, for example, would be unlikely to involve more than about one hundred Hiroshima-scale fifteen kiloton weapons, merely 1.5 megatons of total explosive force, less than the yield of many individual Soviet and U.S. hydrogen bombs. The primary destructive effect of nuclear weapons is mass fire, however, and with highly combustable South Asian megacities as the likeliest targets, such a nuclear exchange would kill between three million and sixteen million people. Smoke from mass fires would loft into the stratosphere, drift around the world, and darken and chill the earth for a decade, reducing global average temperatures below those of the European Little Ice Age of the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, when crops failed and millions starved. Even a ‘small’ regional nuclear war, that is, would be an unmitigated disaster for the entire world.” —Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (2010), p. 8.

Atomic bombs (based on nuclear fission) and hydrogen bombs (or thermonuclear bombs, based on nuclear fusion), the most terrible weapons of mass destruction of our era. Their enormous destructive power comes from the transformation of fairly small quantities of ordinary matter into energy in accordance with Einstein’s equation: E = mc2

“The complete banning and destruction of nuclear weapons is an important task in the struggle to defend world peace. We must do our utmost to this end.
         “Nuclear weapons are unprecidentedly destructive, which is why for more than a decade now the U.S. imperialists have been pursuing their policy of nuclear blackmail in order to realize their ambition of enslaving the people of all countries and dominating the world.
         “But when the imperialists threaten other countries with nuclear weapons, they subject the people in their own country to the same threat, thus arousing them against nuclear weapons and against the imperialist policies of aggression and war. At the same time, in their vain hope of destroying their opponents with nuclear weapons, the imperialists are in fact subjecting themselves to the danger of being destroyed.
         “The possibility of banning nuclear weapons does indeed exist. However, if the imperialists are forced to accept an agreement to ban nuclear weapons, it decidedly will not be because of their ‘love for humanity’ but because of the pressure of the people of all countries and for the sake of their own vital interests.” —A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement: The letter of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in reply to the letter of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of March 30, 1963 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1963), p. 32.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS — America’s Use of in World War II

“Japan was already defeated... It was’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” —Dwight D. Eisenhower, speaking of the U.S. atomic attack on Japan at the close of the war. Quoted in the San Francisco Examiner, Aug 5, 1990, p. D-15.

“Truman listened carefully to [Secretary of State James F.] Byrnes’s advice. At about the date of Byrnes’s appointment, the new secretary told Truman that (these are Truman’s words) ‘in his belief the atomic bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.’ Later, in May 1945, during a White House meeting at which the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard was present, Byrnes, according to Szilard, ‘did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. Mr. Byrnes’ view [was] that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.’” —Robert Smith Thompson, The Eagle Triumphant: How America Took Over the British Empire (2004), p. 311.

“Particularly important is the light shed on the American decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. At the time, the justifications were murky: some hoped the terrifying display would avoid what they feared would have been a bloody invasion. Others wanted to test the bombs on which so many billions of dollars had been spent. Still others had their eye on post-war diplomacy, seeking to intimidate the Soviet Union and secure American dominance. Newly declassified files show unambiguously that America was aware of Japanese attempts to sue for peace before the bombs were dropped, undermining the military reasoning for using the weapons.” —The Economist, “A Rush of Energy”, Aug. 27, 2009. [Even a reactionary publication like The Economist now implicitly agrees that this episode of imperialist mass murder and genocide must have been done primarily as a warning to the Soviet Union that U.S. imperialism would be the top dog in the post-World War II world. —S.H.]

NUCLEAR WEAPONS — Current Arsenals
As of 2016 nine countries in the world possess a total of over 15,000 nuclear warheads. The United States and Russia have 93 percent of them. Although this is down from the vast numbers possessed by the two powers in the late 1980s—around 60,000 in total at that time—there are still more than enough such weapons to destroy human civilization if not wipe out humanity entirely. And of course many more such weapons can be quickly made during any developing political crisis. The chart at the right from the NBC News website at
http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/fact-sheet-who-has-nuclear-weapons-how-many-do-they-n548481 shows the number of warheads for 8 of the countries. North Korea also has a small number of nuclear weapons, perhaps as many as 15, though it has not yet demonstrated the ability to mount them on reliable missile delivery systems. Many other countries, including Japan and Germany, could very quickly produce nuclear weapons if they should choose to do so.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS — First Use Policy
Most nuclear powers, including China and the old Soviet Union, have promised that they will never be the first to use nuclear weapons and that if they use them at all it will only be in retaliation for the use of such weapons against them. The one country which has never promised this, is the United States. In fact, quite the contrary, the United States has often considered using such weapons first. Not only is the U.S. the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons (against Japan during World War II), they have seriously considered using them on several other occasions, including against China during the Vietnam War. During the early 1950s the U.S. even considered giving such weapons to France to use against the peasant-based Viet Minh in Vietnam. And at the present time, President Trump has threatened to use them first against North Korea. The American imperialists continue to threaten mass murder and genocide, even beyond the levels they engage in on a routine daily basis.

“[U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles] was at his most zealous in his discussion of nuclear arms policy. He proposed an unsettling shift in thinking about America’s fearsome nuclear arsenal, moving away from the concept of doomsday weapons as an instrument of last resort to one of first resort. The United States must reserve the right to massively retaliate against any Soviet aggression in the world, wherever and whenever it chose, he wrote. By making it clear to the world that Washington was not afraid to wield its nuclear arms as if they were conventional weapons of war, the United States would gain a commanding strategic advantage. It was the type of leverage enjoyed by a heavily armed madman in a crowded room. But Foster had a more diplomatic way of expressing it. Weapons of mass destruction ‘in the hands of statesmen ... could serve as effective political weapons in the defense of peace.’
         “Foster further sweetened his argument by pointing out that a nuclear-based military strategy would help contain the growing costs of America’s ‘far-flung, extravagant’ defense complex that was threatening to bankrupt the nation. Instead of maintaining an expensive troop presence at every global flashpoint, Foster wrote, all the United States had to do was keep a ready finger on its nuclear trigger.
         “Even master of war Eisenhower was initially taken aback by Foster’s proposal for a ‘first-use’ nuclear strategy.... But Eisenhower did share Foster’s passionate anti-Communism. And the cost efficiencies of the massive retaliation strategy appealed to the budget-minded general, who was equally concerned about the growing burden of military spending on the economy. So began the reign of nuclear terror—or ‘brinksmanship’—that would hold the world in its grip for the next decade.” —David Talbot, Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (2015), pp. 201-2.

“From the beginning of the [Eisenhower] administration, Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles argued that the United States must overcome the ‘taboo’ against nuclear weapons. At a February 1953 National Security Council meeting, just three weeks into Eisenhower’s presidency, Foster raised what he called ‘the moral problem’ that hovered over all nuclear decision-making. He was not referring to the profound questions about mass slaughter and human survival. Foster meant the moral revulsion against doomsday weapons that prevented policy makers from seriously contemplating their use....
         “Foster seemed to have a chillingly remote perspective on what it means to drop a nuclear bomb. When the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was on the verge of collapse, he offered to give two ‘A-bombs’ to French foreign minister Georges Bidault. The French official was deeply shaken by Foster’s blithe offer. Bidault responded ‘without having to do much thinking on the subject.’ He pointed out to Foster that ‘if those bombs are dropped near Dien Bien Phu, our side will suffer as much as the enemy.’ Likewise, during the Formosa Strait crisis, Foster was surprised to learn that the ‘precision’ nuclear bombing of Chinese targets that he was advocating would kill more than ten million civilians. Still, he was not chastened enough to stop his campaign to ‘punish’ the Chinese.” —David Talbot, ibid., pp. 244-5.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS — Proliferation Of
The entry above on
NUCLEAR WEAPONS—Current Arsenals provides information about the number of such weapons that countries have ready for use (as of 2016). However, over the past decades numerous other countries have also had programs to make such weapons. (Technologically it is not as difficult as is often supposed.) Most of these countries have been allies of U.S. imperialism, and—perhaps surprisingly to some people—the U.S. has generally opposed these programs in other countries, even allies, and in some cases has virtually forced its client states to abandon them. (A recent exception to this policy is the encouragement that President Trump has given to Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons.) Basically the U.S.—up to now, anyway—has wanted a world in which only it has nuclear weapons. The same can be said for all the other existing nuclear powers, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.
        At the present time (Spring 2018) U.S. imperialism is threatening to go to war against North Korea if it does not give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles—which it only has produced in the first place in order to try to keep the U.S. imperialists from attacking it. (Catch-22 situation.)
        Where the U.S. and other imperialist powers cannot force other countries to give up nuclear weapons projects through intense economic and political pressure, they try to go further and institute all-out economic embargoes (which according to international law actually amount to acts of war). This is what the U.S. has been doing with North Korea and to a considerable degree with Iran (and is now threatening a major intensification of that pressure, or even military attacks there too).
        As with most imperialist politics the logic is completely flawed: No country with modern technology can really be kept from developing nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so. And as technology advances it actually gets easier and easier for countries to do this. Every advanced capitalist country that does not already have nuclear weapons could easily develop them in a very short period; in some cases (German and Japan) in a matter of just weeks. And even many far less technologically advanced countries (following the example of North Korea) could now develop such weapons in just a few years. The imperialist goal of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of growing numbers of countries cannot be permanently successful while captialist-imperialism continues to exist. The resort to technological embargoes to prevent this will inevitably fail eventually. Technological “solutions” to political problems are almost always failures in the end.
        See also: PAKISTAN—Nuclear Weapons

“Despite their seemingly implacable differences, the two superpowers had worked both separately and jointly during the Cold War to limit nuclear proliferation, implicitly cooperating for common security. Their most significant cooperation drove the negotiation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), opened for signature in 1968, which offered extensive security guarantees and the advantage of commercial nuclear power to countries willing to forgo acquiring nuclear arsenals; by 1990, 140 states had signed on. More than any other factor, the NPT had limited the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world.
        “Actions had also been directed against specific states. In 1975 a threat by the United States to withdraw its military forces from the Korean Peninsula had compelled South Korea to abandon its program of nuclear-weapons development. In 1976 and again in 1987, partly under pressure from the People’s Republic of China, the United States had forced Taiwan to abandon clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Satellite images indicating an impending South African nuclear test that the Soviet Union passed to the United States for timely action in 1977 led to intense U.S. diplomatic pressure that delayed the South African nuclear weapons program by several years.” —Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (2010), p. 5.
         [South Africa did go on to create some nuclear weapons, though—for now—it has destroyed them all. North Korea withdrew from the NPT when it felt it could no longer guarantee its security without developing nuclear weapons. (It correctly understands that imperialist “guarantees” of non-interference and nonagression are essentially worthless.) In times of war and greatly heightened international tensions, it is very likely that other countries will also abandon the NPT and rush to create their own nuclear weapons. And with the continuing economic, political and military decline of U.S. imperialism and the authority of the existing World Imperialist System, it will become ever more difficult for the imperialist powers to strong-arm additional countries and keep them from launching their own nuclear weapons programs—surreptitiously or not. Permanent nuclear non-proliferation in an imperialist world is doomed to failure. —Ed.]


“A second trip to NATO [by Sam Nunn of Georgia], this time as a freshman senator, left a further imprint on Nunn of concern about nuclear command and control. The chairman of the Senate committee on armed services, John Stennis, asked the young senator in 1972 to inspect NATO for the committee. Nunn focused on storage and deployment sites for the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons that the U.S. shared with its NATO allies in Europe. ‘I remember very well,’ he said later, ‘visiting with U.S. generals who explained to me that all of our tactical nuclear weapons were secure. Everything was wonderful. We had perfect security. There was no problem.’ Unfortunately for the generals, a sergeant in one of the bunker complexes where the weapons were stored surreptitiously passed Nunn a note when they shook hands. Nunn pocketed the note and read it afterward in private. It asked the senator to meet the sergeant at his barracks that evening. Nunn did. ‘He and three or four of his fellow sergeants related a horror story to me, a story of a demoralized military, a story of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, a story of U.S. soldiers actually guarding tactical nuclear weapons while they were stoned on drugs. The sergeants thought that it would take no more than a group of six to eight well-trained terrorists to gain control over one of our tactical nuclear compounds in the middle of Western Europe. The horror stories went on and on for over two hours. I came out of that session thoroughly shaken and determined to do something about the matter.’” —Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (2010), pp. 98-99. [Possibly Senator Nunn did fix that one problem. But this is only one example of the gross carelessness of the U.S. military with regard to nuclear weapons, though of course the vastly greater danger is how they might well someday use them on purpose. —Ed.]

A severe period of climate change, lasting from many months to a number of years, caused by a imperialist nuclear war in which massive amounts of smoke, soot and other fine particles enter the upper atmosphere (especially the stratosphere) and block much of the radiation from the Sun from reaching the Earth. This could have the effect of destroying crops and vegetation in general, along with sudden freezing temperature drops, and thus also killing off large numbers of animals. It is quite possible that a nuclear winter resulting from a major thermonuclear war could kill most or all of the human beings who escape death from the original explosions and radiation, even if they are on continents far away from where the bombs fall.
        However, since there has not (yet) been any massive nuclear war of this sort it is not completely clear how severe a nuclear winter might be in that situation. The fires which were set to around 600 oil wells by the retreating Iraqi army in 1991 (when the U.S. imperialists invaded the country) produced a lot of smoke, but little of this reached the stratosphere, and the climate change in the area was not as serious or as long term as some models at the time predicted. On the other hand there do now seem to be very good reasons, which are incorporated into more sophisticated climatic models, to expect that thousands of nuclear weapons going off around the world are much more likely to put massive amounts of soot into the stratosphere, and to therefore cause long-lasting and extremely catastrophic results—perhaps including the complete extinction of humanity.



“President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were so intent on meting out a fitting punishment [to the Nazi war criminals] that they originally favored taking the law into their own hands and summarily shooting Hitler’s top military, ministerial, and party ranks—Churchill estimated the number would be somewhere between fifty and a hundred men. The prime minister thought that once the proper identifications were made, the killing could be completed within six hours. In one of history’s deeper ironies, it was Joseph Stalin who insisted that the Nazi leaders be put on trial, lecturing his Western allies on the merits of due process. ‘U[ncle]. J[oe]. took an unexpectedly ultra-respectable line,’ Churchill wrote Roosevelt after meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944. The Soviet premier told Churchill that ‘there must be no executions without trial: otherwise the world would say we were afraid to try them.’” —David Talbot, Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (2015), p. 62. [Talbot is a liberal bourgeois writer. —Ed.]

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