“Why the Nobel Peace Prize Should Go to Nuclear Weapons” [TIME]

In World News on October 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm

Smoke billowing 20,000 feet above Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city. The Japanese city of Hiroshima has marked the 64th anniversary of the world's first atomic attack as its mayor called for the total abolition of nuclear weapons in the coming decade. (AFP/The National Archives/File)

Smoke billowing 20,000 feet above Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city. The Japanese city of Hiroshima has marked the 64th anniversary of the world's first atomic attack as its mayor called for the total abolition of nuclear weapons in the coming decade. (AFP/The National Archives/File)

President Barack Obama‘s Nobel peace surprise was given “primarily for his work on and commitment to nuclear disarmament,” according to Agot Valle, a Norwegian politician who served on the award committee. Valle told the Wall Street Journal that the stewards of the prize wanted to “support” Obama’s goal, as expressed recently at theUnited Nations, “of a world without nuclear weapons.”

It’s tough to think of a goal more widely espoused than the dream of an H-bomb-free planet. Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda, political opposites, came together on this one – in his second term, Reagan stunned his own advisers and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by suggesting a treaty that would take nuclear arsenals down to “zero.”(See pictures of President Obama’s first eight months of diplomacy.)

As long as a nukeless world remains wishful thinking and pastoral rhetoric, we’ll be all right. But if the Nobel committee truly cares about peace, they will think a little harder about actually trying to make it a reality. Open a history book and you’ll see what the modern world looks like without nuclear weapons. It is horrible beyond description.

During the 31 years leading up to the first atomic bomb, the world without nuclear weapons engaged in two global wars resulting in the deaths of an estimated 78 million to 95 million people, uniformed and civilian. The world wars were the hideous expression of what happens when the human tendency toward conflict hooks up with the violent possibilities of the industrial age. The version of this story we are most familiar with today is the Nazi death machinery, and so we are often tempted to think that if Hitler had not happened, we would never have encountered assembly line murder. (See TIME’s photo-essay “Fun with Photoshop: Obama’s Other Awards”)

The truth is that industrial killing was practiced by many nations in the old world without nuclear weapons. Soldiers were gassed and machine-gunned by the hundreds of thousands in the trenches of World War I, when Hitler was just another corporal in the Kaiser’s army. By World War II, countries on both sides of the war used airplanes and artillery to rain death on battlefields as well as cities, until the number killed around the world was so huge the best estimates of the total number lost diverge by some 16 million souls. The dead numbered 62 million, or 78 million – somewhere in there.

So, when last we saw a world without nuclear weapons, human beings were killing each other with such feverish efficiency that they couldn’t keep track of the victims to the nearest 15 million. Over three decadesof industrialized war, the planet had averaged around three million dead per year. Why did that stop happening? (See the top 10 Obama-backlash moments.)

Is it because people no longer found reasons to fight? Hundreds if not thousands of wars, small and large, have been fought since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is it because nations and tribes found a conscience regarding mass death? Clearly not – the slaughter in China during the Cultural Revolution, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi offer bloody proof. Is it the United Nations? Um, no. Is it globalism, and the web of commerce that increasingly connects the interests of the major powers? Yes, that certainly has an impact. But the global economy is a creation of the nuclear age. Major powers find ways to get along because the cost of armed conflict between them has become unthinkably high.

A world with nuclear weapons in it is a scary, scary place to think about. The industrialized world without nuclear weapons was a scary, scary place for real. But there is no way to un-ring the nuclear bell. The science and technology of nuclear weapons is widespread, and if nukes are outlawed someday, only outlaws will have nukes. (See TIME’s Person of the Year: Barack Obama)

Instead of fantasies about a nuke-free planet where formerly bloodthirsty humans live together in peace, what the world needs is a safer, more stable nuclear umbrella. That probably means fewer nukes in fewer hands – when President Obama talks about strengthening the non-proliferation regime and stepping up efforts to secure loose nukes, he is on the right track. Nuclear weapons are only helpful if they are never used.

But zero weapons is a terrible idea. As bad as they are, nukes have been instrumental in reversing the long, seemingly inexorable trend in modernity toward deadlier and deadlier conflicts. If the Nobel committee wants someday to honor the force that has done the most over the past 60 years to end industrial-scale war, they will award a peace prize to the bomb.

See the world’s most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100.


To read more articles by DAVID VON DREHLE and the TIME staff visit

  1. Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

  2. … which is kind of like awarding the peace prize to a man who stands in a room containing some criminals, while he waves a gun around saying, “None of you attack each other or I’ll start shooting everyone!” Nuclear weapons are tools of war, not peace. Much as I sympathise with what you’re saying, much as I understand their purpose as deterrants, their purpose is to utterly wipe out, to level whole cities with tyrants and innocents alike. Their purpose and their very existence is the antithesis of peace.

    So I agree that Obama’s policy of fewer nukes in fewer hands is much more sensible than no nukes right now, for sure. But let’s see how that peace prize for nukes holds up, in a century or two, when we’re all out of resources, facing environmental collapse and systemic destabilisation… and the desperate superpowers STILL have nukes. They’re ‘good’ as long as they’re preventing wars, but the moment you involve them in one (and this already almost happened in the Cold War) we’re going to wish we’d never conceived of something so terrible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: