Opinion

James Carroll

Tiny Pacific nation aims to stop new nuclear arms race

An atomic bomb test explosion off Bikini Atoll in Micronesia.
Keystone/Getty Images/file
An atomic bomb test explosion off Bikini Atoll in Micronesia.

Only a different future can redeem a terrible past. That’s the lesson of what a tiny atoll nation did last month. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, in the far Pacific, took the nine nuclear weapons states to court — the International Court of Justice in the Hague — demanding that they be prevented from initiating a new nuclear arms race.

That, in fact, is what’s happening, as the United States and others set about the reinvention of their nuclear arsenals. The Marshall Islands are desperately trying to rescue the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which made authentic steps toward disarmament a matter of international law. Nuclear modernization of the kind being ordered in Washington and elsewhere assumes the weapon’s permanence, and is therefore illegal. It will push the world across yet another, ever more dangerous, threshold. That is the argument the wee nation is making before the court.

Talk about a mouse that wants to roar. Even if the court found against the nuclear nations, they would not heed the ruling. The high-tech reinvention of nuclear weaponry is assumed to be inevitable, and so is the flood of proliferation that will follow from it. Let’s call the dream of disarmament what it always was: an impossible mirage.

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But one decisive piece of the history of the court plaintiff suggests otherwise: Not every nuclear threshold must be crossed. When it was a territory of the United States in the 1950s, the Marshall Islands were the testing range for America’s bomb, an ultimate ground zero where more than 60 nuclear explosions took place. With one of them, on Oct. 31, 1952, the United States led the way into the era of thermonuclear weapons by setting off the world’s first hydrogen bomb. All but forgotten now, that event marked a vast escalation of destructive power, 500 times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. And it need not have happened.

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Scientists who had led the Manhattan Project opposed the move from the atomic bomb to what they called the “super” because the power unleashed by fusion, as opposed to fission, had infinitely more potential for ruination.

The “genocidal weapon” was inherently evil. Instead of assuming that the development of the H-bomb was inevitable, the scientists proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union, which was preparing its own test, jointly agree to regard the “super” as a threshold not to be crossed.

In hindsight, the idea is not as naive as it might have seemed, since Joseph Stalin’s death was soon to soften attitudes in the Kremlin, and the head of the Soviet H-bomb project was Andrei Sakharov, who would become Moscow’s leading antiwar dissident.

As it happened, President Truman, in his last major decision, overruled the scientists who opposed the hydrogen bomb and ordered the October test. Under the mushroom cloud, the entire island on which the target structure sat simply disappeared.

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The Marshall Islands carry the wound of this history in its blood — literally, as radiation sickness. The rest of the world can blithely ignore what is happening even now behind the walls of the nuclear arsenals, including America’s, but not this small country, which refuses to accept the final defeat of humanity’s greatest hope.

The ICJ will hear the arguments, but who else will listen? Dozens of international peace groups and NGOs are supporting the Marshall Islands case, but what would happen if that coalition itself achieved a kind of critical mass?

One thinks of the nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s, when associations from all levels of civil society across the world began to speak against the unbridled arms race that Washington, Moscow, and the others pursued as if it were their God-given right to do so. Physicians, academics, economists, churches, and professional groups of all kinds began passing freeze resolutions whenever they met, and soon a global grassroots movement changed the political equation on both sides of the Iron Curtain, preparing the way for history’s first turn away from nuclear escalation.

The time has come for a second such turn. One of the smallest nations on the planet, yet speaking with the unrivaled moral authority that comes of having been blasted and contaminated, is demanding that the new nuclear threshold not be crossed. The Marshall Islands pose, once again, a challenge to the conscience of humankind. In the United States, meanwhile — what? When it comes to the nuclear horror, can America yet redeem itself?

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.