John Polanyi is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This text is adapted from remarks he gave last month at Revitalizing Nuclear Disarmament After the Ukraine War, a round table discussion in Ottawa.
When I was a young chemist at the University of Toronto in 1961, I found myself drawn into the central debate of the age. The Globe and Mail’s pages were discussing nuclear war, asking, “if war comes, would we survive?” The question is as valid today as 62 years ago, but we have learned a little in the interim.
In March, 1961, John Gellner, The Globe’s military commentator, wrote these surprising words on the defeatism that marked the mood of the time: “That humanity can survive a nuclear war, and carry on after it, has been established not by the sort of freewheeling speculation that the proponents of surrender generally indulge, but by a thorough scientific enquiry conducted by the U.S. RAND Corporation.” Basing his remarks on his reading of the 1961 RAND report, On Thermonuclear War, by Herman Kahn, Mr. Gellner went on to say, “If certain basic preparations have been made, economic recovery would be 60 per cent complete within one year of a nuclear attack launched against the U.S. in the early 1960s.” The population, he conceded, would have had to “rough it for a time, but could definitely pick themselves up.”
I responded to Mr. Gellner in the Globe of April 5, 1961, arguing that he had taken from Mr. Kahn’s book the absurdly optimistic and hazardous assumption that the victims of a nuclear attack would respond by evacuating all our sizable cities, thus (in my view) precipitating the greatest panic in history. This alarming debate in a respected newspaper did not pass unnoticed. I found myself invited to the office of the minister of foreign affairs at the time, Paul Martin Sr., in Ottawa. He seized his phone and asked to be connected to the House of Commons library. I heard the librarian explaining, apologetically, that Mr. Kahn’s book was presently unavailable since it had been borrowed by Lester Pearson, the prime minister.
My modest excursion into scientific activism had already led to an invitation to participate in a Pugwash Conference, a global disarmament meeting held in Moscow in 1960. On arrival in Moscow, I was handed a message from my host, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was confident, he said, that his demand for “universal and complete disarmament” would be accorded the meeting’s unanimous approval.
This was a worthy goal. I regarded it then as pie in the sky. But today I consider it the very best hope for mankind. This desired outcome, as Mr. Khrushchev stated it, was not to be achieved without incident. Two years later, the world was faced with unmistakable evidence of the secret emplacement of nuclear weapons in Cuba by the USSR. The contending nations had been plunged into what we know today as the Cuban Missile Crisis – 13 days in which the world teetered on the brink of all-out nuclear war.
What had happened to the unanimous desire for peace that Mr. Khrushchev anticipated? Had it become a casualty to the foolish complacency of the RAND report? Surely not. It derived from something more real than that. Despite the heartening embrace today by world leaders of the dictum that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” we continue to plan for nuclear war. This is the source of our peril.
It remains evident today in the sustained ambition of states to modernize every branch of nuclear weaponry, whether on land, sea or in the air. The reasoning behind this is simple; these weapons have the purpose of deterring an attack by an opponent who will then cease to be a threat. They exist, therefore, to do the thing that is avowed to be impossible, namely to win a nuclear war.
Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law revoking Russia’s ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear testing. This is bad news, but fortunately, the 2011 New START Treaty is still in effect. Under that deal, the U.S. and Russia agreed to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550. Each weapon is, however, a city-destroyer. Moreover, the accord is in the process of being weakened by pressure to increase the number of missiles to counter a rising China and to offset an increased pace of warfare anticipated in a world of AI.
For U.S. president John F. Kennedy, the possibility of the destruction of mankind was constantly on his mind. “If we err we do so not only for ourselves … but also for young people all over the world, who would have no say.”
Are we ready to assume that responsibility?