We are once again children of the nuclear age

In 1983, two years before I was born, Margaret Thatcher made the following comment in a Conservative Party election broadcast:

We are the parents and the children of the nuclear age. We may not welcome it, we may fear it, we may even be haunted by it, but pretending it doesn’t exist is not a solution.

For my parent’s generation, this statement would have been a commonsense statement of fact. To deny it would have seemed preposterous. And yet, for the generation I grew up in, fears of nuclear war seemed to have been left behind. It seemed like a relic from the Cold War. The world had moved on and the thought of nuclear armageddon no longer haunted us in quite the same way.

If we ever discussed nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war it felt like an old debate that had already been resolved. Nuclear deterrence – the idea that the only purpose of nuclear weapons was to ensure that nobody would be mad enough to use them – had won the debate. We came very close to nuclear war on several occasions (more than I had realised, actually) but crisis was always averted by the fear that these weapons instill in us.

Some argue that the problem is one of political generations. For those growing up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horror of these weapons was very real and very evident, but, as Paul Mason argues in The Guardian today, this isn’t the case with the leaders of today’s world:

I don’t wish to alarm you, but right now the majority of the world’s nuclear warheads are in the hands of men for whom the idea of using them is becoming thinkable.

For Kim Jong-un, it’s thinkable; for Vladimir Putin, it’s so thinkable that every major Russian wargame ends with a “nuclear de-escalation” phase: that is, drop one and offer peace. On 22 December last year, Trump and Putin announced, almost simultaneously, that they were going to expand their nuclear arsenals and update the technology.

I remain convinced that no sane political leader would ever intentionally launch a nuclear weapon. and I’m also convinced that most wouldn’t retaliate to an attack, because they would realise – and so would their military advisers – that a nuclear confrontation between superpowers would spell the end of everything.

The real, and far more terrifying,  risk is that one of these weapons goes off accidentally; which – as I mention  above – has happened on far more occasions than I care to think about. To illustrate the point I will use just one example from October 5th 1960, where two atomic bombs were accidentally dropped from a plane after the bomber’s wing fell off. Whilst one fell safely to the ground, the other bomb almost detonated after 5 of 6 safety devices failed, prompting the then Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara to say:

By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.

We are once again children of the nuclear age.

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