nderstanding nuclear arms control in psychological terms means remembering who got there first, the United States. The U.S. was not only the first nation to develop the atomic bomb but also the first to use it, twice, ostensibly to bring Japan to its knees, but also to show postwar states the unprecedented strength of the new kid on the block.
American scientists had developed a military fountain of death that all envied and sought to copy, and many did. Envy was a paramount drive. Until the 21st-century, states put military show ahead of economic clout. The Soviet Union built and tested bombs —A and H — to forge a strategic balance of terror on which the whole of the Cold War hinged. Britain and France, still chafing from World War II yet eager to keep pace, soon followed suit. The latter was particularly aggressive in its 1960s testing program. China, locked in a war of nerves with Moscow, evened the playing field in 1964. Then came India, loyal to its own dual with Pakistan, which joined the so-called “club” in 1998. North Korea is the latest entrant but it lacks the military infrastructure to make its nuclear threat viable.
The Nuclear Club was and remains a game of elitist one-upmanship. Those who possess the bomb seek the purity of their tribe, preferring to control a status quo now governed by a raft of non-proliferation treaties. In male terms (and bombs are uniquely male), bomb-possessing states are immune from erectile dysfunction. They have the ultimate blue pill, the rotund phallus of annihilation.
Efforts to dissuade new nations from joining in — Iran is the latest and leading example — almost immediately produce coercive resistance based on the morality of the bomb’s founding fathers, who insist they’re out to protect the planet the menace they created. It’s an honest position, but only in part, since the effort is also self-righteous and self-serving. The club is segregated and wants to stay that way.
Nuclear acquisition is sexual gamesmanship whose strategic potency allows big boys to still feel big. This is oversimplification of course, but necessary. The primitive North Korean weapon threatens less than what Iran might come up with, given that country’s sophisticated cultural history and regional position.
All debate about the bomb straddles rational and irrational, often tipping toward the latter when Israel’s ambiguous position is introduced into the boy’s club equation. Israel may or may not have the bomb, almost certainly does, and responds with alley prowler rage even the tiniest perceived shift in the balance.
This is the stuff of junior high school, of puberty, just as the relationship between states can be similarly primordial. American politicians worry about new atomic members based on the country’s unique first-hand knowledge of the weapon can do, not guilt but unease. Some critics find this position unsettling since the U.S. chose to use the weapon not once but twice, the second strike at Nagasaki producing Japan’s unconditional surrender.
Yet the owner of the first atomic slingshot still remains its only shooter, which puts self-righteousness on shaky ground. America’s “never again” nuclear bomb policy is based on a wartime act only it was able to commit, twice in a month, in fact, killing at least 125,000 civilians, perhaps twice that number.
That was 70 years ago, as the Pacific war raged and parts of Europe lay in semi-cinders. The U.S. felt heroically justified. Its acts ended World War II. Those same acts solidified America’s rise in international stature from a 1930s observer to a postwar superpower eager to dictate and spread its ideology and morality. Russia’s resistance was predictable, as was the 50-year superpower stalemate that followed.
Yet there’s no getting around the elixir that having more, bigger and better bombs once cultivated among its owners. Big states, not terrorist groups or splinter factions, engineered weapons of mass destruction, and for a time seemed the most willing to use them.
What stopped them was the phrase “mutually assured destruction,” which logically suggested nuclear war was a death sentence to any nation that started one. It remains just that. The bomb’s acquiring isn’t about military capacity but about who lords over the alley, bully or savior, depending on vantage point.
As lawmaker scream and shout about the merits of a proposed nuclear deal with Iran, they’d be wise to set aside the rhetoric and humbly recall who it was that kick-started the mass destruction mess and reacquire the common sense leadership demands.