Karl Grossman - Investigative Reporter and Professor of Journalism

Let Us Eliminate Nuclear Weapons Before They Eliminate Us

A presentation I made at the World Peace Vigil of the South Country Peace Group on August 6, 2022 —

When I was writing Cold War Long Island with Professor Christopher Verga a few years back, I thought the subject was past history. Chris asked me to join him in writing the book because, as a Long Island-based journalist since 1962, I reported on many of the issues involving Long Island and activities here during the Cold War.

Now, with a hot war raging in Ukraine, and Russian President Putin talking about the use of nuclear weapons, with people highly knowledgeable about nuclear war warning about the possibility of it, and with the New York City Emergency Management office coming out with a public service announcement on what folks should do in the event of a nuclear attack, one must ask—are we going through a Cold War again on Long Island and the world? Or this time around, could it be hot nuclear war?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists a while back gave warning. In 2020, it moved its “Doomsday Clock” forward to 100 seconds to midnight, with it defining midnight as “nuclear annihilation.” This was the closest to midnight the clock was set since it was created in 1947. It was kept at 100 seconds to midnight last year and again at the start of this year—before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in March: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”

Reported a front-page story in The New York Times in June by its national security correspondent, David Sanger, and Times science writer including on nuclear issues, William J. Broad.  “The old nuclear order rooted in the Cold War’s unthinkable outcome was fraying before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now it is giving way to a looming era of disorder unlike any since the beginning of the atomic age.”

Here’s the cover of the British magazine, The Economist, in June: Headline: “A NEW ERA. Why the war in Ukraine makes nuclear conflict more likely.”

“Steel Bunkers, Iodine Pills, and Canned Food: Fear of the Nuclear Apocalypse Is Back,” was the headline of a March story on Vice.

And nuclear weaponry today—77 years after the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—involves yet more gigantic destructive power.

Consider the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines built across the Long Island Sound in Groton, Connecticut. As The National Interest, a middle-of-the-road publication, describes them: “If you do the math, the Ohio-class boats may be the most destructive weapon system created by humankind. Each of the 170-meter-long vessels can carry twenty-four Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles which can be fired from underwater to strike at targets more than seven thousand miles away…As a Trident II reenters the atmosphere at speeds of up to Mach 24, it splits into up to eight independent reentry vehicles, each with a 100- or 475-kiloton nuclear warhead. In short, a full salvo from an Ohio-class submarine—which can be launched in less than one minute-could unleash up to 192 nuclear warheads to wipe twenty-four cities off the map. This is a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse.”

That New York City Emergency Management office announcement declares: “So there’s been a nuclear attack….the big one has hit.” As to what people should do: “stay inside—move to the interior of buildings away from windows—and keep tuned to media for more information.”

Where energy must go, what people truly need to do, is to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an international agreement to negotiate a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination, was adopted the UN General Assembly—with 122 nations in favor—in 2017. The aim is to ban the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

“Let’s eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us,” said Guterres on the conclusion in June a “Political Declaration and Action Plan” for implementation of the treaty—“important steps,” he said, “toward our shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

The big problem: the U.S., Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom —–the five leading so-called “nuclear weapons states”have not signed on to the treaty.

Can the atomic genie be put back in the bottle? Anything people have done other people can undo. And the prospect of massive loss of life from nuclear destruction is the best of reasons.

There’s a precedent: the outlawing of chemical warfare after World War I when their terrible impacts were horrifically demonstrated, killing 90,000. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Chemicals Weapons Convention of 1933 outlawed chemical warfare and to a large degree the prohibition has held.

There are some in the United States, in Russia, and elsewhere who think nuclear war is winnable. Exactly 40 years ago, in 1982, the book With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War by Robert Scheer was published. The title was from T.K. Jones, a deputy undersecretary of defense, who said that with a shovel, anyone could dig a fallout shelter—a hole in the ground with a door over the top and three feet of earth on top of that. Jones asserted: “It’s the earth that does it.”

Media attention is so important to educate people, to make them fully aware, of the true consequences of nuclear war—how it is, in fact, suicidal.

An example of media, finally, enlightening people: climate change. I did my first TV program on climate change 30 years ago on my nationally-aired show, Enviro Close-Up. The title: “The Heat Is On.” I interviewed Ross Gelbspan, the author of a book by that name. But only in recent years, thanks to Al Gore with his film “Inconvenient Truth,” and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and others have media done their job and focused on climate change—and people are now aware.

But on that key to ending the existential threat of nuclear war—the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the press has not been there.

Yesterday, the organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting published my article which it headlined: “Why Is There More Media Talk About Using Nuclear Weapons Than About Banning Them?”

I wrote of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), a member of the Nuclear Ban Treaty Collaborative, charging that media are acting like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “does not exist.”

As OREPA notes in its current newsletter, the last time The New York Times mentioned the treaty was October of 2020.  It adds that “in all the coverage of nuclear weapons since then, including a surge since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the TPNW has not been mentioned once.”

National Public Radio, writes OREPA, “has had four significant reports about nuclear weapons in the last three months, including a seven minute report on March 27. None of the reports mentioned the TPNW—the last time NPR mentioned it was in January 2021…”

“CNN is marginally better,” says OREPA. “A search of the website for ‘nuclear weapons’ turns up almost daily reports; but the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons gets only one mention—an op/ed on May 3 from Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.”

FAIR for my piece did a search of the Nexis news database and found “U.S. newspapers have mentioned ‘nuclear weapons’ 5,243 times between February 24, when Putin began talking about their potential use in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and August 4. Only 43 of those times included a mention of the treaty; the great majority of these were letters to the editor or opinion columns.”

UN Secretary-General Guterres at the conclusion of the June meeting on implementation of the treaty said: “Today, the terrifying lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fading from memory….In a world rife with geopolitical tensions and mistrust, this is a recipe for annihilation. We cannot allow the nuclear weapons wielded by a handful of states to jeopardize all life on our planet.  We must stop knocking at doomsday’s door. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important step towards the common aspiration of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Nuclear Ban Treaty Collaborative is calling for media to cover the treaty whenever reporting on the threat of nuclear weapons.

Please, Long Island peace groups assembled here, join the effort. The Collaborative’s website with contact information is at www.nuclearbantreaty.org/

My article published yesterday is at www.fair.org

Media activism – and getting the press to do its job is vital. But a variety of political actions—also very necessary.

Abolition of nuclear weapons globally has long been a top priority of the UN. Indeed, in 1946 the first resolution—Resolution 1—of the UN, adopted by consensus, called for the creation of a commission to “make specific proposals…for the elimination from national armaments of nuclear weapons.” That vision, the abolition of nuclear weapons, must become reality.

Pope Francis, in a visit to Nagasaki in 2019 during which he condemned the “unspeakable horror” of nuclear weapons, said: “A world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary.”

Indeed, it’s critical—if we and our children and their children are to survive.

Let us eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us.