What Is Nuclear Disarmament?

Photographs of demonstrators walking hand-in-hand under a banner reading
A nuclear disarmament rally in New York City in 1982.

Lee Frey / Authenticated News / Getty Images

Nuclear disarmament is the process of reducing and eradicating nuclear weapons, as well as ensuring that countries without nuclear weapons are not able to develop them. The movement to denuclearize hopes to eliminate the possibility of nuclear war because of its potential for catastrophic consequences, as demonstrated by the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. This movement holds that there is never a legitimate use for nuclear weapons, and peace will only come with complete disarmament.

Origins of the Anti-Nuclear Weapons Movement

In 1939, Albert Einstein informed President Theodore Roosevelt that the Nazis in Germany were close to building a nuclear weapon. In response, President Roosevelt formed the Advisory Committee on Uranium, which then led to the creation of the Manhattan Project to research nuclear weapon capabilities. The United States was the first nation to successfully build and detonate an atomic bomb.

The successful test of the first nuclear bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico prompted the first movement for disarmament. This movement came from the Manhattan Project scientists themselves. Seventy scientists from the program signed the Szilard Petition, urging the president not to use the bomb on Japan, even in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Instead, they argued, the Japanese should be given ample time to surrender, or “our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes.”

However, the letter never reached the president. On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, an event that sparked international support for nuclear disarmament.

Early Movements

The growing protest groups in Japan unified to form the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo) in 1954, which called for the complete and total destruction of all nuclear weapons. The primary goal was to prevent any other nation from experiencing a disaster like what took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This council still exists today and continues to gather signatures and petition the United Nations to adopt a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty.

Another one of the first organizations to mobilize against nuclear weaponry was the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for whom the iconic peace sign was originally designed. This organization organized the first Aldermaston March in 1958 in the United Kingdom, which displayed the popular public desire for disarmament.

Women in the United States headed the Women Strike for Peace protests in 1961, in which over 50,000 women marched in cities across the nation. The politicians and negotiators discussing international nuclear policy were predominantly male, and the women’s march sought to bring more women’s voices to the issue. It also gave a platform to rising activists, such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Cora Weiss.

Response to the Disarmament Movement

As of a result of the movement, nations signed a variety of international treaties and agreements to either slow or stop the use and generation of nuclear weapons. First, in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force.  This agreement allows the five nations with nuclear weapons (United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, and China) to maintain the devices, but not to trade them to non-nuclear states. Additionally, non-nuclear states who sign the treaty cannot develop nuclear programs of their own. However, nations are able to withdraw, as North Korea did in 2003, in order to continue to develop these weapons.

Beyond the broadly international treaties, nuclear disarmament also targets specific nations. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and Strategic and Tactical Arms Reduction Treaty (START) went into effect in 1969 and 1991, respectively. These agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union helped end the arms race between the two nations during the Cold War.

The next landmark agreement was the Joint Comprehensive Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Programme, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This prevents Iran from using its capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. However, in May 2018, President Trump stated that the U.S. will withdraw from the deal.

Activism Today

Since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki incidents, neither an atomic nor a hydrogen bomb has been used in an attack. However, the nuclear disarmament movement is still active because a variety of nations still possess, and have threatened to use, nuclear capabilities.

The Switzerland-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for successfully petitioning the UN to adopt a multilateral disarmament treaty (the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons). The treaty is their landmark achievement. It seeks to quicken the pace of disarmament, as previous treaties allowed nations to denuclearize at their own pace.

Additionally, the Paris-based organization Global Zero has developed action plans to decrease world spending on nuclear arms and phase them out entirely by 2030. The organization holds conferences, establishes college campus centers, and sponsors documentaries in order to gain support for disarmament.

Arguments in Favor of Nuclear Disarmament

Beyond the general desires for peace, there are three key arguments for international disarmament.

First, prohibiting weapons of mass destruction ends mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD is the concept that nuclear war has the potential to destroy the defender and the attacker in the case of retaliation. Without nuclear capabilities, nations have to rely on smaller scale attacks during armed conflict, which can help limit casualties, particularly civilian ones. Additionally, without the threat of weapons, nations can rely on diplomacy instead of brute force. This perspective emphasizes mutually beneficial compromise, which fosters loyalty without forcing surrender.

Second, nuclear war has significant environmental and health impacts. In addition to the destruction of the point of detonation, the radiation can wreck soil and groundwater in the surrounding areas, threatening food security. Additionally, extended exposure to high levels of radiation can cause cancers and cardiovascular disease.

Third, limiting nuclear spending can free up funds for other government operations. Each year, tens of billions of dollars are spent on the maintenance of nuclear weapons globally. Activists argue that these funds can be better spent on health care, education, infrastructure, and other methods to increase the standard of living around the world. 

Arguments Against Nuclear Disarmament

Nations in possession of nuclear weapons wish to maintain them for security purposes. Thus far, deterrence has been a successful method of security. Nuclear war has not occurred, regardless of the threats from the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, or North Korea more recently. By keeping a stock of nuclear weapons, nations can ensure that they and their allies have the capacity to defend themselves from an imminent attack or retaliate with a second strike.

Which Countries Have Denuclearized?

Many nations have agreed to decrease their stocks of nuclear weapons and components, but a number of regions have fully denuclearized.

The Treaty of Tlatelolco became effective in 1968. It prohibited the development, testing, and any other use of nuclear weapons in Latin America. The research and development for this treaty began after the Cuban Missile Crisis caused worldwide panic about the possibility of nuclear war.

The Treaty of Bangkok entered into force in 1997 and prevented the manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons in a variety of nations in Southeast Asia. This treaty followed the end of the Cold War, as states in this region were no longer involved in the nuclear politics of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The Treaty of Pelindaba prohibits manufacturing and possession of nuclear arms on the continent of Africa (all but South Sudan signed, entering it into force in 2009).

The Treaty of Rarotonga (1985) applies to the South Pacific, and the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia denuclearized Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Sources

  • “A Petition to the President of the United States.” Truman Library, www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/pdfs/79.pdf.
  • “International Day of Peace, 21 September.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/en/events/peaceday/2009/100reasons.shtml.
  • “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/nwfz/.
  • “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/.