Nuclear Weapons & Our Future

July 23, 2011

Four brief readings and suggestions for engaging students on why we have nuclear weapons and what to do about them.

These resource materials focus on two questions:

1. Why do nuclear weapons continue to threaten the future of the human race?

2. What should we do about nuclear weapons?

Below are four student readings. They are followed by a set of suggestions for discussion and other activities, and a listing of additional resources that can be used for further inquiry.

You might want to preface the work presented here with a questionnaire for students that aims to determine their grasp of basic nuclear weapons facts and information. See the questionnaires in Student Readings 1 and 2 in the activities "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on New U.S. Policy" and "Nuclear Weapons Issues" (for easier reading), available on this website.


Student Reading 1:

The First Nuclear Question

1. Nuclear weapons are the most lethal weapons human beings have ever devised. Just one Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb is capable of destroying most of New York City or London or Moscow or Beijing. That same bomb, exploded over any one of those cities, or any other city you can think of, would release long-lived radiation, making that city unlivable for any survivors.

2. Nuclear weapons must never be used again. They have been used twice in war, by the United States in World War II, over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. They flattened both cities and killed nearly 200,000 people immediately. Over the next five years, just as many died from cancers and blast-related injuries.

3. Nuclear weapons must not proliferate, or spread. There are already eight nations with nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has long believed that, in addition, North Korea probably has two nuclear weapons and is capable of producing more. Iran and perhaps other countries have nuclear programs that can lead to the production of nuclear weapons.

The first sentence in each of three points above is a statement of opinion. And yet just about everyone in the world who knows about nuclear weapons would agree with each of these statements. For this reason, 25 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a worldwide effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to eliminate those in existence led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nations that do not already have nuclear weapons are barred from importing them or manufacturing them. In exchange for this, the states are guaranteed technology to help them develop nuclear power. The NPT requires nations that already have nuclear weapons to make "good faith" efforts at nuclear disarmament. The NPT went into effect in 1970 and has now been signed by 187 nations, including the United States. In addition, several years ago at a Review Conference of the NPT, the nuclear weapons nations committed to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

Yet today, 33 years after the launching of the NPT, there are still more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Some 5,000 of them are on hair triggger alert, ready to launch in five minutes. Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate. In February 2004 the world learned that for 15 years Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, was the key figure in a secret trading network that sent nuclear bomb-making designs and equipment to North Korea, Iran, Libya, and perhaps other countries. However, Libya has announced that it will give up its nuclear weapons program and cooperate fully with international inspectors.

Nuclear weapons continue to threaten the life of each human being on our planet. The first nuclear question: Why?


Student Reading 2:

An Answer to the First Nuclear Question

Author Jonathan Schell argues that the policy of "deterrence" has utterly failed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons ("proliferation"). "Deterrence" is the policy of developing weapons in order to deter or prevent other countries from attacking.

Schell writes: "The first act of proliferation was the Manhattan Project in the United States [which developed the bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.]....Perhaps someone might object that the arrival of the first individual of a species is not yet proliferation — a word that suggests the multiplication of an already existing thing. However, in one critical respect, at least, the development of the bomb by the United States still fits the definition. The record shows that President Franklin Roosevelt decided to build the bomb because he feared that Hitler would get it first, with decisive consequences in the forthcoming war. In October 1939 ... the businessman Alexander Sachs brought Roosevelt a letter from Albert Einstein warning that an atomic bomb was possible and that Germany might acquire one....

"As we know now, Hitler did have an atomic project, but it never came close to producing a bomb....Before there was the bomb, there was the fear of the bomb. Hitler's phantom arsenal inspired the real American one. And so even before nuclear weapons existed, they were proliferating. This sequence is important because it reveals a basic rule that has driven nuclear proliferation ever since: Nations acquire nuclear arsenals above all because they fear the nuclear arsenals of others....

"Just as the United States made the bomb because it feared Hitler would get it, the Soviet Union built the bomb because the United States already had it....England and France... were responding to the Soviet threat; China was responding to the threat from all of the above; India was responding to China: Pakistan was responding to India; and North Korea (with Pakistan's help) was responding to the United States. Nations proliferate in order to deter.

"We can state: Deterrence equals proliferation, for deterrence both causes proliferation and is the fruit of it. This has been the lesson, indeed, that the United States has taught the world in every major statement, tactic, strategy and action it has taken in the nuclear age. And the world — if it ever needed the lesson — has learned well. It is therefore hardly surprising that the call to non-proliferation falls on deaf ears when it is preached by possessors — all of whom were of course proliferators at one time or another." (Jonathan Schell, The Nation, 3/3/03)


Student Reading 3:

U.S. Policy on Nuclear Weapons - What and Why

In 2002 the Bush Administration completed The Nuclear Posture Review, a statement of the administration's nuclear doctrine. Parts of the paper remain secret. But key quotes from the section made public declare: "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends." It also states that "Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities." President Bush underlined these points by declaring, "We've got all options on the table, because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies." ( New York Times, 3/18/02)

The Nuclear Posture Review says there are four reasons to possess and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons:
1) "assure allies and friends"
2) "dissuade competitors"
3) "deter aggressors"
4) "defeat enemies"

This new nuclear policy also emphasizes:

  • the need to develop new nuclear weapons to penetrate into the earth deeply to destroy stores of enemy weapons of mass destruction, so-called "mini-nukes" or "low-yield" nuclear weapons
  • the need for better intelligence and targeting systems for potential nuclear weapons strikes
  • the possibility that the U.S. may need to resume nuclear weapons testing to try out new nuclear weapons and to ensure the reliability of existing ones

The Nuclear Posture Review also names nations that it says "have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners," and thus may be subject to attack by the U.S.: North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Libya. It includes Russia and China as potential nuclear weapons targets as well.

In his State of the Union message on January 29, 2002, President Bush said that the U.S. intended to halt the proliferation or spread of weapons of mass destruction with military force, if necessary. He declared: "We must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world." He named three countries as an "axis of evil"—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Then he warned, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

The President has also stated that he thinks "Our security will require all be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend American liberty and to defend our lives" (6/1/02 in speech at West Point Military Academy). "Preemptive action" means using military force when Bush believes there is a potential for an attack on the U.S., as in the "preemptive action" against Iraq.

In keeping with its nuclear weapons policy, the Bush Administration says that the U.S. will not sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans "all nuclear weapons test explosions" and which 164 nations and all major nations, except the U.S. and China, have signed.

But the U.S. did recently sign the Moscow Treaty with Russia, which calls for each nation to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1700 and 2200 warheads by 2012. It's likely that the U.S. will argue that by signing this treaty it is living up to its NPT commitment to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons." But the treaty does not require the destruction of any warheads (the U.S. intends to store them), does not include any verification procedures, and permits either nation to withdraw from the agreement on short notice.

Under the Bush Administration policy, the U.S. does not plan to depend upon the NPT to solve the proliferation problem. Instead, it will use military force as it did against Iraq. (It's important to note that although the Bush Administration said it was attacking Iraq because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, no such weapons have been found there, as of this writing.)

The U.S. may also rely on diplomacy to keep other nations from building their nuclear capacity. The U.S. is, at the moment, using diplomacy to try and get North Korea to rid itself of its suspected nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons production facilities. If diplomacy fails, the U.S. has other choices. It can ignore North Korea's nuclear capabilities. It can, with such possible allies as South Korea and Japan (and maybe even China, which is not an ally) enforce a strict economic boycott against North Korea in an attempt to pressure the government to change its policies. Or the U.S. can attack North Korea.

The second nuclear question: What can we do about the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

The Bush Administration argues that we can:

  • have a ready-to-fire force of 1700 to 2200 strategic nuclear weapons (and additional tactical nuclear weapons)
  • be prepared to launch preemptive (preventative) military attacks using conventional weapons
  • maintain a stockpile of additional strategic nuclear weapons
  • build and test new nuclear weapons
  • use nuclear weapons, if necessary, against nuclear weapons proliferators

In February 2004 President Bush announced a plan to make more difficult the kind of nuclear sales network operated by Pakistani scientist Dr. Khan. Its major points require the approval of other nations and include:

1. A prohibition on the sale of nuclear material—enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium—"to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants."

2. An expansion of an intelligence-sharing program to intercept nuclear (as well as biological and chemical) weapons shipments.

3. A criminalization of nuclear weapons proliferation.


Student Reading 4:

A Different Answer

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), supports the Bush proposal to criminalize and tighten controls over the export of nuclear weapons materials, but writes also, "We must universalize the export control system....," For the Bush plan would not stop the very profitable exports of nuclear materials by nations that supply nuclear power plants. IAEA members object to the continuing monopoly of such sales by the five original nuclear weapons states—the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China—and other developed nations. ElBaradei would empower inspectors to conduct inspections "in all countries."

ElBaradei also declares that any serious effort to stop nuclear proliferation requires "A clear road map for nuclear disarmament....starting with a major reduction in the 30,000 nuclear warheads still in existence and bringing into force the long-awaited
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty....We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security—and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use." (New York Times, 2/12/04).

Jonathan Schell maintains that the Bush policy of using force to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction had a major setback in October 2002. That's when, in the midst of the crisis over Iraq, North Korea announced that it had the right to possess nuclear weapons. North Korea ejected UN inspectors who had been monitoring an earlier agreement that had shut down two reactors at a nuclear production facility. And it withdrew from the NPT.

Apparently, North Korea concluded that the best strategy to avoid an attack by the U.S. was to develop nuclear weapons (which Iraq had not yet done). Then the U.S. might view an attack as too risky. The Bush administration, says Schell, "discovered that its policy of preemptively using overwhelming force had no application against a proliferator with a serious military capability, much less a nuclear power. North Korea's conventional capacity alone — it has an army of more than a million men and 11,000 artillery pieces capable of striking South Korea's capital, Seoul — imposed a very high cost; the addition of nuclear arms, in combination with missiles capable of striking not only South Korea but Japan, made it obviously prohibitive."

Mohamed ElBaradei said the U.S. seems to want to teach the world that "if you really want to defend yourself, develop nuclear weapons, because then you get negotiations and not military action."

For Schell "the North Korean debacle represented not the failure of a good policy but exposure of the futility of one that was impracticable from the start. Nuclear proliferation, when considered as the global emergency that it is, has never been, is not now, and never will be stoppable by military force; on the contrary, force can only exacerbate the problem. In announcing its policy, the United States appeared to have forgotten what proliferation is. It is not army divisions or tanks crossing borders; it is above all technical know-how passing from one mind to another."

Schell quotes George Perkovich, who wrote about the history of India's development of nuclear weapons: "...the grandest illusion of the nuclear age is that a handful of states possessing nuclear weapons can secure themselves and the world indefinitely against the dangers of nuclear proliferation without placing a higher priority on simultaneously striving to eliminate their own nuclear weapons." ( The Nation, 3/3/03)

Schell goes on: "Most countries fear those who already possess and brandish nuclear weapons at least as much as they fear those who are merely trying to get them....They still see what has perhaps become invisible to American eyes: that the United States and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other and at other countries and refuse any suggestion that they surrender their arsenals. Most countries also see that the club of possessors has grown to include India and Pakistan, between whom the danger of nuclear war has become acute, and they note that no plan is on the drawing board to denuclearize these nations either....they observe that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation in jeopardy of breaking down because the five nations that according to the terms of the treaty temporarily possess nuclear weapons show no sign of fulfilling their eliminate their nuclear arsenals....Does the United States propose to overthrow the government of every country that, rebelling against the attempt to institutionalize the double standard, seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction?....

"What goes around comes around. The United States is the only nation on earth that has used nuclear weapons. It still threatens their use in a first strike, even against nonnuclear powers. An American attempt to dominate the world by force is a recipe for provoking their further use, not only in other parts of the world but especially on American soil....

"An agreement to abolish nuclear arms and all other weapons of mass destruction is the sine qua non [absolute necessity] of any sane international system in the twenty-first century, and the necessary condition for the construction of a cooperative world....No reliable policy can be founded upon the permanent institutionalization of a capacity and an intention to kill tens of millions of innocent people. No humane international order can depend upon a threat to extinguish humanity....And a clear commitment to abolition, by ending the nuclear double standard, alone can create a basis for stopping nuclear proliferation and making effective the existing bans on other weapons of mass destruction." (Jonathan Schell, "No More Unto the Breach," Part Two, Harper's Magazine , March 2003)

What can we do about nuclear weapons?

The answer of Jonathan Schell (and others):

Abolish them.



1. An inquiry-oriented approach

What do students know about nuclear weapons? Begin a discussion with students. Note their responses on the chalkboard without comment. Then ask, What are your sources of information? Again note responses without comment. And finally: What don't you know about nuclear weapons but would like to learn? Note these responses as well.

a. Examine what students say they know. To what extent are they uninformed or misinformed?

b. Consider sources of information for accuracy, reliability, detail.

c. Discuss student questions in detail for clarity, assumptions, and words and phrases needing definition. (See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for specific suggestions.)

d. Begin independent and small-group inquiries into each question that seems worth close study. For background, all students can read and discuss the four readings in the resource materials here.

2. Current news approach

Have students survey a daily newspaper, watch TV news for reporting on nuclear weapons events and/or examine such websites as (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation),, and (Global Security Institute). North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the conflict between India and Pakistan with its nuclear weapons implications may be in the news.

Discuss with students what they have found. What questions, issues, and problems do students raise? Use one or more as an entry point for a study of the problems of nuclear weapons.

3. Discuss Student Readings

Reading 1 :

Divide the class into groups of four to seven students for "go-arounds."

The question for each group is the one that concludes the reading: Why? Specifically, why hasn't the world rid itself of nuclear weapons?

In a go-around, one student responds to the questions without being interrupted. Perhaps one timed minute might be allowed. Then the next student responds. It's okay if a student wants more time to think or doesn't want to respond. When everyone who wishes to has had a chance to speak, provide another ten minutes or so for group discussion.

Have each group name a reporter to summarize its answer(s) for the class.

Reading 2:

  • How does Schell explain proliferation?
  • Why does Schell conclude that "deterrence equals proliferation"?
  • Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Reading 3:

Why does the President believe the U.S. requires nuclear weapons? Why do you suppose the U.S. will not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? How well do you judge the U.S. to be meeting its commitment to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons"? Why?

Reading 4:

Compare and assess the Bush and ElBaradei approaches to stopping nuclear
proliferation. According to Schell, why does the President's North Korea policy demonstrate the "futility" of its approach to nuclear weapons proliferation? Do you agree? Why or why not? What is Schell's view of how non-nuclear weapons nations see the U.S.? Do you agree? Why or why not? How and why does Schell conclude that the abolition of nuclear weapons is the only policy that makes sense? Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. Writing

Assign an essay in which students discuss and offer a reasoned opinion supporting or opposing one of the following statements:

  • There are good reasons to possess and, if necessary, use nuclear weapons.
  • Abolishing nuclear weapons is absolutely essential for the future of the planet.

5. Further inquiry

The abolition of nuclear weapons would obviously be a complex and lengthy process. But is abolition possible? For an inquiry into this vital question, have students investigate each of the following websites for materials that bear on the question, take notes, and write summaries of their findings for presentation in writing and to the class:

Support for President Bush's nuclear policies:

  • The White House (
  • The Heritage Foundation (
  • Institute for National Strategic Studies (
  • (for excerpts from The Nuclear Posture Review)

Support for abolition of nuclear weapons:

  • The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (its archival website:
  • Global Security Institute (
  • Federation of American Scientists (
  • Abolition 2000 (

Materials on a range of nuclear issues:

  • Reaching Critical Will ( includes texts of nuclear weapons ::treaties and the text of the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, which details suggested steps toward nuclear disarmament
  • Center for Defense Information (
  • The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (the

6. Student action

a. Have students write letters to public officials — the President, their senators and representatives — on their views of what should be done about nuclear weapons.

b. Have students call the Capitol Switchboard (202-224-3121) to express their views to their representative on the Spratt-Furse prohibition on low-yield nuclear weapons. For further information, see (Alliance for Nuclear Accountability).

c. Have students prepare a program on the pros and cons of nuclear abolition for a school assembly or PTA meeting.

d. See "Some suggestions for further investigation" in "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on U.S. Policy" on this website.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teachign Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: