On September 26, the global community celebrated International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, a day designated by the United Nations (UN) to draw attention to one of its oldest goals: achieving global nuclear disarmament.
By unhappy coincidence, September 26 was also the day President Donald Trump addressed the UN Security Council, and total nuclear disarmament wasn’t exactly high on his agenda. As expected, he wants North Korea to fully abandon its arsenal (and Iran, though it doesn’t have one) — without the United States reducing its own in return.
Trump’s aggressive, bullying rhetoric was on full display throughout his remarks when he addressed the UN General Assembly the previous day. (He did dial it back a bit from last year’s UN address, when he said the United States would “totally destroy” North Korea and referred to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” but maybe that’s a low bar.)
Trump has made it abundantly clear that he’s not committed to nuclear disarmament. Like other presidents before him, he has the power to unilaterally order a first nuclear strike. Rather unlike others, he’s previously asked, if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?
But Congress has the power to act to avert a nuclear catastrophe. In fact, a few champions in Congress have recently taken critical steps to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.
On September 18, Representatives Ted Lieu, Adam Smith, John Garamendi, Earl Blumenauer, and Senator Ed Markey introduced a bill called the “Hold the LYNE Act,” which stands for Low-Yield Nuclear Explosive. It would “prohibit the research, development, production, and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.”
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So-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons actually lower the threshold for nuclear war and increase the risk that they may actually be used.
“There’s no such thing as a low-yield nuclear war,” said Lieu in the joint press release announcing the bill. “Use of any nuclear weapon, regardless of its killing power, could be catastrophically destabilizing. It opens the door for severe miscalculation and could drag the U.S. and our allies into a devastating nuclear conflict.”
We’ve come very close to nuclear war in the past. On September 26, 1983, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov made a split-second decision and deemed a supposed missile attack from the United States to be an error, refusing to carry out an order to counterattack and thus averting a nuclear war.
If Petrov hadn’t made that judgment, we might not even be here to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Let’s take the lessons we’ve learned from the past and use them to create a healthier, safer future for young people and future generations, so they won’t have to worry about the looming threat of nuclear war.
The president of the United States may not have marked the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The rest of us still can.