This year will see the 60th anniversary of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the only nuclear weapons ever used in anger. There is still debate about whether the decision to use “The Bomb” on the Japanese was militarily necessary, let alone morally supportable (insofar as any use of lethal force against civilian populations in war can ever be said to be moral). But that it drove the Japanese to immediate surrender is beyond dispute: the war was shortened, though nobody can say whether by days, weeks or months.
Baby Boomers like me (I was born in 1950) lived through the Cold War at its worst. There was an orgy of atmospheric testing of ever bigger bombs. The Soviets eventually exploded a monster of about 60 megatons - about 3,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. (What conceivable military use this thing might have had I still do not know.) Arsenals and delivery systems expanded at rates one could have called ludicrous were the subject less deadly.
I was 12 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and was plenty scared, less because I really understood the danger than because I could see adults were seriously frightened. Later, as a professional defence analyst, I came to understand all too well the nature and scale of the threat which hung over the world for decades - sometimes nearer, sometimes further, but never absent. It is hardly surprising then that I came to hate and fear nuclear weapons.
But the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union is, like the USSR itself, history. Since about 1990 there have been substantial reductions in both US and Russian strategic nuclear forces. More are promised under a 2002 agreement, albeit one regrettably loose in the extended time frame (2012), it allows for compliance with its terms. Nevertheless, even when this agreement is fully implemented, each country could still have as many as 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads - enough, if used, to cause a disaster unparalleled in human history. We are indeed fortunate that the chances are low.
Chances staying low inevitably depend on continued cordial (if not actually warm) relations between Washington and Moscow. Let some political upheaval occur (for example, a hard-line nationalist and authoritarian regime coming to power in Russia) and things could be very different. In a very real sense, continued global nuclear stability is - to a large extent - at the mercy of Russian Federation politics. In time - though that time is not yet - it will also be subject to decisions taken in Beijing, as China's nuclear arsenal grows in size and sophistication.
However, our experience of the mad Cold War nuclear arms race and our eventual survival seems to have taught us something very important. By "us" I mean all nuclear-armed states and almost everyone else, excepting perhaps a few truly fanatic terrorist types who do not appear to have access to functional and deliverable nuclear weapons. (Does anyone think that if al-Qaida, for instance, had such weapons it would not have used them by now?) The lesson is: nukes are truly dangerous things. Use one on somebody who has them too and you will suffer terrible retaliation. Use one on somebody who doesn't have them, and still run the risk that that someone's nuclear-armed friend might intervene. States dare not use these weapons as they do, for example, tanks or aircraft carriers.
Nukes are now weapons of last resort. Israel has had them for decades: it will never use them unless credibly threatened with military destruction by its Arab neighbours. Pakistan likewise will not use its nuclear weapons unless threatened with conquest by India. Therefore, the Arabs will not attempt to destroy Israel by arms; nor will India try to conquer Pakistan. The nuclear threat has acted as a powerful restraint. It has done nothing to solve the underlying conflicts in either case - it has actually added to mutual fears - but it has stopped these conflicts escalating to what might otherwise have been their logical conclusions.
Despite the ever-increasing sophistication and proliferation of military technology, there has not been a truly major war for 60 years. By contrast, a mere two decades separated the World War I and World War II. We have not had universal peace in these 60 years - far from it indeed - but there is no mileage for anyone in another global conflict.
One reason is undoubtedly that such a conflict would probably go nuclear and, once that happened, nobody can predict the consequences. Certainly the risks inherent in a third World War are huge. Those who triggered World War I can be excused, as it were, for not realising what they were unleashing: global conflict sustained by an industrial base was something new. It was supposed to be over in less than six months. The World War II was triggered by a regime, Nazi Germany, which actually thought war was a “good thing” for the "Aryan race" and the natural way of settling irreconcilable international differences. Armies, declared Hitler, exist for triumphant exertion in war. Alas (from his viewpoint), the triumphant exertions were those of his enemies who, whatever their later differences, destroyed everything he stood for.
But now, even a latter-day aggressive thug like Hitler would give pause if a global war were the likely result of his or her policies. What price war on this scale where nuclear weapons are in the mix? If one's major population centres are vulnerable from day one, if one's industrial base - which sustains the conventional armed forces - can be wiped out in a trice, what price major war then?
In short, I am suggesting that nuclear weapons, precisely because of their extreme destructiveness and the fear they generate in all but the suicidal, have turned out to have a backhanded security value. They do nothing to resolve conflicts, indeed they can even escalate mutual fear and suspicion. But they have imposed upper limits on these same conflicts. In a non-nuclear world I think there can be little doubt that the West and the old Communist bloc would have engaged in a huge war of a scale and nature similar to World War II, but with modern military technology. Similarly I suspect that India and Pakistan, and Israel and the Arabs, would have fought major wars (to the ultimate ruin, I suspect, of Israel and Pakistan). As things stand, we have little fear of a World War III - though there is much trepidation over many lesser but still major possible conflicts (for example China and the US over Taiwan). This (relative) security is due to the fear of nuclear weapons.
By learning that there is nothing in the world worth blowing it up to acquire, we have perhaps made the best of a bad lot. Nuclear weapons are terrible things, but fear of them may save us from repeating in this century the disastrous mistakes of the first half of the last.