Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Resource Unit

July 23, 2011

A substantive reader and activity guide on chemical, biological & nuclear weapons

To the Teacher:
"Weapons of Mass Destruction" deals with a deadly subject and a scourge of humankind. It includes graphic descriptions; consideration of international efforts to curb these weapons; a presentation of current U.S. policies on weapons of mass destruction and criticisms of them and an editorial by the author of these materials voicing opinions that the teacher is, of course, free to ignore. But the issues of weapons of mass destruction and war itself can be ignored only by ignoring the world we live in.

Following six student readings is an outline of possible teaching strategies for use in whatever combinations the teacher thinks appropriate.

Note: The texts of all the international treaties and conventions mentioned in these lessons can be found at www.reachingcriticalwill.org.

Student Reading 1:

What is a weapon of mass destruction?

490 BC: Athenians armed with swords and spears killed 6,400 Persians during one day of fighting in 490 BC, says Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian. Later in that same century during endless wars between city-states, Greeks used sulfur mixed with pitch resin to produce suffocating fumes as a weapon. They also polluted their enemies' drinking water supplies with animal corpses. These are the earliest known examples of chemical and biological warfare.

1750s: During the French and Indian Wars the British used smallpox-infected blankets to promote the spread of the disease among their Indian enemies.

1860s: In the American Civil War the main weapons were muzzle-loading rifles and cannons. The official number of Union soldiers killed in action during the four-year war was 93,443. An estimated 80,000 to 90,000 Confederates were killed in action.

1910s (WW1): On April 27, 1915, the New York Tribune reported of the World War I fighting at Langemark, France: "...vapor settled on the ground like a swamp mist and drifted toward the French trenches on a brisk wind. Its effect on the French was a violent nausea and faintness, followed by an utter collapse." The Germans had released chlorine gas, the first chemical attack of the war. It killed 5,000 French soldiers. Later, mustard gas used by both sides killed 91,000 and injured 1.2 million people. A nurse wrote of "the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes...always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke."

The historian John Buchan, reporting on the German assault on the French near Verdun, France, on February 21, 1916, wrote: "For twelve and a half hours guns of every caliber poured 100,000 shells per hour on a front of six miles....It blotted out the French first lines, it shattered the communication trenches, it tore the woods into splinters, and altered the very shape of the hills." This was primarily an artillery barrage. But during the several months that followed rifles, bayonets and machine guns (machine guns were used in great numbers for the first time in a modern war) tore apart huge numbers of soldiers on both sides. During World War I at Verdun alone, the Germans suffered 427,000 casualties, the French 535,000.

1930s & 1940s (WWII): Before and during World War II, the Japanese killed at least 270,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians by infecting them with bubonic plague, anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, syphilis, and cholera. This was the first widespread use of biological warfare.

Germans killed two million men, women and children, mostly Jews, at Auschwitz, Poland during World War II. Most died after being packed in gas chambers and then sprayed with the pesticide Zyklon-B. This was the first use of a chemical to perform mass murder on civilians.

For five successive days in July 1943 British and American bombers attacked Hamburg, Germany. In the early morning of July 28 planes dropped tens of thousands of tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. Gerald Astor, an historian of the air war in Europe during World War II, writes of the result: "The holocaust at Hamburg reached 1,000 degrees centigrade, creating a tornado of fire that yanked trees from the ground, burned up asphalt streets, sucked human beings from buildings into its vortex, cremated citizens alive in their bomb shelters. Those who did not succumb to fire died of smoke inhalation or asphyxiation from carbon monoxide. The official figures counted 50,000 dead but no one really knew the amount."

"...or how many went mad before they died," W.G. Sebald writes in A Natural History of Destruction ...."Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorus flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat....Elsewhere clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket."

Refugees abandoned the remains of the city, hardly knowing where they were going. Sebald cites the diarist Friedrich Reck, who describes a group of forty or fifty refugees trying to force their way into a train in Upper Bavaria. As they do so, wrote Reck, a cardboard suitcase "falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, the relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago."

On August 6 and 9, 1945, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, US planes dropped atomic bombs that killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilian. Tens of thousands of others died later from a host of blast and radiation injuries. These were the first two and only uses of nuclear warfare to date.

1990s: During three months of 1994 in the African nation of Rwanda, the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, used mostly firearms, machetes, and garden tools to murder 800,000 people belonging to the minority group, the Tutsis.

The following year in Srebrenica, Bosnia (in central Europe) Bosnian Serb soldiers shot more than 7,000 Bosnian men and boys and buried them alive with bulldozers.

2001: On September 11, 2001, 19 men armed with box cutters seized four US passenger planes flying their normal domestic flights and took over the controls. They drove two of the planes into each of New York City's twin towers and one into the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. More than 3,000 people died.

So what is a weapon of mass destruction? The United Nations Security Council on Conventional Weapons defines weapons of mass destruction as nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. They are indiscriminate weapons that cause massive and long-term consequences. These weapons are singled out for special attention because of the horrors associated with their capacity to annihilate in a single stroke thousands, even millions of human beings. But as history makes very clear, almost any weapon or tool in the hands of human beings—a sword, an incendiary bomb, a hoe, a bulldozer—is capable of inflicting massive and terrible injuries and deaths.


Student Reading 2:

Efforts to control weapons of mass destruction

Biological and chemical weapons are as old as the ancient Greeks. Many people still remember when nuclear weapons were first created and used. History demonstrates that almost any weapon can produce mass casualties. But when people refer to "weapons of mass destruction" today, they are usually referring to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. All are capable of causing massive deaths in a single stroke.

Chemical Weapons:

By the end of the 19th century as nations began to mass produce deadly weapons, people launched serious efforts to control them. In conferences at The Hague, Holland in 1899 and 1907, major industrial nations met to consider a number of war and peace issues. Recognizing the special horror of certain types of weapons, they approved a convention prohibiting using asphyxiating gases, poison, and poisoned weapons in warfare. But this convention did not prevent the armies on both sides of World War I from using poison gas extensively.

On three occasions after the war was over—the Versailles treaty (1919), the Washington Disarmament Conference (1922) and a Geneva conference (1925)—nations reiterated their ban on the use of poisonous gases. The Geneva conference also approved a protocol prohibiting the use of bacteriological weapons that most of countries eventually ratified. Once again, though, the agreement did not prevent Italy, one of the protocol's signers, from using poison gas in an assault on Ethiopia. Nor did it prevent Japan, which had not signed the protocol, from extensive use of chemical and biological weapons against the Chinese in World War II. The Geneva Convention, ratified by most nations, also states that countries in military conflict should be careful not to target civilians.

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction was approved at an international conference in 1997. Most nations have signed the agreement, pledging "never under any circumstances to develop, produce, or otherwise acquire...chemical weapons." The agreement also compels every signer to "undertake to destroy [any] chemical weapons it owns and possesses" by 2007. The two largest possessors of chemical weapons were the United States and Russia, which together had stockpiled tens of thousands of tons of the deadly ingredients Unlike the agreement on biological weapons, the chemical convention includes inspections to verify compliance.

Biological Weapons:

During the years after World War II, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had programs to develop and stockpile biological weapons. In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US was unilaterally abandoning its biological weapons program and destroying the weapons it had produced. There were two major reasons for his decision: First, it was just about impossible to imagine that the US would ever use biological weapons. Second, it was much easier to imagine that terrorists might be able to get hold of some of them. President Nixon's initiative led to the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and Their Destruction. It was signed immediately by the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union and, by 2003, a total of 147 nations. This agreement does not, however, require inspections to verify that nations are complying.

Nuclear Weapons:

There are many treaties that attempt to control or reduce the world's nuclear weapons. The full text for the international treaties cited can be found on www.reachingcriticalwill.org. They include:
1) Nuclear weapons-free zones for Antarctica, Latin America, outer space, and the oceans.

2) Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This treaty prohibits any nuclear weapons testing in order to discourage the creation of new nuclear weapons and to prevent environmental damage.

3) Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This agreement aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by banning any nation without them from manufacturing or receiving them; and commits the nuclear weapons nations to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

4) Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). This treaty outlines a step-by-step process of nuclear disarmament. Although it has not yet been debated by the General Assembly, it has been submitted to the United Nations as a discussion draft.

In addition to these global agreements, the two major nuclear powers, the US and the Soviet Union (and its successor state, Russia) have signed several bilateral treaties. These treaties include provisions to limit the number of strategic nuclear weapons launchers (missiles of various kinds and bombers) and the number of nuclear warheads on a single missile. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) was designed to prevent the development of missile defenses. Each side had the power to destroy the other even if it was attacked first and each side knew it. This deadly state of affairs was known as mutually assured destruction (MAD). But if one side had a defense against incoming missiles, it would have an advantage. Therefore, the two nations decided that stability depended upon both nations being vulnerable to attack and thus the ABM Treaty.

Most recently, the US and Russia signed the Moscow Treaty, in which the two nations agreed to cut their deployed nuclear arsenals from about 6,000 warheads each to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012.


Student Reading 3:

Obstacles to controlling weapons of mass destruction

Most nations have agreed to treaties calling for the total elimination of all weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and nuclear. Yet their elimination has been only partial. Despite agreements like provisions in the Geneva Convention to avoid harming civilians during a conflict, warring nations everywhere on the globe for the past 75 years have repeatedly, deliberately, and massively maimed and killed ordinary people with weapons of mass destruction and everyday old-fashioned weapons of all kinds.

According to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at least 13 countries are currently pursuing biological weapons programs and at least 16 have chemical weapons programs. Those that may have both include China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and Syria. The word "may" must be used because national programs to develop weapons of mass destruction are usually top secret. Most of the 13 countries listed have signed one or both of the conventions prohibiting biological and chemical weapons.

Chemical Weapons:

The two largest creators and holders of chemical weapons have been the US and Russia. The chemical weapons convention calls for inspections (which both nations have permitted) and for the complete elimination of chemical weapons by 2007. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists "the treaty has weaknesses—namely, allowing the use of chemical weapons like tear gas in law enforcement and riot control, a loophole that some read as permitting the use of other, more dangerous, chemical agents" (Jan/Feb 2003 issue).

The US and other Western countries have a flawed record on the elimination of chemical weapons. For example, the US quietly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), in which about 100,000 people were killed or wounded by Iraqi chemical weapons, according to Iranian medical records. Fifteen years later, thousands of Iranians continue to receive treatment for their injuries. One of them, Muhammad Moussavi, was wounded by mustard gas. "Today, at 40, Mr. Moussavi is chained to an oxygen concentrator. His lungs and air passages are permanently scarred, his vision blurred, his skin susceptible to peeling and rashes....'This is a very burdensome illness for me and my family,' he said. 'I never feel I'm getting enough oxygen. The phlegm I cough is filled with blood and hard like bricks.'" ( New York Times, 2/13/03)

In 1988 Iraq launched chemical weapons attacks on up to 200 rebellious Kurdish villages and towns in the northern part of the country. Using mustard gas and nerve gas agents, the Iraqis killed 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization. The Kurds say 200,000 were killed. As many as 150,000 are still suffering from miscarriages, abnormal births, cleft palates, blindness, and various kinds of cancers.

During this period the US, under President Ronald Reagan, feared that if Iran won the war, it would gain control of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. The US, which supported Iraq in the war, did nothing about that nation's chemical weapons attacks. The US sold Iraq hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment—as did other European countries such as France. The US also provided Iraq with military intelligence about Iran. In fact, the Iraqi chemical weapons program had been supplied by American, German, Dutch, Swiss, French, and Austrian firms. After the Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate, the world did nothing to hold Iraq accountable for what it had done to the Iranians and the Kurds.

Biological Weapons:

Before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it violated the biological weapons treaty by continuing its program and stockpiling new weapons. Russia became the possessor of the program and the stockpile. It announced that it would honor the convention and destroy all biological weapons. But it has never given convincing evidence that it has. Since there is no inspection provision in the convention, other nations have no evidence one way or the other.

An international conference in 2001 agreed that a verification program was necessary to prevent cheating. But the US rejected the idea. A senior Bush administration official said it would interfere with secret American research "to pursue defenses against the full spectrum of biological threats." The result was no action by the conference.

Furthermore, US officials will not allow on-site inspections. They say that if they agreed to inspection of their research facilities, it would give potential enemies valuable information about weaknesses in the U.S.'s planned defense against biological weapons. America's refusal to allow for verification inspections led critics to say that if any another nation had opposed inspections for such reasons, the US would have been the first to complain.

Defensive research against biological weapons (to help nations counter an attack) is allowed under the convention; the US began such research during the Clinton administration.

Note: For more information on bioweapons defense research, see the Jan.-Feb. 2003 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2003/jf03/jf03wheelis.html.

Nuclear Weapons:

Nuclear weapons powers include the US and Russia, each with thousands of warheads; China, France, Great Britain and perhaps Israel, each with hundreds; India and Pakistan with less than one hundred; and North Korea, possibly, with a few. Iran, Iraq, and Libya appear to have nuclear programs but not weapons, yet. But even the presence of a single nuclear weapon poses a threat: The explosion of one nuclear bomb over New York City could destroy it, kill a million or more people from blast and radiation, and make the city unlivable for everyone else.

The 2002 Moscow Treaty calls for sharp reductions in strategic nuclear warheads, but does not require the actual destruction of any warheads (the US intends to store many of the dismantled weapons). The treaty also does not require either country to make cuts on a specific schedule. It does not require reductions in or the elimination of any of the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons on each side. (Tactical nuclear weapons have a shorter range than the long-range strategic weapons.) It does not include verification procedures. It permits either nation to withdraw from the treaty with a three-month notice.

The US has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty. In making the withdrawal announcement, President Bush said that the cold war was over, Russia no longer an enemy, and the treaty no longer needed. The treaty had kept the US from going very far with its missile defense plans, which the President said would now be stepped up. He later announced that in 2004 the US will deploy a limited missile defense system. European allies, as well as Russia and China, objected to the US withdrawal from the treaty and to the US's new missile defense plans. Both, they said, will make the world less secure. If a missile defense system worked—and many scientists have expressed grave doubts that one ever will—it would enable the US to attack a relatively weak nuclear nation (China, for example) and not fear retaliation. This concern will probably lead China and others to increase their nuclear weapons stockpiles.


Student Reading 4:

Bush administration strategies on weapons of mass destruction

Two key documents released by the Bush administration in 2002 offer a view of its plan for US security: "The National Security Strategy of the United States" and "The Nuclear Posture Review."

National Security Strategy of the United States

The National Security Strategy of the United States argues that the US should launch preemptive attacks against terrorists and nations that are judged hostile and that might possess weapons of mass destruction. Key sentences in the plan state, "While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively....We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed....the President has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

The National Security Strategy also declares: "We will take the actions necessary to ensure that our efforts to meet our global security commitments and protect Americans are not impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court, whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept." (More than 100 nations have agreed to establish the International Criminal Court to try individuals accused of major war crimes against civilians. The Bush administration refuses to take part in the court because it fears that a court that is politically opposed to it could indict American officials or military personnel.)

In a graduation speech to West Point Military Academy cadets on June 1, 2002, President Bush elaborated on this theme: "For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, these strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons or missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies....Our security will require all Americans...to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend American liberty and to defend our lives."

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said the new approach "means early action of some kind. It means forestalling certain destructive acts against you by an adversary." There are times, she said, when "you can't wait to be attacked to respond."

Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted that US foreign policy remains as "multilateralist" as ever. Our task, he explained, is to convince our friends and allies that our policies are right. But if not, "then we will take the position we believe is correct, and I hope the Europeans are left with better understanding of the way in which we want to do business." ( New York Review, 8/15/02).

Richard Pipes, a Harvard University professor emeritus, said in a supporting statement that other nations must realize that the US"will not be intimidated or dissuaded from exercising power when our national security interest depends on it" and that "while we want to cooperate with the rest of the world, in the end we must decide." ( New York Times, 10/26/02)

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist, wrote of the new US security policy, "The new unilateralism seeks to strengthen American power and unashamedly deploy it on behalf of self-defined global ends." ( Washington Post, 6/8/01)

Nuclear Posture Review

"The Nuclear Posture Review," created by the US Defense Department, lays out the direction for American nuclear forces over the next five to ten years. It stresses that "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States." It says there are four reasons to possess nuclear weapons: to "assure allies and friends;" "dissuade competitors;" "deter aggressors;" and "defeat enemies." It emphasizes the need to develop new nuclear weapons to penetrate deeply into the earth to destroy stores of enemy weapons of mass destruction. It calls for better intelligence and targeting systems for potential nuclear strikes. It declares that the US may need to resume testing to make new nuclear weapons and ensure the reliability of existing ones. It names as possible nuclear targets North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya. These nations, it says, "have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners." The document also includes Russia and China as potential nuclear targets.

In short, the policy of the Bush administration, as laid out in The National Security Strategy of the US and the Nuclear Posture Review, is that the US intends to attack preemptively when it deems it necessary, will maintain global military dominance, will not submit to inquiry or prosecution by the International Criminal Court, and will rely indefinitely on nuclear weapons as a key element in its military arsenal.

The US will also build a missile defense system. It will not permit inspections of its biological programs. It may not destroy its chemical weapons by the deadline. It may create new nuclear weapons and may feel the need to resume nuclear weapons testing and therefore withdraw from the CTBT.

The US case for maintaining its nuclear weapons has been made repeatedly. Richard Perle, an international security aide in the Reagan administration and now an aide in the Defense Department, in testifying before a Congressional committee in 1997, offered five reasons why the nation cannot eliminate its nuclear weapons: 1) "There is no way to verify compliance with a treaty banning all nuclear weapons....The weapons are too small and the space in which they can be hidden too vast to allow for confident monitoring." 2)"The near certainty that others would cheat...." 3) After abolition of nuclear weapons, one or more former nuclear-weapon states will inevitably create nuclear weapons again. 4) As the US and its allies abandon nuclear weapons, a smaller non-nuclear nation could be quietly creating a handful of the weapons and then could suddenly make it a great power. Perle asks, "Is that a situation we would wish to create?" 5) Perle maintained that while "conventional weapons have improved dramatically and we are less dependent on nuclear weapons than at any time since their invention, they still exert a sobering influence that cannot be achieved by any other means."


Student Reading 5:

Criticisms of the Bush administration strategy

Weapons of Mass Destruction and Preemption

In his January 29, 2002 State of the Union address President Bush named North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an "axis of evil" and declared, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

That fall North Korea announced that it had a right to possess nuclear weapons, was ejecting UN inspectors who had been monitoring its earlier agreement with the US to be nuclear-free, and was withdrawing from the NPT. North Korea then began work to restart a nuclear reactor which is capable of producing raw material for nuclear weapons.

Jonathan Schell, a longtime thinker and writer on nuclear weapons, is a critic of the Bush nuclear policies. He notes that despite Bush's declaration that the US"will not permit" other countries to threaten the US with weapons of mass destruction, "North Korea went ahead and apparently produced nuclear weapons anyway. The Administration now 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 (US ally) 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 (another US ally), made it obviously prohibitive."

At first, administration spokespersons downplayed the North Korean actions, saying the issue could be solved diplomatically. But soon they began to see the situation as a "crisis." Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that the US 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." Schell points out that Pakistan, itself a nuclear proliferator but also America's ally in the war on terrorism, had been the supplier of essential information and technology for North Korea's nuclear program. He writes that the North Korea debacle represents not the failure of a good policy, but rather shows how futile and impractical the policy was from the start. Nuclear proliferation, Schell writes, "is not now and never will be stoppable by military force; on the contrary, force can only exacerbate the problem."( The Nation, 3/3/03)

Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence

Robert O'Neill, a history professor at Oxford University and a former director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says nuclear weapons are not worth much "to deter other weapons of mass destruction, biological or chemical... .They destroy a massive area, killing the wrong kinds of people, and they do nothing to protect your own forces, because the chemical and bacteriological weapons will probably be released from sites dotted all over the adversary's country." He points out that American leaders have decided not to use nuclear weapons in every war since World War II because they are essentially useless despite their enormous destructive power.

Furthermore, it is the release of radiation that ultimately makes nuclear weapons unusable. This was the lesson of Chernobyl, a catastrophic nuclear power accident which occurred in 1986 at a Ukrainian power plant. The surrounding area had to be evacuated and radioactive contamination is still affecting the health of people, plants, and animals over a wide range (some argue from Northern Ukraine to the coast of California). Radiation can travel by the wind for far distances, and can in some cases remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. This is the essential difference between nuclear and conventional weapons. Not only does death and destruction arrive in an immediate and massive way, but because of the radiation which results from a nuclear explosion, the possibility of death extends into a far future.

The US was the first nuclear weapons proliferator in 1945. After that, the Soviets developed nuclear bombs. Then England and France, feeling threatened by the Soviets, followed suit. Author Jonathan Schell argues that "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 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...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." ( The Nation, 3/3/03)

The Abolition of Nuclear Weapons

Critics rebut the Nuclear Posture Review, which calls for an indefinite US reliance on nuclear weapons. They also counter Richard Perle's arguments that reject the wisdom of nuclear weapons abolition.

Nuclear nations such as the US"assert that a nuclear-weapon-free world is impossible when, in fact 95 percent of the nations of the world already are nuclear-free. This task is not the elimination of nuclear weapons on a global basis. It is the elimination of nuclear weapons from a handful of states...."
—General George Lee Butler, commander until 1994 of the US Strategic Command ( The Gift of Time )

The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Weapons Convention propose specific step-by-step confidence-building measures, including:

  • Take all nuclear forces everywhere off alert.
  • Remove all warheads from delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers).
  • Place them in a distant storage.
  • Remove parts from warheads and delivery vehicles.
  • Require all nations to ratify the CTBT.
  • Gradually, on a schedule, destroy all nuclear warheads.

The Canberra Commission says, "Effective verification is critical to the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear-free world." It's also critical that there be an immediate response to any nuclear nation's failure to meet nuclear disarmament requirements. As a Nobel Prize winner in physics, Steven Weinberg, writes: "...the future is uncertain, but where is it written that the way to reduce uncertainty is always to maximize our nuclear capabilities? ...There is no certainty whatever we do." ( New York Review, 7/18/02)

To the threat of cheating, Robert O'Neill responds that if a nation threatened any other with nuclear weapons, "either the bluff would be called, or, if it turns out not be a bluff, and someone does use them, they would open themselves to unimaginable retaliation by the whole international community....For the nation that did use nuclear weapons, it would just be another way of committing suicide....I think it's better to accept that risk than to accept, as we do now, the continuing risk of the whole planet being blown sky-high."

George Perkovich, author of India's Nuclear Bomb, says that nuclear cheating "would conceivably be advantageous only for as long as it took the United States or some other power to regenerate its forces, and this need not be a defeatingly long time. In this case, the 'breakout' force amounts to a terrorist tool, and we're back to the current situation where nuclear arsenals provide no effective role to deter or defeat terrorism." ( The Gift of Time )

Schell declares, "One way or another, the world is on its way to a single standard. Only two in the long run are available: universal permission to possess weapons of mass destruction or their universal prohibition. The first is a path to global nightmare, the second to safety and a normal existence....The inspected and enforced elimination of weapons of mass destruction is a goal that in its very nature must take time, and adequate time—perhaps a decade, or even more—can be allowed. But the decision to embrace the goal should not wait." ( The Nation, 3/3/03)

The Bush National Security Strategy

"The vision laid out in the Bush document is a vision of what used to be called, when we believed it to be the Soviet ambition, world domination. It's a vision of the world in which it is American policy to prevent the emergence of any rival power, whatever it stands for—a world policed and controlled by American military might. This goes much further than the notion of America as the policeman of the world. It's the notion of America as both the policeman and the legislator of the world, and it's where the Bush vision goes seriously, even chillingly, wrong. A police force had better be embedded in and guided by a structure of law and consent. There's a name for the kind of regime in which the cops rule, answering only to themselves. It's called a police state."
(Hendrik Hertzberg, lead editorialist for The New Yorker, 10/14/02 and 10/21/02)


Student Reading 6:

An Editorial on Weapons of Mass Destruction

The same human research that creates disease-killing marvels like antibiotics and vaccines, chemical sprays that eliminate bug infestations, and nuclear plants that light cities—research that prolongs and improves human life—can with relative ease become research that creates anthrax, nerve gas, and nuclear bombs that devastate and murder. Human beings are creators and destroyers, the agents who bring blessings and weapons of mass destruction.

The lesson of the deliberate infection and murder of tens of thousands of Chinese with bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, and smallpox; the lesson of the deliberate disfigurement and asphyxiation by poison gases of French, British, German and American soldiers in World War I; the lesson of the stupendous atomic explosions over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, that killed more than 200,000 and destroyed two cities, is the same lesson and clearer today than it has ever been.

Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information, writes: "...all of these weapons of mass destruction must be completely eliminated. Weapons of mass destruction must be universally condemned, their possession universally prohibited, and the ban rigorously monitored and enforced. The only answer to the scourge is a weapons of mass destruction-free world. No country can be exempt from the ban. Not even the United States....A real opportunity exists today for genuine leaders to step forward and rapidly transform the world in the most fundamental and glorious way." ( The Defense Monitor, May 2002)

Feebly and hesitatingly, the world has for the past century moved in the direction to which Dr. Blair points through the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention, biological and chemical conventions, the Nonproliferation Treaty. Progress has been made here and there. But always cheating, the drives for prestige, wealth and power, and national leaders who sweep aside what they regard as utopian ideas have won out. They are the leaders who take us to smallpox-disfigured and dying Chinese villagers, to the collapsed lungs of soldiers on the Western front, to the instant vaporization of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And what other results can we expect today if we continue to follow policies that succeed in maiming and murdering ever greater numbers of human beings and threatening the life of this planet?

The biological weapons convention has eliminated tens of thousands of tons of murderous agents. But who knows how many tens of thousands of tons remain? Who will step forward to insist that the Israelis and Syrians approve the convention and require that they submit to rigorous monitoring and other enforcement measures? That the United States approve and submit to an inspections regime like every other nation? That, as a recent research report, "Protecting Against the Spread of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons," urgently recommends, the United States, Europe, and Russia cooperate to end the continuing horrors posed by Russia's dozens of facilities left over from the Soviet era, the threat that unemployed scientists who worked in them will work on some other country's germ program, and the biological stockpiles still in existence?

Similar efforts are necessary to eliminate the remaining chemical warfare programs and stockpiles. Who will require the Irans and Chinas to live up to their ratification of the chemical weapons convention? Who will put the spotlight on the lagging American and Russian programs to eliminate their chemical weapons?

The NPT already includes a provision to which the major nuclear powers have agreed, committing them to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons." But they are not meeting this commitment. Who will loudly and persistently point their fingers at those major powers? In India's Nuclear Bomb George Perkovich concluded, "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 NPT did not prevent Israel, India, and Pakistan from building nuclear bombs. It did not prevent nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iraq. Jonathan Schell writes, "the days of the double standard are over....One way or another the world is on its way to a single standard...universal permission to possess weapons of mass destruction or their universal prohibition. The first is a path to global nightmare, the second to safety and normal existence." ( The Nation, March 3, 2003)

Abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, as has been pointed out by many former world leaders, military leaders and scientists, can begin with confidence-building measures like those outlined in the Nuclear Weapons Convention and other disarmament proposals such as the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which declares: "...Effective verification is critical to the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear weapon-free world. Before states agree to eliminate nuclear weapons they will require a high level of confidence that verification arrangements would detect promptly any attempt to cheat the disarmament process."

General Charles Horner, who spent most of his adult life in the US Air Force and who was the allied air forces commander in the Gulf War from 1992 to 1994, says, "The nuclear weapon is obsolete; I want to get rid of them all."

Horner says, "They say nuclear weapons make the world unsafe for war. I just think that's a bogus argument. At the height of the cold war we had wars—in Korea and Vietnam, in our case. Russia had Afghanistan and France had Algeria. I mean, war goes on. It's a failure of mankind."

Horner says, "The danger that after an abolition agreement someone would whip back the curtain and produce nuclear weapons—that's the breakout problem and it's serious...It's going to provoke a very serious response from (nations) that are nuclear free. Their outrage would be such that nobody would dare whip back the curtain."

Horner concludes, "It's amazing how many people cannot envision a world free of nuclear weapons. It just scares the hell out of them. I find those people the most small-minded. You need the hardheaded businessman, the pragmatist, but you also need the visionary, the philosopher, the poet, to describe where we want to go....we need a whole new way of thinking...I call this the war to replace the cold war. And it is a war—a war against the proliferation and existence of weapons of mass destruction." (Horner is quoted in Jonathan Schell's The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons .)

But how will we get the genuine leaders that Dr. Blair calls for to step forward? That can only come from all of us creators and destroyers. In the 19th century ordinary people called abolitionists stepped forward and gave themselves unstintingly to the effort to rid our country of an insidious weapon of mass destruction, slavery. They succeeded. Now the world needs ordinary people once again to become abolitionists.

The first step is the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

"Conventional" weapons—the machine gun at Verdun, incendiary and explosive bombs at Hamburg—have in the past also been weapons of mass destruction. And now volleys of cruise missiles carrying explosives are weapons of mass destruction. But in enough of the wrong hands almost anything becomes a weapon of mass destruction.

The second step is the elimination of war. But that's another story.

Both steps require a system of international law backed by the force of ordinary people using the weapons of organization, imagination, hard work and absolute determination. Nothing less will do.



1. An Inquiry-oriented Approach

Write "weapons of mass destruction" on the chalkboard and ask students for whatever comes to mind when they see or hear the words. List responses without comment. They might include "nuclear bombs," "anthrax," "many dead people," "Iraq," "nerve gas," "North Korea," etc.

Ask some questions. What, for example, do students know about North Korea beyond the belief that it has weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs? What do they think they know but aren't sure about? Where does their information come from? What would they like to know? Ask similar questions about students' other responses on the chalkboard. What questions do students have?

Write their questions on the chalkboard. Then have the class examine them closely for clarity, assumptions, and words and phrases needing definition. Which questions call for a factual answer? an opinion? a prediction? Where will the facts come from? Whose opinions or predictions are worth knowing? Why? See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for detailed suggestions.

Begin independent and small-group inquiries into each question that seems worth close study. For background, all students can read and discuss the readings in "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

2. Current News Approach

Have students survey a daily newspaper and/or watch TV news for reporting on events involving weapons of mass destruction. Discuss in class what students have found. What questions, issues, and problems do students raise? Use one or more of them as an entry point for a study of weapons of mass destruction.

3. Discussion Questions Based on Student Readings

  • What efforts have there been to control weapons of mass destruction?
  • What have been major features of any protocols, conventions, and treaties?
  • How successful have these efforts been? Why?
  • What have been some of the problems in achieving the elimination of any weapons of mass destruction?
  • Describe the new National Security Policy of the United States. What are some of the pros and cons about it?
  • What feelings come up for you as you read about this policy?
  • Does it seem to be a wise policy? Why or why not?
  • Describe the new Nuclear Posture Review. What are some of the pros and cons about it?
  • What arguments support the continued US possession of nuclear weapons? What arguments oppose it?
  • What do you understand to be any reason that terrorists attacked the US?
  • What are possible steps toward the abolition of nuclear weapons?
  • Is the elimination of weapons of mass destruction possible? If so, why? If not, why not?

4. Group work

The student readings make possible a consideration of some crucial questions, including those above. In addition to whole class discussions, you might establish simultaneous small-group discussions followed by reports from each group to the entire class and further discussion by the entire class. For example:

a. Pair-share dialogues to involve everyone in conversation at the same time. Students pair up in twos facing each other to talk for one to two minutes about a key question. As in the other types of group discussions, focus on the speaker and active listening are important.

b. Small-group discussions of four to six students on a key question. It's useful to appoint a facilitator to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. A group might be given 15-20 minutes to get into some detail on an issue.

c. A "fish bowl" for consideration of an especially controversial issue. Five to seven students seated in a circle in the middle of the room begin the conversation. It is important to ensure that this group reflects different points of view. Everyone else makes a circle of chairs around the fish bowl. But only students in the fish bowl can speak. Each has an opportunity to present a point of view for a couple of minutes. The facilitator then asks for clarifying questions and further comments. After 15 minutes or so students from the larger circle can be invited to replace students in the fish bowl by tapping one of the latter on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

d. A forum to provide for a full-period examination of a question. For example, four students might be selected to prepare themselves to discuss one of the following questions:

  • Should our government adopt a policy of eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the world? Why? or Why not?
  • Should the US and other nations establish specific steps for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction? Why? or Why not?

Time should be allowed for questions and comments by students.

5. Writing

Ask students to write an essay in which they discuss and offer a reasoned opinion on one of the following statements:

a. "The nuclear weapon is obsolete." —General Charles Horner

b. "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States." —Nuclear Posture Review

6. Critical thinking about Student Reading #6

After students have read Student Reading 6: An Editorial on Weapons of Mass Destruction, encourage them to think critically about it. Three possible approaches are:

a. Subject the editorial to the believing and doubting games as described in "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.

b. Divide the class into groups of four to six students for a 15-minute discussion of the editorial. Each student should have the opportunity to express his/her views pro and con. The group should name a reporter to summarize the discussion and report its conclusions to the whole class for a final discussion.

c. Have students respond to the editorial in writing. To what extent do they agree with it? Disagree? What are their own conclusions on what to do about weapons of mass destruction?

7. Suggestions for further inquiry (independent and small-group projects)

a. Use of poison gas in World War I
b. The fire bombing of Dresden in World War II
c. Genocide in Rwanda
d. Inspection procedures for the biological convention
e. An examination of the Nonproliferation Treaty: its successes and failures
f. Western help for Saddam Hussein in developing chemical weapons
g. The International Criminal Court: what it is and why the US won't participate in it
h. The reasons why Al Qaeda was formed

In each case, help students learn how to frame a worthwhile question about the issue. For example, regarding "c": What explanations are there for the Rwandan genocide? Or regarding "f": What chemical weapons is Saddam Hussein known to have developed and what were the specific sources of the chemicals?


Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe As Told by the Men
Who Fought in It

F. Lee Bemis, Europe Since 1914 in Its World Setting
Herodotus, The Persian Wars
Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People, Vol. 2
George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb
Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time
W.G. Sebald, A Natural History of Destruction

Atlantic Monthly
National Geographic,
"Weapons of Mass Destruction," 11/02
New York Review
New York Times
New York Tribune
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

aca.org (Arms Control Association)
gendercide.org (Gendercide Watch)
members.tripod.com/Bria (Brian Blodgett, Germany's Use of Chemical Weapons in World War I)
napf.org (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation)
reachingcriticalwill.org (a project of Women's International League for Peace & Freedom that includes treaty texts)
skycity gallery.com (Japanese biochemical attacks on China)

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