Dear President Obama:
I am the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and three other narratives of the Nuclear Age, most recently The Twilight of the Bombs. I write to urge you to reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal to 300 weapons (or fewer), as a recent AP news story reports you are considering.
I understand that your advisers might perceive this option to be a difficult choice in an election year. Certainly you will be attacked by members of the Republican Party as “weak on defense” or worse. That has been a standard attack against Democratic Presidents for at least the past 50 years. I hope it will not dissuade you.
For most of the past three decades, I have researched and analyzed the history of U.S. nuclear policy. I’ve concluded that a major driver of the nuclear arms race, and a major sustainer of our current disastrously high levels of nuclear weapons, has been domestic politics—the “weak on defense” argument, that is. You are in a position dramatically to change that paradigm.
One argument your advisers may not have considered: there is a level of nuclear war above which the world climatic effects would be holocaustal. It’s shockingly low. The same group of scientists who discovered nuclear winter in 1983 (minus Carl Sagan, of course) have now investigated the climatic effect of a “small” regional nuclear war, such as one between India and Pakistan. They found to their horror that even 100 Hiroshima-scale (15-kiloton) atomic bombs, exploded over cities, would produce a worldwide average annual drop in temperature of 2 – 3 degrees, sufficient to cause mass starvation throughout the world among those peoples who live already on the thin margin—20 million prompt deaths in India and Pakistan from mass fires, 2 billion delayed deaths from starvation. This, to me, means that the only morally justifiable level of world nuclear arsenals must be fewer than 100 15-kiloton weapons.
We are, of course, far on the other side of that ceiling. You could certainly cite it, however, as part of your justification for a reduction of the U.S. strategic arsenal to 300 weapons or fewer. If you do order such a reduction, I predict confidently that you will be hailed as a world leader of historic stature, will trigger an avalanche of similar reductions from other nuclear powers, will put the U.S. in a far better way to demanding that Iran cease its military nuclear activities, and will be reelected to a second term by an overwhelming majority.
Here is a link to a report on the regional nuclear war scenario in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
With best wishes,
(signed) Richard Rhodes