The 350-Kiloton Elephant in the Room

Why the American public should be talking about nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the 350-kiloton elephant in the room that we as Americans simply do not give enough thought or attention. As long as the United States and other nations possess nuclear arms, they will remain relevant and a healthy debate about what we should do with them is essential. Whether or not we all agree on the issues is irrelevant. Nuclear weapons were perhaps the quintessential Cold War issue and even with that conflict decades in the past, that does not make them irrelevant. Present circumstances make the arsenal as relevant today as it was then.

For the average American, the U.S. nuclear posture is not likely to be given much thought as we deal with other more personal issues such as adjusting to a recovering economy. After all, it has been decades since the height of the Cold War when a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union was a very real, very terrifying possibility. Today, when most Americans think about nuclear war it is in the context of the latest threat of nuclear annihilation issued by North Korea’s Kim family which we’ve now grown numb to. North Korean threats notwithstanding, the possibility of nuclear war has decreased dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Even with relations between the U.S. and Russia at an all time low, a nuclear exchange between the two countries is highly unlikely. However it seems that along with the decrease in tensions has come an increase in apathy amongst the general public in regards to our stewardship of the substantial nuclear stockpile that the United States currently possesses.

Recently, comedian John Oliver recently featured a satirical piece discussing nuclear weapons on his program, Last Week Tonight. Lacking expertise on the issue, Oliver misses many of the nuances in U.S. nuclear policy as he arrives at his conclusion that U.S. nuclear weapons are “like America’s t-rex arms, they’re essentially useless and you are plenty scary enough without them.” While the segment was entertaining, an entire article could be written refuting several of the points and conclusions the comedian made. Despite the analytical shortcomings, this sort of mainstream exposure and discussion of nuclear weapons is valuable, especially for the demographic that watches Oliver’s show. For many younger Americans, satirical news programs like This Week Tonight and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show are a primary news source. Even a comedian’s perspective on the issues surrounding nuclear armaments could prompt further research and debate amongst young people born at the end of the Cold War.

Besides the lack of awareness, the United States also faces a number of challenges as we turn our attention away from nuclear policy issues. For example, as a generation of nuclear engineers and security personnel begin to retire we risk a loss of nuclear expertise that will be tougher to fill as younger generations lose interest in pursuing nuclear engineering programs. As long as the United States posses a nuclear stockpile, maintaining its safety and security is critical. Filling these positions would require recruiting young people who have an interest in nuclear matters, a tall order to fill if they aren’t aware of or simply don’t think about these issues.

Furthermore, the fact remains that while the United States increasingly de-emphasizes the role of nuclear weapons in its national security, other nations are building up or modernizing their own nuclear programs. North Korea and Iran are frequently featured prominently in the media for their nuclear activities, however they are not alone in developing their programs. Russia, China, and Pakistan have all expressed an interest in increasing their inventory of nuclear weapons. While the United States is engaging in “life extension” programs to refurbish decades old warheads and missiles, Russia is going a step beyond that by developing new missiles, warheads, and delivery systems. The Cold War may be over, but the need to maintain a nuclear deterrent still exists.

This is not to argue that the United States should immediately begin to increase its own nuclear stockpile. The debate over how many nuclear warheads the United States needs will be ongoing, however, regardless of its composition it is difficult to argue against their necessity given that the U.S. still faces significant strategic challenges from a number of sources. What should come from global events is an increased awareness of the American nuclear program, including the importance of maintaining it in today’s strategic environment.

We as a nation should talk about nuclear war.

Watch John Oliver’s Segment on Nuclear Weapons on Last Week Tonight below:

Abel Romero is the Director of Government Relations of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance based in Alexandria, VA. Click here to follow him on Twitter. 

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