Stay alert about the A-bomb

A new wave of concerned voices has risen against letting humanity slide toward nuclear self-destruction. They should be greeted not with fear but with renewed resolve for arms control, diplomatic resolution of conflicts, and the kind of individual attitudes in and out of government that contribute to peace. The magnitude of the increasing challenged demands the prayers of all for the proper guidance of nations, leaders, and citizens in forestalling catastrophe. Never has there been greater need to revitalize the well-worn concept that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."

Why are the concerned voices calling now after 35 years of nuclear weapons without nuclear warfare? They are responding to such developments as the spread of nuclear arms and capability, the talk about a "winnable" nuclear war, and the forecasts of the likelihood of nuclear war by the end of the century unless present tendencies are checked.

Early in 1980, for the first time in six years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its symbolic nuclear war clock -- from 9 minutes to 7 minutes before midnight. It cited such factors as failure to curb the arms race and turmoil in various countries.

In New York last weekend physicians, nuclear physicists, and others held the second large forum in a series around the United States to educate themselves and the public on the potential human consequences of nuclear warfare. One estimate was of 2.25 million fatalities plus 3.6 million serious injuries if New York suffered a nuclear bomb of one megaton -- the size of most of those stockpiled by the US and the Soviet Union. Participants asserted the aim was not to alarm people but to correct misunderstandings they might have gained from political discussions about "winning" a nuclear war.

Nor was our aim to alarm readers by publishing the article "Nuclear weapons: seeing is believing" in yesterday's Opinion and Commentary pages. Rather it was to suggest the depth of concern by informed people to ensure that policymakers and public do not lapse into apathy or fatalism as the abstract language of military strategy obscures the actuality of what happens in a nuclear explosion.

"Most war planners and nuclear strategists don't know what they are talking about," wrote Carl Marcy, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They have never seen the explosion of a nuclear weapon, or felt its heat." He named American and international nuclear experts who have gone so far as to call for demonstration nuclear explosions to bring home to officials and the public what does happen.

Such an explosion would require an exception to the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Our own view is that any gain in public awareness would not be worth a step so riskful in itself. At all events, any stress on the awesomeness of nuclear destruction should not be dwelt on except as a spur to maintaining peace. As the "minds of men" are filled with this goal and the prayers to support it, there will be no entering wedge for the beginnings of war.

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