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Nuclear Threat? War Raises New Fears
"WHAT WILL happen now?" When Bush declared "all-out war" after 11 September many people asked themselves some frightening questions. Will it mean a world war? Could it mean nuclear war?
Behind the horrifying clouds that arose from the ruins of New York's twin towers, some could not help recalling the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The atrocious terrorist attack and impending US counter-measures will trigger an international chain reaction of conflict and upheaval. This coincides with what will probably be the worst economic slump since the great depression of the 1930s.
Armed conflicts and regional wars are now much more likely to flare up, whatever the strategy adopted by the US and its allies. When there are vast nuclear armouries and there is a proliferation of nuclear weapons, this inevitably arouses alarm and fear.
The USA and Russia, despite the end of the "cold war", still have nuclear armouries holding many thousands of warheads. Britain, France and China, the other members of the established "nuclear club", each have hundreds of nuclear weapons. Several other states, including Israel, have secretly developed nuclear weapons.
In contrast, both India and Pakistan in 1998 carried out five test-firings of nuclear warheads for short- to medium-range missiles. Each intended its tests as an ominous propaganda blow against the other. Now these two rivals, who already clashed in three wars are at the Asian epicentre of the coming conflict.
Would the rulers of either India or of Pakistan be mad enough to use tactical nuclear weapons? Any such action would be suicidal. The US department of health estimates that a nuclear conflict between the two states would result in the death of at least 50 million people, with many more casualties.
Large areas of the sub-continent would be devastated and permanently contaminated. The US put intense pressure on India and Pakistan to abandon their nuclear weapons programme: the big powers want to keep the nuclear club exclusive. For a time the US imposed economic sanctions on the two 'upstarts', but with little effect.
Yet in every major armed conflict since the second world war - Korea, Vietnam, the 1990-91 Gulf war - some US generals called for the use of the ultimate weapon - tactical nuclear missiles - to be considered. Fortunately, they were always over-ruled by the leaders of the US ruling class.
The representatives of big business realised that the wider consequences of a nuclear strike would far outweigh any imagined advantage on the battlefield. There would be world-wide mass protests against the use of such barbaric weapons, including within the US, which could bring down any government implicated in the nuclear crime.
THE US was, at the same time, held back by the threat of nuclear retaliation. If they used nuclear weapons in a region of super-power rivalry, such as Vietnam, there was the prospect of the Soviet Union hitting back. Strike and counter-strike could lead to global destruction long before the whole arsenal was used. In reality, there was a MAD situation - one of mutually assured destruction.
So, from 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, there was a relatively stable balance between two rival nuclear camps. The Western bloc was dominated by US capitalism, the Eastern by the Soviet Union, a non-capitalist, planned economy ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy. Leaders on both sides understood that the use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal: they were effectively unusable.
This did not stop both camps developing ever more sophisticated - and grotesquely destructive - weapons: bombs, shells, warheads, and increasingly fiendish "delivery systems" - that is, missiles.
The profit-hungry arms-makers have their own interest in pursuing the arms race.
The waste of resources has been phenomenal: money, technology, and above all the cream of scientists, engineers and skilled workers. If only they had been used to eliminate poverty and sickness, and to provide a good education to people everywhere. The drain imposed by nuclear competition was a factor in the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.
Why produce weapons that are effectively unusable? Ever since the invention of nuclear weapons, their possession has been the ultimate measure of a state's power - or potential power.
The capitalist ruling class, through its state machine (financed by taxing the people), has always armed itself to defend its interests. That does not mean the security and well-being of the population, but the wealth and power of the ruling class, their territory and sphere of influence.
Nukes are the ultimate weapon, so the capitalist powers accumulate nukes. Any one of the major powers has enough to wipe out humanity several times over, but the stockpiling goes on and on.
If Bush goes ahead with the National Missile Defense system (son of Reagan's 'star wars'), it will give another twist to the nuclear race. Russia, China and others will deploy new missiles aimed at penetrating the US's protective shield.
Some decommissioning of older weapons has taken place. But this creates new problems. The US and Russia between them have over 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium now surplus to requirements. Most will be converted into plutonium-oxide (MOX) fuel for power-generating reactors, perpetuating the hazardous 'plutonium economy'.
The rest will be sealed into glass for burial, using as yet unproven techniques. The cost will be enormous, at least $6 billion over the next 25 years.
Surplus stocks in Russia and in the Ukraine raise another horrifying threat: nuclear terrorism. Years of lax accounting means that exact quantities and locations of discarded plutonium are uncertain.
Could mafia gangsters trade the radioactive material required to make a "suitcase bomb"? It is not certain that such a portable weapon is technically feasible, but it may become so - a terrifying prospect.
When the big powers rely on their nuclear potential, lesser powers, striving for regional supremacy, will inevitably strive to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Some have done so secretly, like Israel and possibly Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.
Others, like India and Pakistan, have blatantly beaten the nuclear drum, despite the mass poverty and hunger afflicting millions of their people. Their political regimes are unstable.
Both the Hindu nationalist BJP government of India and the Muslim League government of Pakistan (now replaced by Musharraf's military dictatorship), staged nuclear demonstrations to boost their prestige abroad and shore up their shaky electoral support at home. They are already countries of crisis, and US intervention in Afghanistan can only makes things worse.
What if their leaders, desperate to divert attention from unbearable domestic problems, provoke another regional war? Might they resort to nuclear strikes, despite the self-defeating, genocidal consequences?
The US and other major nuclear powers certainly fear such a scenario, and will use all their influence to avert disastrous, maverick action. Even for the most unbalanced regimes, nuclear weapons would be a last resort. Nevertheless, unless the rotten social system that produces militaristic leaders is completely changed, the possibility of nuclear conflict cannot be completely ruled out.
WE ARE for the abolition of all nuclear weapons, and oppose more states acquiring nuclear arms. Appeals to reason or humanity, however, will have no effect on ruling elites.
The only thing that will check the growth and spread of nuclear arms is the pressure of mass movements of workers, young people, small farmers and the dispossessed - those who bear the cost of the nuclear nightmare.
The volcanic events of the next few years will provoke such movements. Their aim must be to abolish the class exploitation that ultimately drives the struggle for power and profit - and time and again leads to war. When we free ourselves from big-business bosses and feudal exploiters, we will get rid of their military enforcers, not before.
With the resources of a democratically planned, socialist economy, we will be able to tackle the problem of safely disposing of unwanted plutonium, the poisonous legacy of the nuclear arms race.
In The Socialist 12 October 2001: