April 21, 2010

An introduction and two student readings explore Obama's pledge to move toward nuclear abolition, obstacles to it, and current analysis from author Jonathan Schell. Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry and citizenship activities follow.

To the Teacher:

"Generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light," President Obama declared a year ago in Prague.. And, he suggested, the threat continues today. Obama went on to pledge "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

What do students know about nuclear weapons? The teacher might open the subject with the introductory short quiz in "Presidential Election 2008: What Do We Do About Nuclear Weapons?" in the high school section of TeachableMoment.

Below is an introduction for students to this issue, which includes two quotes from author Jonathan Schell and an excerpt from the president's Prague speech. The first student reading includes a summary of nuclear weapons dangers, major provisions of the Obama administration's Nuclear Policy Review, actions Obama has taken to date and problems associated with them. The second reading offers excerpts from Schell's most recent article on nuclear weapons, "Reaching Zero," in which he analyzes the nuclear weapons dilemma and outlines a path toward abolition.

Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiries and citizenship activities follow.


U.S. nuclear bomb test conducted near Christmas Island on June 9, 1962.


Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, 1982

"Two paths lie before us. One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path—if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about—then we in effect become the allies of death...On the other hand, if we reject our doom, and bend our efforts toward survival—if we arouse ourselves to the peril and act to forestall it, making ourselves the allies of life—hen the anesthetic fog will lift...and we will take full and clear possession of life again...and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons."

President Barack Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009

"The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. No nuclear war was fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, but generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light...Now, understand, this matters to people everywhere. One nuclear weapon exploded in one city — be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague — could kill hundreds of thousands of people...

"Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable...

"And as nuclear power — as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, 'Yes, we can.'"

Jonathan Schell, "Obama's Nuclear Challenge," The Nation, May 4, 2009

"Was Obama's speech (Prague, 4/5/09) historic? Not yet. It was an invitation to participate in history. It will be historic if we make it so. Obama says he is prepared to postpone abolition [of nuclear weapons] until he has died. He is 47. I wish him long life. Let us free the world of nuclear weapons while he is still among us."


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they be answered?

2. Twenty-seven years separate the first quote from the other two. How would you state their common theme in one sentence?

3. According to President Obama, why does the U.S. have "a moral responsibility to act" to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the world?


Student Reading 1:

Nuclear weapons goals & obstacles


In his Prague speech, the president also discussed other nuclear weapons dangers:

"Today, the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold."


  • The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was ratified by 183 of the world's nations, includes a pledge by non-nuclear countries not to develop nuclear weapons.
  • The NPT also includes a commitment from nuclear weapons nations to 1) help non-nuclear nations to develop nuclear power plants and 2) an "unequivocal" commitment "to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."
  • The nine nations with nuclear weapons are the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.
  • A nuclear weapons test ban has not prevented North Korea, for example, from testing, and the U.S. itself has not ratified the Nuclear Weapons Test Ban Treaty.
  • Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, secretly provided nuclear weapons information and materials to such nations as North Korea and Iran.
  • The U. S. has declared that it has intelligence revealing Al Qaeda's efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has not been ratified by three nations that possess nuclear weapons—India, Pakistan, and Israel. (Israel is the only nuclear weapons power that has not declared publicly that it has these weapons.) North Korea did ratify the treaty, but violated it, then quit the treaty seven years ago.

In April the Obama administration announced its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR outlines goals for reducing nuclear dangers and moving toward zero—the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. The review states the following major objectives:

  1. Preventing nuclear terrorism by securing nuclear materials in the nations that have them and by holding accountable "any state, terrorist group or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction."
  2. Preventing nuclear proliferation
  3. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense
  4. Continuing nuclear arms reductions with Russia
  5. Renouncing development of any new nuclear weapons.

Some accomplishments and continuing problems in achieving each objective:

1. Preventing nuclear terrorism

On April 12-13, 2010, the Obama administration convened a Nuclear Security Summit of the leaders of 47 nations in Washington focused on the security of nuclear stockpiles. That includes "1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium and 500 tons of plutonium at risk in sites around the world, experts say, enough to build between 100,000 to 120,000 nuclear warheads." (, 4/13/10)

Accomplishments: At the summit, the nations that have nuclear material that can be used to make weapons committed to specific steps to reduce, eliminate, or even give the material to the U.S. for disposal.

Problems: Pakistan, India, and China have not agreed to stop their manufacture of more bomb fuel. Iran insists that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful power development, but its secrecy about site locations and other issues have fueled a continuing diplomatic conflict with the U.S. and other Security Council nations.

2. Preventing nuclear proliferation.

A Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference takes place in May.

Two problems: First, North Korea has refused to give up its 8 to 12 nuclear weapons. And, to date, efforts to persuade Iran to halt its possible nuclear weapons program have failed.

There's another problem that is mostly unacknowledged: the major nuclear powers are the chief
nuclear proliferators. Despite their commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons, they have made no serious effort to do so over the past 40 years.

3. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense.

The NPR states: "The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations." And, the NPR declares, the U.S. will not even if attacked with biological or chemical weapons by such a non-nuclear state.


a) This pledge, as well as #5 (renouncing development of any new nuclear weapons) requires Senate ratification, where both may face significant opposition.

b) Russia opposes further deployment of U.S missile defense systems. But the Obama administration believes these systems will enable the U.S. to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.

c) Iran and North Korea see the pledge as a hostile act aimed at them. Iran appears to be working toward building nuclear weapons as a deterrence. North Korea has already nuclear weapons, but may want more as a deterrent to attack.

4. Nuclear arms reductions with Russia

In April the U.S. and Russia agreed to cut the number of strategic warheads each side has deployed from 2,200 to 1,500.

Problem: This agreement, which must be ratified in the Senate with at least 67 votes, will face serious opposition—even though it leaves the two countries with a combined total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why does the president think "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up"?

3. What does the word "proliferation" mean in the NPT? Why is this treaty regarded as so important? What are its two chief provisions? What do you know about why the nuclear weapons powers have not lived up to their commitment? How might you learn more?

4. Consider each of the major provisions in the NPR. What have been its most important accomplishments to date? What are significant problems in preventing further accomplishments?


Student Reading 2:

"Reaching Zero"

Beginning in 1982 with his classic book The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell has written many articles and books on nuclear weapons and how to rid ourselves of their plague. His latest book is The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. This reading offers excerpts from his latest article, "Getting to Zero," which was published in The Nation, 4/19/10).

Schell points out:

  • The U.S. and Russia possess 95% of the world's 23,000 or so nuclear weapons.
  • Each nuclear nation "cites the arsenal of another or others as the rationale for possessing its own, in multiple chains that link them together into a network of threats and counterthreats." For example, in one such chain, Pakistan fears India, which fears China, which fears Russia, which fears the United States.
  • Such networks of terror teach "possible proliferators a pair of lessons that are the prime (if not the only) motives for proliferation. First, you will be living in a nuclear-armed world; second, if you want to be protected in that world you must have nuclear arms yourself..."
  • "The necessary conclusion is clear: proliferation can't be stopped unless possession is dealt with concurrently...This is a truth, however, that the world's nine nuclear powers do not like to acknowledge, because it has an implication they are reluctant to accept, which is that if they want to be safe from nuclear danger they must commit themselves to surrendering their own nuclear arms..."

Avoiding plan B

Schell argues that getting nations to agree to a policy of nuclear "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons is the indispensable element of any effective nonproliferation strategy. "If nuclear weapons are needed not only to counter other nuclear weapons but to repel conventional, chemical and biological attacks as well, then what responsible national leader can afford to do without them?" he asks.

The chief strategy of the cold war was the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. As military strategist Bernard Brodie said in 1946, "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose...'"

"In retrospect," says Schell, "it seems the doctrine of deterrence has been...based on one thoroughgoing absurdity and one profound truth. The absurdity was the idea that you could lastingly and reliably avoid an action-mutual suicide in a nuclear war by threatening the action." And yet, he says, "the doctrine did also rest on one profound truth—its acknowledgment that 'nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,' as Reagan and Gorbachev put it in 1985...You might say that deterrence has pursued a sane goal by insane means...

"The needed change is to turn abolition from a far-off goal into an active organizing principle that gives direction to everything that is done in the nuclear arena...The goal has two requisites. The first is getting rid of existing nuclear weapons" through negotiations among the nuclear powers. "The second requisite is building a system that safeguards the world from the [rebuilding] of nuclear weapons once they are gone...

"Of the two, the second is more difficult. For while the process of nuclear disarmament will continue for only a limited time, until zero is reached, the architecture of zero must be built to last forever, since the knowledge that underlies nuclear weapons will never disappear..."

"Above all," says Schell reaching zero will require a "united planetary political will that can be created only by a clear, credible commitment to a time-bound plan for abolition to which all nuclear powers are formally agreed." Schell believes it should take the form of a commitment to ban all weapons of mass destruction.

"To postpone abolition is to postpone nonproliferation," says Schell. Reducing arms levels is important in and of itself. But one especially important result of an arms reduction plan is that it would require participating nations to devise a plan to inspect arms to verify compliance. Schell says that "an ever-stronger regime of inspection is [an absolute essential] of life in a world without nuclear weapons...

"The more nonnuclear-weapons states accepted stringent inspections, the more they permitted transparency of their nuclear facilities and the more they accepted restrictions on withdrawal from the NPT, the more ready would the nuclear powers be, less afraid now of cheating, to surrender their arsenals," writes Schell.

"What would nuclear weapons then be for? They almost tell us themselves.'We are here,' they say, 'to abolish ourselves...For even after you are rid of us, we will hover in the wings, as a potential that cannot ever be removed.' The bomb is waiting for us to hear the message. It has been waiting a long time. If we do not, it can always return to what has always been its plan B, and abolish us."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are "the prime, if not the only, motives for proliferation"? Why? According to Schell, what is "the necessary conclusion"? Why? How does this "necessary conclusion" relate to the nine nuclear weapons powers? To North Korea? To Iran?

3. What is a "no-first-use-policy"? What makes it an "indispensable" element of any effective nonproliferation strategy?

4. Explain the Brodie quote and its significance.

5. What is a deterrence policy? What does Schell think is the "absurdity" and the "truth" of such a policy?

6. What is Schell's prescription for "getting to zero"? What difficulties can you envision in following it? What consequences would there be for not getting to zero?

7. What questions remain for students about "the nuclear dilemma"? Each element in the Obama policy? About the situation with North Korea? Iran? Senate reactions? On such issues and others, consider having students develop thoughtfully worded questions for further inquiry. In the latter connection, see Thinking Is Questioning in the high school section.


For citizenship

What is the student reaction to the Obama nuclear policy? Might a class consensus be possible? Or do students have outstanding issues with certain elements in that policy?

In either case, assign students to write letters or e-mails to the president and to their senators and representatives in which they express their views and ask questions. Have students share any responses they get to their letters. These might suggest further inquiries as well as additional letters and e-mails.

See also "Teaching Social Responsibility" on TeachableMoment for ideas about more far-reaching citizenship activities for students on the vital issue of nuclear abolition.





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