July 16. August 6. August 9. September 2. The 70th anniversary of the summer of The Bomb is upon us, marking the dates of the first test detonation of “The Gadget” in the New Mexico desert, the dropping of the Little Boy bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima the explosion of the Fat Man bomb over Nagasaki, and the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

The results were unlike anything witnessed in human history. The Trinity plutonium bomb was detonated July 16 atop a 30-meter-high steel tower with an energy equivalence of about 20 kilotons (18,100 metric tons) of TNT that lofted a mushroom cloud 12 kilometers into the atmosphere (about the height that modern commercial jets fly), left a crater 76 meters wide filled with radioactive glass called trinitite (melted quartz grained sand), and could be heard as far away as El Paso, Texas. The Little Boy gun-type uranium 235 bomb detonated August 6 at an altitude of about 530 meters with an energy equivalence of around 13 kilotons of TNT, leveling everything in its path, including 69 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings, and immediately killing an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 of its people (with another 70,000 injured). The Fat Man plutonium implosion-type bomb exploded August 9 with the energy equivalence of around 21 kilotons of TNT and destroyed around 44 percent of Nagasaki, leaving dead an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people and severely harming another 60,000. If the Japanese had not surrendered thereafter, the head of the Manhattan Project, Leslie R. Groves, had another bomb ready to go for August 19, three more in September and another three in October. Pres. Harry Truman was not exaggerating when he threatened Japan with “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.” (For a visceral sense of the power and destructiveness of nuclear weapons, watch the PBS documentary The Bomb—the best film I’ve seen on the subject—for which the producers, Lone Wolf Media, obtained heretofore unseen and digitally enhanced footage that is breathtaking in its gravitas.

The only color photograph taken of the Trinity test on July 16, 1945.
Photo by Jack Aeby, courtesy of Lone Wolf Media

Seventy years on nine countries have The Bomb (the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), and the U.S. and other nations have struck a provisional deal with Iran to restrict their production of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent and scale back the number of installed centrifuges in order to forestall that nation becoming the 10th to join the nuclear club. Seventy years on we are still living with the bomb. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? I believe there are good reasons for optimism.

First, so far deterrence has worked. The strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) has been effective because no nuclear nation has anything to gain by initiating a first strike against another nuclear power. The retaliatory capability of both is such that a first strike would most likely lead to the utter annihilation of both countries (along with much of the rest of the world). Of course, it would be foolish to think of deterrence as a permanent solution. The costs of failure are too high. A sharia-obsessed terrorist planning to nuke the Western world back to a seventh-century caliphate or a Dr. Strangelove-like paranoid generalissimo preoccupied with precious bodily fluids are not entirely the creation of Hollywood screenwriters. So we need to think of more sustainable solutions.

Second, believe it or not, despite the nuclear saber rattling of countries like Iran and North Korea, the world has witnessed a startling decline in nuclear weapons from an estimated peak of 70,000 in 1986 to around 15,700 today. (See accompanying figure from page 66 of my book The Moral Arc.) According to the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. 7,200 and Russia 7,500 account for 94 percent of the current total, and even more encouragingly there are only around 4,100 operationally active nuclear warheads, with the majority held by Russia 1,780, the U.S. 1,900, France (290), and the U.K. 150, making the world safer from being blown to smithereens than anytime since 1945.

graph showing rise and decline in global nuclear stockpiles from 1945 to 2011
(Image courtesy of Michael Shermer; from page 66 of The Moral Arc, reprinted with permission of the author.)

Third, it is notable that the nine nuclear nations constitute only 5 percent of the world’s countries, leaving the other 95 percent to manage their affairs just fine without nukes. 

Fourth, since 1964 more nations have started and abandoned nuclear weapons programs than started and completed them, including Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Iraq, Algeria, Romania, South Africa and Libya. There are many good reasons not to own nuclear weapons, one of which is that they are very expensive. According to Craig Nelson, in his 2014 book The Age of Radiance, during the Cold War the U.S. and U.S.S.R. spent an almost unfathomable $5.5 trillion to build 125,000 nuclear weapons, and the U.S. still spends $35 billion a year on its nuclear program.

Fifth, there are serious efforts afoot to attain “nuclear zero,” including a plan outlined by such former cold warriors as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry. Many such experts as well as organizations such as Global Zero have proposed various means by which we can get from here to there. In my new book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom (Henry Holt and Co., 2015), I summarize these proposals and show how Nuclear Zero is a logical step in the long arc of the moral universe. In brief they include:

1. Continue nuclear stockpile reduction. Following the trend lines, work to reduce the global stockpile of nuclear weapons to 1,000 by 2020 and to less than 100 by 2030. This is enough nuclear firepower to maintain minimum sufficiency deterrence (a modification of MAD) to keep the peace among nuclear states, and yet in the event of a mistake or a madman, a nuclear war will not result in the annihilation of civilization.

2. No First Use. Make all “first strike” strategies illegal by international law. Nuclear weapons should only be used defensively. Any nation that violates the law and initiates a first strike will be subject to global condemnation, economic sanctions, nuclear retaliation and possible invasion, toppling their government and putting their leaders on trial for crimes against humanity.

3. Form a Nuclear Great Power Pact. Such an alliance would hold strong against small powers and terrorists who either have nuclear weapons or are trying to obtain them with an intent to use them.

4. Shift the taboo from using nuclear weapons to owning nuclear weapons. Taboos are effective psychological mechanisms for deterring all sorts of human behaviors, and they worked well in keeping poison gas from being used in World War II. The psychology behind the taboo against chemical and biological weapons transfers readily to that of nuclear weapons. Deadly heat and radiation—like poison gas and lethal diseases—are invisible killers that are indiscriminate in the carnage they wreak. The revulsion people feel toward nuclear weapons may be linked in the brain to the emotion of disgust that psychologists have identified as being associated with invisible disease contagions, toxic poisons and revolting materials (such as vomit and feces) that carry them—reactions that evolved in order to direct organisms away from these substances for survival reasons.

5. Economic interdependency. The more two countries trade with one another the less likely they are to fight. It’s not a perfect correlation—there are exceptions—but countries that are economically interdependent are less likely to allow political tensions to escalate to the point of conflict. Wars are expensive: economic duties, sanctions, embargos and blockades are costly (witness the effects on Russia’s economy after Putin’s invasion of the Crimea); and business often suffers on both sides of a conflict. In democracies, for better or worse, politicians are more beholden to monied interests who generally prefer to keep their transaction costs as low as possible, and those go way up in wartime. Thus, the sooner nations like North Korea and Iran can be brought into economic trading blocks that make them codependent with the nuclear great powers, the less likely they are to feel the need to develop nuclear weapons in the first place, much less use them.

There are dozens of such scenarios that are played out in search of what we might call—in the spirit of creative acronyms so common in this field—a minimally dangerous pathway to zero (MIDPAZ). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is understandably concerned about Iran building nuclear weapons, given that its former leader once voiced his opinion Israel should be wiped off the map. Still, the dramatic decline in nuclear weapons over the past two decades has primarily been the result of diplomacy of the type that Pres. Barack Obama is pursuing. It’s true that diplomacy failed to deter North Korea from obtaining nukes, but overall it is a strategy superior to other options. Iran may get nukes anyway, but bringing them into the community of nations stands a better chance of preventing nuclear war than economic sanctions.

In the long run, the deterrence trap is one from which we can escape, and the remaining threats should direct us to work toward Nuclear Zero sooner rather than later, and by diplomatic means whenever possible. Perhaps by the 100th anniversary of The Bomb there will be no more bombs.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom.

Contact: mshermer@skeptic.com