1. Background
  2. Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Weapons


There is that of God in every person. The faith of Quakers is built entirely on this foundation. Nothing is more fundamental to FCNL’s search for a world free from war and for a society with equity and justice for all. Yet with a flash of light in 1945, humans brought into the world a new machine, the nuclear weapon, that through its unimaginably efficient destructive power equalizes and unifies humans in a humbling new way.

Bombing of Nagasaki.

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. Charles Levy / National Archives

Nuclear weapons and the world-spanning aircraft and missiles built to deliver them confront humans more clearly than ever with the truth that President Kennedy eloquently articulated, that: “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”

Nuclear weapons do not discriminate.

Since their invention nuclear weapons have lain in wait, threatening to kill vast numbers of humans, if not humanity itself. It could happen in an instant.

Their radiating heat, light, blast, and energy destroy or damage whatever life happens to be present for miles around, with effects lasting for decades. They rip, burn, poison, and crush the bodies of children on their way to school the same as soldiers poised to attack. Nuclear weapons kill nurses or clergy soothing prisoners of war just as readily as workers in bomb factories or the political masterminds of terrorism and state aggression.

Since their invention nuclear weapons have lain in wait, threatening to kill vast numbers of humans, if not humanity itself. It could happen in an instant—through some human choice, some human miscalculation, some human mistake. It is still true, as President Kennedy said over half a century ago, that

every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

Working for Change

In the decades since nuclear weapons were invented, humanity has struggled under the specters of fear, hatred, war, and nuclear holocaust to change the way national governments think and act toward one another. FCNL has worked to eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons by opposing their construction and deployment, by pressing for reductions in their number and importance, and by lobbying for diplomatic efforts to change the incentives national governments face when confronting nuclear risks.

FCNL has worked to eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons by opposing their construction and deployment.

These efforts have contributed to concrete and effective actions to reduce the massive nuclear threats that Cold War fear and mindless inertia built up. Negotiated agreements like the 1963 Limited, or Atmospheric, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction (START) Treaty, and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) become new base camps of hope in the struggle.

With the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, many dared dream that the scourge of nuclear weapons would be ended once and for all.

Much Work Still to Do

Yet decades later, even as public attention has drifted away, nuclear dangers remain all too real.

Programs to eliminate and secure weapons-usable nuclear material go underfunded even as violent extremists continue seeking to get their hands on the raw ingredients of nuclear destruction.

Other nuclear powers resist undertaking even the most basic limits on and transparency into their nuclear arsenals.

North Korea keeps producing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, while diplomatic efforts to deal with the challenge remain fragile. The Trump Administration withdrew from the historic Iran nuclear deal, even though it has successfully closed off Iran’s potential pathways to a nuclear weapon.

Even after the 2010 New START Treaty won narrow approval in the Senate, the United States and Russia each still retain thousands of nuclear weapons. Both countries plan to spend untold billions to retain Cold War-sized nuclear arsenals into the indefinite future. Many in Congress today question New START and other long-standing arms control agreements, such as the INF Treaty and the confidence-building Open Skies Treaty. Perhaps most dangerous of all, the administrations of both U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin are looking to build new and additional nuclear weapons systems.

To appreciate how much work remains, consider that in 1956, President Eisenhower described what the stakes are for the American people and humanity:

We are in the era of the thermonuclear bomb that can obliterate cities and can be delivered across continents. With such weapons, war has become, not just tragic, but preposterous. With such weapons, there can be no victory for anyone. Plainly, the objective now must be to see that such a war does not occur at all.

Even after half a century of trying to reduce its nuclear arsenal, the United States still had more nuclear weapons active in September 2017 (3,822) than it did in the anxiety-ridden times over six decades earlier, when President Eisenhower issued that warning (3,692).

Paper cranes in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Paper cranes in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Frank Gualtieri

The Big Picture

The world will not be safe from nuclear dangers as long as any nuclear weapons remain. This is a time when the United States should be actively engaging with Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and other countries to eliminate nuclear tensions and stem nuclear proliferation. Instead, the Trump Administration has been pressing Congress to build new nuclear weapons with new uses, on new delivery systems that dangerously heighten the risks of nuclear war.

This is exactly the wrong direction for the United States. Any nuclear weapons use would be immoral and invite catastrophe. Congress should be working to reduce nuclear threats by opposing new nuclear weapons systems, by reexamining the trillion dollar-plus plan to rebuild and extend an outdated nuclear stockpile indefinitely into the future, and by actively supporting and encouraging existing and additional negotiated agreements to reduce nuclear dangers. Congress should focus on eliminating these weapons, not “improving” on them at enormous cost to the country.

Has the atomic bomb made no difference in our thinking about the absolute necessity of abolishing war, and of creating a different kind of security than massed armies and massed fleets?

E. Raymond Wilson

In September 1945—mere days into the atomic age—E. Raymond Wilson asked “has the atomic bomb made no difference in our thinking about the absolute necessity of abolishing war, and of creating a different kind of security than massed armies and massed fleets?”

He answered that what peace requires “is more efforts to create a peace that can endure, less military arrogance and more political sense and economic justice.”

As it was then, so it is today: true security will be obtained not by building ever more and newer bombs. True security will come only from embracing a culture of peace.