How We Stopped Loving the Bomb: An insider's account of the world on the brink of banning nuclear arms

By Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C. Halifax: Lorimer, 2011.

By Ron Shirtliff (reviewer)

Douglas Roche foresees the inevitable demise of nuclear weapons. The former senator and diplomat’s latest book is a Canadian-focused historical account of the developments in a movement that in future will make nuclear weapons illegal to use or possess.

Roche is an informed insider, appointed Canada’s disarmament envoy to the UN in 1988 and then becoming chairman of the UN Disarmament Committee. He has been a lifetime anti-nuclear activist, bringing insight, passion and arguments to support his conviction. While many of us are merely hopeful, or even pessimistic about the possibility of nuclear abolition, few can match the knowledge, experience and commitment that Roche brings to his analytical optimism.

Part one of this book is essential reading if you want insight into the complex manoeuvrings that take place in the UN around an event like the month-long 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. After a thorough dissection of the struggle between the might of official big power diplomacy and the determination of committed foes of nuclear weapons, including the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, he shows us a slight move, a tiny affirmation of progress. We have a moral victory, small but significant, won by a combination of some 118 non-aligned states, many committed individuals and persistent NGOs. What was won: first, a call for a conference of all Middle East nations in 2012 to discuss a local zone free of nuclear weapons; and second, a veiled and qualified reference to the possibility of a future international Nuclear Weapons Convention. Obviously the larger victory will require many, many more such struggles. Still, Roche believes that good sense will eventually prevail. Unfortunately, the current government of Canada is providing no support to such a worthy international cause, even when that cause is championed by the US president and the UN secretary general.

Roche is no Pollyanna; in his conviction he does not diminish the strength of the supporters of nuclear weapons. The military/industrial/media complex is rich and powerful in every one of the nuclear-armed nations, and it knows that its prosperity is dependent on the continuation of the spending on the status quo. In his election campaign and in his speech in Prague in 2009, President Obama expressed his determination to set America and the world on a course to eliminate nuclear weapons. Subsequently, however, Roche documents that the American nuclear lobby forced him to substantially increase the budget for the laboratories that upgrade and develop even more modern nuclear weapons. Such is the influence of the military industrial complex to force a popular, newly elected, world acclaimed president to knuckle under on this issue. Nevertheless, Roche believes that Obama’s determination remains intact, and that in time, with the help of many, his vision will prevail.

Why will that vision prevail? Roche documents three major forces for change. First, the threats of proliferation have widened—as manifested in the nuclear arming of Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and now, potentially, Iran. By an extension of that reality, any industrialized nation that is determined to wield power in its sphere can and will develop nuclear weapons. Clearly the forty-year-old NPT has not worked, essentially because of the inherent dishonesty of the original nuclear powers in promising from the beginning that they would eliminate their own nuclear arsenals in return for restraint on the part of non-nuclear states. The years since have shown that they had and still have no intention of honoring that commitment. The great powers cling to the term “eventually,” which of course means “not now,” and which can mean “never.” Everyone now knows that restraint cannot be achieved through the NPT as it stands, and everyone knows that continued proliferation creates a very unstable international situation. Many fear that when one more nuclear bomb is exploded, others will follow, possibly enough to destroy our collective habitat.

Second, there is a growing awareness that inevitably nuclear weapons will come under control of amorphous terrorist groups that cannot be restrained by the threat of retaliation. Indeed, the nuclear powers have the most to fear in this area. The horrific logic of deterrence—“we will kill all of you even if you kill all of us”—does not apply.

How do these frightening realities lead Roche to an optimistic conclusion? The realists of the world know that something must be done, and the only thing that can now be done is to actually get rid of all nuclear weapons, to live up to the actual intention and terms of the NPT as interpreted in 1996 by the International Court of Justice. The interests vested in the maintenance of these armaments may smother these truths for now, but finally the cold logic must prevail, if not with the strategists and militarists, then with an ever more informed public demanding responsible action.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, he argues that there is a continuous and growing awareness of the fundamental immorality of such indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction that primarily target non-combatants. The new post-Cold War generation, he argues, has a new way of thinking and it wants to be heard. The process of setting limits on behavior in wartime, such as the Geneva Conventions, has been a long and arduous road, subject to shocking detours, even in recent years. But the direction of that road is clear; respect for human life and dignity is at the core of that quest, and that humanitarian objective will lead us on to collectively demand an end to the possession of such inhumane weapons.

He quotes Josseph Rotblat, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the founder of Pugwash:

Morality is at the core of the nuclear issue: are we going to base our world on a culture of peace or a culture of violence? Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral: their action is indiscriminate, affecting civilians as well as military, innocents and aggressors alike, killing people alive now and generations as yet unborn. And the consequences of their use might be to bring the human race to an end. All this makes nuclear weapons unacceptable instruments for maintaining peace in the world.

Finally, Roche’s strongest assertion of hope is a statement of confidence in our collective humanitarian spirit:

Nuclear disarmament is a social movement, and social movements when they mature become unstoppable. The endings of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid are all examples of social movements that, at first were ignored by establishment thinking, then vigorously opposed, before at last becoming a basis for a new social order.

After reading this we can only say “amen,” and do our bit.

Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff, an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2011

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2011, page 28. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ron Shirtliff (reviewer) here

Peace Magazine homepage