Nuclear weapons: seeing is believing

By , Carl Marcy, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is co-director of the American Committee on East-West Accord.

Most war planners and nuclear strategists don't know what they are talking about. They have never seen the explosion of a nuclear weapon, or felt its heat.

Harold Agnew, former director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory who flew on the Hiroshima mission, has suggested that every few years a demonstration nuclear explosion in the atmosphere should be staged for chiefs of state "in their underwear" so they could feel the heat 20 or 30 miles away.

The director general of the International Atomic Enegry Agency, Sigvard Eklund, has proposed that the "nuclear weapon powers [should] now arrange a demonstration explosion of a [nuclear] weapon . . . to give the news media the world over an idea of the destructive power of the new nuclear weapons."

Recommended: How much do you know about nuclear weapons? Take our quiz.

Former secretary of State Dean Rusk said in 1974 that he had "just about" concluded that progress in the control of nuclear weapons may require a proposal of "dramatic simplicity."

It would be dramatic to stage occasional test nuclear explosions in the environment in which the weapons would be used. It would be a simple way to give armchair strategists and mankind generally an idea of the effects of a nuclear war on life.

And what a media event! Walter Cronkite could come back from retirement. Hard-line columnists could report on the explosion from close range. Nuclear strategists could position themselves so as best to provide them with practical experience. Officers assigned to underground command posts where they are expected to judge the nature of attack and response by computers and red and green lights might be moved into the explosion environment.

To arrange test nuclear explosions in the air would require negotiation of a protocol to the Limited Test Ban Treaty so as to permit a few exceptions to the prohibitions of the treaty. That should not be too difficult. Senators who oppose the SALT negotiations are generally interested in being sure the United States gets a big bang for a buck. They should be pleased to have a chance to see these weapons at work.

There would be objections from environmentalists and others who would oppose any exceptions to the Limited Test Ban Treaty. But what a minor exception -- the occasional testing of one or two of the 10,000 plus weapons now available for definitive use.

The fear should not be of occasional tests. The fear should be that mankind has come to accept with equanimity the devastation these weapons can create. Those who would be concerned with occasional tests might recall that the test ban treaty -- the most significant nuclear weapons control agreement thus far negotiated -- came about largely because there was worldwide recognition that increasing numbers of nuclear tests in the air were contaminating man's environment with radioactive fallout. Public interest during the eight years of negotiations leading to the treaty was sustained and active, stimulated by unexpected events such as the accidental contamination of the Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, some hundreds of miles from the US thermonuclear test at the Bikini Atoll.

What is needed now is renewed public interest in what the nuclear strategists are talking about. What better way than to test a few weapons whose potential use is camouflaged by exotic language? Phrases like Presidential Directive 59, first strike, second strike, countervailing force don't mean a thing to most Americans. They tune out discussion of nuclear warfare, believing those experts in Washington and Moscow must know what they are talking about -- even if they don't.

But if the man and woman in the street -- as well as the armchair strategists -- have a few occasions to see live weapons tests, ignorance will be replaced by knowledge. Knowledge is power and power can be converted to action -- action which might conceivably bring nuclear weapons nations to their senses.

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