The United Nations International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons falls on the anniversary of an incident that happened in 1983, when the world was just inches away from accidentally entering what would most likely have been a nuclear holocaust. It was during the time when relations between the US and USSR were at an all-time low that a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces in charge of an early warning radar system near Moscow, refused to follow instructions in response to not one, but two false warnings (unbeknownst to him at the time) showing that the US had launched nuclear missiles in the direction of the Soviet Union (“The man who saved the world”, The Daily Star, September 22, 2017).
The name of that courageous man was Stanislav Petrov. But to many today, he is known simply as “The Man who Saved the World.” The prestigious Future of Life Institute this year awarded him (posthumously) and his family with the Future of Life Award, to add to a long list of awards he has been given for his heroic actions.
That incident should serve as a serious warning to the dangers posed to the world and all its inhabitants by the existence of nuclear weapons and the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon brought about by happenstance as a result. Besides that, it would also be extremely naïve to believe that a nuclear war could never be started intentionally either.
For example, a review of the US general nuclear war plan by the Joint Staff in 1964 recently published by the George Washington University's National Security Archive project, shows how the Pentagon studied options “to destroy the USSR and China as viable societies” using nuclear weapons.
The war plan, conducted two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, conceived the destruction of the Soviet Union “as a viable society” by annihilating 70 percent of its industrial floor space during pre-emptive and retaliatory nuclear strikes and included a slightly tweaked plan of attack against China, given that it was largely an agrarian society back then. According to the plan, the US would wipe out 30 major Chinese cities, killing off 30 percent of the nation's urban population and reducing its industrial capabilities by around 50 percent.
The Joint Staff had proposed to use “population loss as the primary yardstick for effectiveness in destroying the enemy society with only collateral attention to industrial damage.” This meant that as long as urban workers and managers were killed, the actual damage to industrial targets “might not be as important,” researchers at the George Washington University said.
Although the number of expected casualties was not specified in the 1964 plans, researchers noted that an earlier estimate from 1961 projected that a US attack would kill 71 percent of residents in major Soviet urban centres and 53 percent of residents in Chinese ones.
In regards to similar plans conceived by the Soviet Union and its allies, a map and other documents discovered in Poland show how members of the Warsaw Pact had aimed to launch a large-scale invasion on their Cold War adversaries to the west, aided by the use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, according to a Chinese historian quoted by The Telegraph (UK), in 1969 the Soviet Union was on the “brink of launching a nuclear attack against China” only to back down “after the US told Moscow such a move would start World War Three.”
What this shows is that despite the large-scale ignorance of the general masses, the world has come close to being destroyed by nuclear weapons on a number of occasions in the past. Thus, there is no reason to believe that it would not come close to that point again in the future, especially given the turbulence that we see in the world today.
This is why it is extremely important to, first, have nuclear armed powers constantly maintain channels of discussion to avoid any “accidental” collisions that would involve the use of nuclear weapons and, second, to slowly rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. To that end, the announced denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is indeed a big step in the right direction.
Also, following the heightened danger caused by the unilateral withdrawal of the US from key nuclear treaties under the Bush administration, US President Donald Trump's announcement to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “denuclearise the world” during the Helsinki Summit earlier this year, too, was extremely encouraging. Although, realistically, the world is still a long way away from achieving anything even close to that, the fact that two world leaders have publicly acknowledged that nuclear weapons (or any weapons for that matter) pose a serious danger to our planet should be seen as a positive step.
This year's International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons is being observed as world leaders gather in New York for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, and is just prior to deliberations of the UN Disarmament and International Security Committee starting and continuing throughout October 2018. Which means that now is the perfect time for them to draw from the various lessons of the past, and to begin working together for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
One can only hope that 35 years after Stanislav Petrov saved our world from complete destruction, his example will still speak to us loud and clear, reminding us of how blessed we are to have this world as our home, calling us to save it today, as he did long before.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is @EreshOmarJamal.