Presidential Election 2008: What Do We Do about Nuclear Weapons?

February 13, 2008

An introductory quiz is followed by a student reading on what the candidates have said about nuclear weapons proliferation. A second student reading explores author Jonathan Schell's latest thinking on the issue.

The presidential candidates have said very little about nuclear weapons. But what they have said gives some insight into their thinking, and is the subject of the first student reading below. The second student reading offers commentary on nuclear weapons from a recent interview with Jonathan Schell, who has studied nuclear weapons for 25 years.The third reading presents poll results on the thinking of Americans and Russians about nuclear weapons policies. The lesson begins with an introductory exercise to determine students' knowledge of the subject.

For further background on nuclear weapons and the issues they raise, see other materials on this website.


Introductory exercise:
What Do You Know About Nuclear Weapons?

Directions: Answer each question briefly and specifically if you can. If you can't, write DN for Don't Know before the number.

1. Besides their enormous explosive power, nuclear explosions produce what other effects?

2. Name the two cities on which the only atomic bombs have been exploded.

3. Which nation dropped these bombs?

4. Name as many as you can of the nine nations known to possess nuclear bombs.

5. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ratified by 183 nations forbids countries that don't have nuclear weapons from importing or manufacturing them. What does the treaty require of nations that do have nuclear weapons?

6. What was the name of the policy on nuclear weapons followed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

7. Why would this policy probably be useless to enforce against terrorists?

8. Why do U.S. leaders insist that Iran stop enriching uranium?

For discussion

1. Ask for responses to each question and discuss them. (Student Reading 2 in "Nuclear Weapons Controversy" will provide a number of answers. Others can be found in the two readings here.)

2. What other questions do students have about nuclear weapons? How might they be answered?


Student Reading 1:

Where do the 2008 presidential candidates stand on nuclear weapons?

Reporters have asked the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates few questions about nuclear weapons policies. Candidates have said very little in their speeches or on their websites. Yet the mere existence of nuclear weapons represents a grave danger to people everywhere in the world.

In 1970 the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was created to reduce the risk that anyone would use nuclear weapons and to move toward eliminating these weapons altogether. The treaty has been ratified by 183 nations. It forbids nations that do not already have nuclear weapons—and that includes all but nine nations—from importing or manufacturing them. In return, it guarantees the non-nuclear countries access to the technology needed for developing nuclear power plants.

As their part of this bargain, nuclear weapons nations agreed to make "good faith" efforts at nuclear disarmament. In 2000, they strengthened this statement by committing to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , "Senator John McCain seems at least to recognize the logic of reducing the size of our nuclear stockpile, although he hasn't pushed for severe reductions." ( Bulletin of Atomic Scientists online edition,, 1/9/08)

Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were each asked what they would do in the event of a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons. Their responses were similar.

Clinton: "We have to make it clear to those states that would give safe haven to stateless terrorists that would launch a nuclear attacks against America that they would also face a very heavy retaliation." (1/5/08)

Obama: "We would obviously have to retaliate against anybody who struck American soil and whether it was nuclear or not. It would be a much more profound issue if it was nuclear weapons."

While the Democrats, like the Republicans, are unclear about whether they would retaliate with nuclear weapons, they have been more detailed in their nuclear weapons policies. Both Obama and Clinton support reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Both oppose producing a new generation of nuclear warheads.

But both Democrats, like the Republicans, see a continuing role for nuclear weapons as a reliable deterrent. None of the candidates have discussed the human costs of nuclear bombs. None have discussed why an American nuclear arsenal would act as a deterrent to stateless terrorists who have frequently demonstrated that they are quite prepared to die, even welcome death. All the candidates have insisted that the NPT needs to be enforced for such states as Iran and North Korea. But only one candidate—Barack Obama—has commented on the U.S. commitment under the NPT to move toward the abolition of their nuclear weapons.

Obama said: "America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons. We will not pursue unilateral disarmament....But we will keep our commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the long road towards elimination of nuclear weapons." (8/16/07)

The Democratic, but not the Republican, candidates have endorsed a set of proposals advanced in "Toward a Nuclear-Free World" published in the Wall Street Journal by former defense secretaries George Shultz and William Perry, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. The proposal calls for strengthened monitoring of countries to make sure they are complying with the NPT, bringing into effect the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, developing and providing the highest possible standards of security for nuclear weapons and nuclear materials everywhere, and increasing dialogue on a gradual movement toward nuclear weapons abolition.

In their proposal, the four former top officials conclude: "In some respects, the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can't even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can't get there from here. But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore. We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible." (, 1/15/08)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. If you have heard any of the presidential candidates say anything about nuclear weapons, what was it? Why do you suppose this subject has gotten so little attention?
3. How would you explain the failure of U.S. presidents and lawmakers of both parties to honor the "unequivocal" commitment their nation made to move to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons?
4. How would you explain why the U.S. maintains 10,000 nuclear weapons? What might be the purpose of such an arsenal?
5. Discuss the few statements presidential candidates have made about nuclear weapons. Which of these opinions to agree or disagree with, and why?


Student Reading 2:

Jonathan Schell's View

"The nuclear weapon is fulfilling its destiny, which was known from the very beginning of the nuclear age," Jonathan Schell said. The Cold War, a 40-year struggle between the nuclear-armed Soviet Union and United States, writes Schell, "was in fact a temporary two-power disguise for a threat that was essentially universal in a double sense: Number one, it could destroy everybody; number two, over the long run, anybody was going to be able to acquire it."

Twenty-five years ago Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth , a book that brought home to many readers the revolutionary meaning of these weapons. In a recent interview, Schell discussed the current state of nuclear weapons proliferation. (, 12/4/07,"The Bomb in the Mind")

The superpowers dealt with the threat of destruction through deterrence, a system promising mutually assured destruction, or MAD. If either side launched nuclear-tipped missiles toward its foe, the other side's hair-trigger alert system would guarantee the launch of its own nuclear missiles. Combined, the two nations had 65,000 nuclear weapons. Yet, there were respected military strategists who argued that nuclear war was "winnable."

"To understand that nuclear weapons could not be used that way, that they, indeed, made a whole range of warfare impossible, was a lesson that was viscerally, as well as intellectually, difficult to absorb," says Schell. Even to use the word "war" to describe what came to be called "a nuclear exchange" of thousands of nuclear weapons was absurd. Any such "exchange" guaranteed not only the deaths of untold millions in each nation and the deaths of the nations themselves, but quite possibly the deaths of untold millions worldwide and other nations, as well.

Schell argues that the superpowers also operated on the basis of an illusion that nuclear weapons could be confined to a small group of nations. But the bomb, a product of 20th century physics, is "a mental construct," Schell says, and therefore available to anyone. "The bomb in the mind will be there forever." Thus, such poor countries as India and Pakistan were able to become nuclear powers. Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan even became a nuclear salesman, selling nuclear plans and technology to several other countries.

President Bush's solution to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation has been to threaten to use military force, if need be, wherever it arises. But that solution, says Schell, "is in a shambles. We waged a war in a country that didn't have nuclear weapons [Iraq], meanwhile letting North Korea get them."

The dual nuclear threat remains unchanged: 1) Nuclear weapons can destroy everybody. 2) Anybody is going to be able to acquire them.

Schell argues that the only solution to this problem is abolition.

Consider the current situation with Iran. "It is enriching uranium. The United States has said No! You mustn't enrich, even though you say it's for nuclear power, because that gets you nine out of ten steps to the bomb." But diplomacy has failed to keep Iran from enriching uranium. "So you are left with the only other option in this framework—the use of military force. I would say, though, that the surefire way of ensuring that Iran will go for the bomb is to attack them"

"The option which is never explored," says Schell, "is for the nuclear powers to bring their own weapons to the negotiating table and say: 'We will reduce ours—even down to zero—on condition that you proliferators stop proliferating.'" Instead, for 35 years the nuclear powers have repeated their commitment to working for nuclear abolition, and failed to honor it.

Imagine that the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China declare their readiness to surrender their nuclear arsenals and to instead rely on an abolition agreement in the same way they now rely on these arsenals for their security. Imagine that the 183 countries that have, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreed to remain without nuclear weapons would join this consensus. Such a "united global will," said Schell, "would simply be irresistible."

Schell sees the nuclear crisis, with it threats of nuclear winter, radiation and ozone loss, as part of a larger ecological crisis that includes global warming. "Global warming and nuclear war are two different ways that humanity threatens to undo the natural underpinnings of human and all other life. In a sense, the nuclear dilemma is the easy crisis to resolve. It does not require us to change our physical way of life; it just requires a different sort of political resolve." (, 12/4/07,"The Bomb in the Mind")

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. In what "double sense" are nuclear weapons a universal threat?
3. What was the basic idea behind deterrence?
4. What does Schell mean when he says that the nuclear bomb is in the mind? What is the significance of this?
5. Examine the logic of Schell's position for abolition of all nuclear weapons. What makes sense to you? What doesn't? Do you have a better idea?

6. Why does Schell see nuclear weapons as part of a larger ecological crisis?
7. Do you agree with him that the nuclear dilemma is easier to resolve than global warming—that "it just requires a different sort of political resolve"?


Student Reading 3:

"American and Russian Publics Strongly Support Steps to Reduce and Eliminate Nuclear Weapons"

This is what researchers concluded after polling Americans and Russians in the fall of 2007. The poll's special interest is that it reveals a huge gap between what ordinary people think and how their governments are thinking and acting. (Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, (, 11/9/07)

Highlights of these poll results show that Americans and Russians support by significant majorities:

1. Taking nuclear weapons off high alert, assuming the U.S. and Russia put into effect a mutually agreeable verification system. This would reduce the danger of an accidental or an unauthorized launch.

Agree: Americans 64%; Russians 59%
Oppose: Americans 33%; Russians 23%

2. Sharply reducing current nuclear arsenals, now in the thousands, to 400, assuming other
nuclear-armed nations agree not to increase their arsenals.

Agree: Americans 59%; Russians 53%
Oppose: Americans 38%; Russians 21%

3. Working seriously with other nations to eliminate nuclear weapons, assuming the establishment of a verifiable international system to assure compliance

Agree: American 73%; Russians 63%
Oppose: Americans 24%; Russians 13%

In other poll results, majorities in both countries support banning the production of any more nuclear explosive material suitable for use in nuclear weapons. And 8 in every 10 Americans and Russians approve of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapons tests. The purpose of this treaty is to make it more difficult to develop or improve nuclear weapons. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe, incorrectly, that the United States has already signed this treaty. In fact, the U.S. Senate disapproved it in 1999. Russia ratified the treaty in 2000.

These poll results demonstrate that most Americans and Russians agree with the key elements in the Schultz-Perry-Kissinger proposals described in Reading 1.

Today both the U.S. and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, about one-third of which are on high alert. This means that within a few minutes they can fire hundreds of missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads.

"The public doesn't know that in the early warning centers, crews labor to meet a three-minute deadline and go through a drill every day. Nor does it know that in the event of an apparent nuclear threat, [the] Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, is allowed as little as 30 seconds to brief the president on his response options and their consequences. Or that the president would then have between zero and 12 minutes to absorb the information and choose a course of action." ( Defense Monitor ,Center for Defense Information, March-April 2008)

While both Americans and Russians strongly support the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons everywhere, their governments do not even show an inclination to significantly reduce their arsenals. The nuclear weapons policy that the Bush administration announced in 2002 remains unchanged.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Most people in the two major nuclear powers support nuclear policies their governments do not. In the case of each poll result, what explanation can you offer to explain this difference? If you cannot, how might you find out?
3. Why do you suppose the Senate turned down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? If you have no idea, how might you learn more?
4. What can citizens do to change government policies they disapprove of? See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for suggestions on student action.


For inquiry

Ask students to frame a question on one of the topics below. Once the teacher has approved the question, have students undertake individual or small-group inquiry, then report back to the class on their findings. "Thinking Is Questioning," which can be found on this website, includes exercises on asking and analyzing questions.

1. The Manhattan Project
2. The U.S. decision to attack Hiroshima or Nagasaki with an atomic bomb
3. The effects of the attack on Hiroshima or Nagasaki
4. The Bush administration's policies on nuclear weapons
5. Diplomacy with North Korea about its nuclear bombs
6. Diplomacy with Iran about its nuclear program
7. The effectiveness of the U.S. missile defense program against a nuclear attack
8. The security of Russia's nuclear weapons
9. A.Q. Khan, the nuclear weapons salesman
10. Ideas for the abolition of nuclear weapons


For writing and citizenship

Write a letter to the candidate of your choice in which you discuss what you think his or her position should be on nuclear weapons.

Organize the class as the staff of a magazine on nuclear issues such as those named under "for inquiry." The magazine might include articles, diagrams and charts, photos, maps, quizzes, debates, proposals, or biographies of scientists involved in creating the atomic bomb. The magazine might be reproduced and distributed to students in other classes.


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