At the end of August 1945, the United States had unquestionably established itself as the dominant military force in the world. As often happens, Irony was present in this historical point, as the greatest power rested with the major country least inclined to use that power to colonialize territory or subjugate its opponents. Envy, as usual, was present in the collected councils of our enemies. The Soviet Union was well aware that the premier weapons systems in the world were American, along with the best supplies, best trained men, and so on. The Soviets had us beat for numbers, but understood well that we were unmatched strategically. That is why the desperate Soviets scrambled for the secret to nuclear weapons; the Kremlin honestly believed their survival as a regime depended upon it. In August 1949, with the help of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb.
Why the History lesson? Because of what came next. During the 1950s, the United States and USSR each worked feverishly to develop superior nuclear weapons, and to develop a strategy which could make them work for victory in a global conflict. Along the way, both countries struggled with experimental accidents, lost weapons, and incidents which threatened an unforeseen initiation of nuclear warfare. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is not only noteworthy because of the words and actions of President Kennedy and Premier Khruschev, but also the near-apoplexy of the Joint Chiefs and the Soviet Command at the rejection of their warnings and cautions in advance of the standoff. During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of incidents in the Middle East, the India-Pakistan Wars, and in Southeast Asia also provoked situations to heighten tensions. The SALT and SALT II negotiations, in addition to anything else, were attempts to get the other side to agree that a nuclear war would be prevented if at all possible, that nuclear arsenals would be kept only because they could not be safely discarded. Granted, the Soviets hoped during the Carter years to persuade the United States to abandon nuclear weapons unilaterally, but there is no evidence the Soviets believed it would ever actually happen.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of events changed the world radically, so far as the USA-USSR conflict was considered. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In 1980, Chairman Breshznev suggested to the Politburo that an invasion of Western Europe might be feasible, but he fell ill shortly after that meeting and never recovered. Two Chairmen later, Yuri Andropov, the former KGB head who succeeded Konstantin Chernenko ordered a test-firing of all missile silos for the first time in Soviet history. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Navy suffered a mutiny at Murmansk and Andropov suddenly died.
There has been a lot written about the discussions between Chairman Gorbachev and President Reagan, but we may never know the details behind those talks. I do know this; there is no evidence that Gorbachev ever thought of nuclear weapons as a useful strategic weapon, only as a deterrent, first against a possible US first strike, then later against insurrection by muslim fanatics to his South and Northwest. In fact , many of his agreements with the US after 1986 were intended to help protect Russia from attack by the breakaway republics.
The point to all of this, is that nuclear weapons are not weapons in the nominal sense, at all. Nations fall into four broad categories, where they are concerned:
1. Nations which do not possess nuclear weapons there is a general consensus among the nations which have nukes, not to allow the proliferation of them. This is precisely why Iran and North Korea have tried to conceal their programs; they fear an Osirak-style raid.
2. Nations which have a small number of nuclear weapons, but not developed them into any sort of tactical/strategic plan. This where we see Iran, North Korea, and most likely South Africa. I will come back to this set in a moment.
3. Nations which possess a nuclear arsenal. This is demonstrated by aircraft of ships built and tested for the purpose of delivering the weapons reliably.
4. The United States.
Nuclear weapons are not sturdy things. They have to be carefully built and stored, and only work optimally under very strict conditions. While it is possible to set off a 'dirty' explosion using an old nuclear weapon by any number of means, all that really does is provide ample justification for a full-scale retaliatory strike, and that includes groups which acquire them. 9/11 changed the rules on fighting Terrorism; does anybody really think that a radioactive bomb will not provoke a devastating response? We don't have to know the exact location of a group to land a nuke on them, especially if we are reacting to the deaths of 10,000 or more innocents on our side. Even the most unstable dictator understands that, which is why neither Syria nor Iran, North Korea nor Cuba, has allowed a nuclear device into the hands of a terrorist group.
That brings me to the United States. Pray to God it never happens, but even if every nation which has nukes right now decided to attack the United States, we still have the capability to utterly destroy every one of them. As much as nations hate the United States (for whatever motive), you don't attack a guy if he can kill you and all of your family, but you can't kill all of his.
Back to Set 2. Many leaders believe in fairy tales. Not the ones with princesses and happy endings - the ones with them becoming some sort of world power. The reason is different, but what thy all have in common where nukes are concerned, is the myth that if they get a nuclear weapon, everyone will have to show them respect. All it really does, is get attention to the fact that they represent a danger, and that gets weapons pointed at them. I mentioned Iran - they seem to think that no one can attack them if they have a nuke. Actually, all that does is change the order of bombs, pal. And North Korea? Short Leader Kim Makes Me Ill is hoping to bargain his way into money and supplies, since his style of government is killing off his people. I don't have a crystal ball, but I'd say that what is far more likely, is that some military leader will arrange for a sudden accident for the Short Leader, followed by abolition of the NK nuclear program as a sign of good faith to the South (meaning South Korea and Japan). As for Syria, they have been on a Wanted poster for a long time. I wouldn't want to be anyone named "Assad" this year or next. The fact that the Bush Administration has not even hinted at talks, tells me Syria is going to get a special treatment, but not one Assad can prepare against.
This doesn't mean, by any stretch, that the world can relax from the dangers of nuclear weapons. There are still well over 80,000 nuclear weapons scattered over the place, and even the ones not fit for warfare are environmental risks to anyone within miles of them. Also, there is no guarantee that one or another terrorist group with more energy than brains won't somehow manage to steal a dirty bomb, and take out their host country along with a number of victims. But the issue needs to be weighed in the balance of what is possible, and who holds the power. And President Bush understands his position, well enough to act boldly in removing the threat by taking out the people most likely to make such a catastrophe possible.