Face daunting nuclear realities

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second right, and France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, right, listen to Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, second left, as they visit to the Itsukushima Shrine during a cultural break in Miyajima Island from their G7 foreign ministers meetings in nearby Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, April 10, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Secretary of State John Kerry recently paid a visit to the Hiroshima memorial, which marks the devastating impact of the world’s first nuclear weapon used in warfare on Aug. 6, 1945. President Barack Obama is weighing a similar visit in support of his call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Though that resolve sounds worthy, it’s also dangerously naive.

Speaking of his experience at Hiroshima, Secretary Kerry said the display was “gut-wrenching” and “a reminder of the depth of the obligation every one of us in public life carries ... to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons.”

And the president’s most recent formal statement on national security commits the United States to “pursue the goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” adding, “While this goal will not be reached during this Administration, its active pursuit and eventual achievement will increase global security.”

Elsewhere in the document Mr. Obama warns that without global vigilance, terrorists might obtain and use a nuclear weapon. He warns that “the American people face no greater or more urgent danger.”

Nuclear war retains the potential to inflict horrendous destruction on any country that becomes a target. We still live “balance of terror” where we rely primarily on survivable nuclear forces to deter any nation from launching a nuclear attack on the United States.

But many analysts fairly warn that the dream of achieving “a world free from nuclear weapons” is beyond our reach.

As the continuing efforts of one of the world’s poorest nations, North Korea, amply demonstrate, if an organized society is determined to master nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems, it can succeed despite the opposition and condemnation of the community of nations.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions also remain ominous.

In this view, knowledge of control of the atom, like original sin, cannot be extinguished. Moreover, consider what has happened since that turning point in human conflict when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then another on Nagasaki three days later:

No nuclear weapon has been detonated in hostile action since Aug. 9, 1945. Japan surrendered unconditionally to the United States and its allies just nine days after the first nuclear attack, erasing the need for an American invasion that could have cost millions of lives.

That surrender, and the subsequent non-use of nuclear weapons, are both measures of the fear and respect these weapons command.

No, the dread of a nuclear Armageddon has not kept the world free from war. But in the roughly 80 years before August 1945, wars among major powers resulted in more than an estimated 100 million deaths.

Since Nagasaki, though, despite the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War, U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and other conflicts, the cumulative military and civilian casualties from war between nations have been far less than in the pre-nuclear era.

Major powers have not once declared war on each other since World War II. Contrast that with the flurry of conflicts in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, as powerful nations battled, empires were destroyed and millions of lives were lost.

Yes, nuclear weaponry remains a terrifying menace.

However, while reducing stockpiles of them is a worthy goal, the notion of totally eliminating them is wishful thinking.

The challenge going forward is for the international community to keep nuclear weapons from being used in anger again.

And the only way to do that is by keeping them out of the wrong hands.