Author and historian
Ward Hayes Wilson is a historian and author. His 2013 book, “5 Myths about Nuclear Weapons” helped to severely undermine several of the beliefs that are sustained by nuclear weapon defenders who argue in favour of the theory of nuclear deterrence. Ward’s travelled the equivalent of several times around the world to speak at conferences on behalf of the “Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project“. He has also worked with BASIC and the Federation of American Scientists. Ward is currently the executive director of RealistRevolt, a grassroots organization dedicated to using realist arguments to eliminate nuclear weapons.
The main points from your book
“Five myths about nuclear weapons” is a kind of an introduction and it talks about five of the things that nuclear weapons believers believe, that aren’t factual or based on sound reasoning.
The first is the nuclear weapons forced the Japanese to surrender at the end of World War II. There’s always been a lot of question about this. Recent research shows that it’s highly unlikely that the Japanese surrendered because of nuclear weapons. They surrendered because the Soviets came into the war. The night before we bombed Nagasaki the Soviet Union declares war, they bring 1.5 million men into the battle, and historically when a great power joins a war it always forces everyone involved in that conflict to recalculate whether they can win or not.
So it makes sense that the Japanese saw that the Russians had come in, and that changed everything about their own they’re thinking about their odds for winning, and besides that we bombed 68 of their cities in the summer of 1945. If you graph all 68 of those attacks in terms of the number of people immediately killed Hiroshima is second, Tokyo with conventional bombing is first. If you graph the square miles destroyed Hiroshima is sixth, if you graph the percentage of the city destroyed Hiroshima is 17th.
So there’s new evidence, there’s a great deal more evidence, I’m a historian so I love to talk about this, but I’ll try to restrain myself. It significantly changes our view of nuclear weapons writ large, because Hiroshima was the first impression, it was the notion that set up all the subsequent thinking and if we change how we think about it Hiroshima it changes everything. So that’s one.
Two, there’s a belief in the 50s that with the invention of hydrogen bombs nuclear weapons were therefore decisive. This is a silly notion. Bigger is not always better. If you have a workman and he sends his assistant to the truck to get a tool, he doesn’t say, you know, “Darren go get the biggest tool for the job.” He says, “Get the right tool for the job.”
It’s not clear that nuclear weapons are the right tool for any military job.
Third is that nuclear weapons make a crisis more stable, that they are effective when we have crises, and the historical evidence simply doesn’t show this. We have happened to live through a number of nuclear crises. There has been peace between the great powers for 70 years, but there was peace between the great powers for hundred years, between the Napoleonic Wars and World War one, and it’s not clear that that long period of peace perhaps made the final outbreak to war more violent.
So, and the final myth is that there is no alternative. We cannot eliminate nuclear weapons and this demonstrates something that I hope everyone can understand, which is that the arguments in favour of nuclear weapons were created by people who were afraid, created by people who weren’t thinking very clearly as a result, and so many of them are ludicrous.
“You can’t dis-invent nuclear weapons” relies on a process that is imaginary. There is no such thing as dis-invention. Imagine a workshop with a guy in a white lab coat and he’s dis-inventing IBM PCs from the 1990s. It’s silly. Technology changes. It evolves when people adopt it. It’s based on utility. If a weapon or an implement or a tool is useful, it gets adopted and it’s used, if not it gets thrown away and so it’s important to remember that all these arguments can be flipped on their heads and that we don’t need to fight uphill all the time.
Tell us about nuclear deterrence
So deterrence, the notion that nuclear weapons have kept us safe during crises is simply historically inaccurate, that nuclear believers often say, “Deterrence has been,” perfect because there’s been no nuclear war. It’s a ludicrous argument on the face of it.
In 1948 the Soviets blockaded Berlin, and it’s a situation which could easily have led to nuclear war. The United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons but the Soviets weren’t deterred. In 1950 the Chinese joined the Korean War despite the US moving nuclear weapons to Guam. In 1973, the Middle East War, everyone knew the Israelis had nuclear weapons and yet the Egyptians and the Syrians attacked Israeli forces in the occupied territories. In 1982… and so on.
In all of these crises deterrence demonstrably failed, and not only has deterrence failed in the past it, will inevitably fail in the future. We are involved in nuclear deterrence. We make the threats, we evaluate them, we decide how to respond. Human beings are a part of the system. Human beings are inherently flawed. No one is perfect. If human beings are fallible, and if human beings are involved in nuclear deterrence, then nuclear deterrence, by definition, is inherently flawed. It will fail
It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when.
The thing to remember about all of these arguments about nuclear weapons is that they are poorly thought-out, based on false logic, sometimes not factual. We are not constantly fighting uphill in a hopeless battle, we’re fighting downhill because their arguments are not persuasive.
Can you tell about the impact that your book had on the Ban Treaty process?
I was very fortunate. ICAN invited me to a number of their conferences and I spoke at a number of them, and I recently had a Facebook comment from Beatrice Finn which said that the arguments from five myths about nuclear weapons reframed the thinking that led to the ban treaty, which is an enormous compliment.
It’s hard to know what kind of impact you’re having. Sometimes evidence pops up in the strangest places. A man at the Oman Times wrote an op-ed based on the book. I’m trolling around the internet and here’s an op-ed by someone I have never heard of in Oman, and I thought well it’s a funny world so I hope it’s had some impact.
Tell us about your project “Realist Revolt”.
So the problem with nuclear weapons is that they are held in nuclear-armed States. Nuclear-armed States have experts and government officials who are trapped in a mindset, a kind of group thing, and it’s very hard for them to hear new it evidence, hear contrary arguments.
And their point of view is largely not realistic. I believe we are the realists, and the people who are in favour of nuclear weapons are “weapons romantics”. They are infatuated with these weapons and have exaggerated their capabilities and their influence out of all proportion with reality.
So I’ve started a group called realist revolt. Our job is to work at the grassroots within the largest the largest nuclear-armed state, the United States, and build political muscle to force experts and government officials to re-examine these questions and change their minds.
What is the importance of the treaty
I was in Nayarit Mexico at the second conference that led to the treaty and there was a moment in the afternoon on the last day that was amazing, and I think it answers your question exactly. We were supposed to have speakers closing and then there would be a time for diplomats from around the world to make some comments, and then we would have the Chairman’s summary, and we would be done and people raised their hands, and they wanted to speak, and they continued to raise their hands, and more people wanted to speak, and people from diplomats from small countries in Africa, diplomats from Asia, diplomats from South America, and it just went on and on. The conference was supposed to end at 2pm and it went later and later, and this amazing outpouring of people in diplomatic representatives from non-nuclear-armed States realizing that they had a voice, they had a role in this conversation.
For 70 years the nuclear-armed states have told everyone else, “We’ll manage this, stay home, don’t worry about this, we’ve got it,” and I think it was at that moment that the rest of the world woke up and said, “This will affect us. We have a right. We have an obligation to have our voices heard on this.” And I think that was a strong motivation that led to the ban treaty, and I think the future involves two things; it involves more and more pressure from non-nuclear-armed States, and people working within nuclear-armed States to undermine the myths about nuclear weapons.
What can ordinary people do to help eliminate nuclear weapons?
Well I think in non-nuclear-armed States, you can support the ban treaty, and there’s also a move to get banks to stop investing in companies that have Don’t Bank on the Bomb, and I think that’s an extraordinarily good way to bring pressure. In nuclear-armed States, I think people can educate themselves about the myths about nuclear weapons and then press their political leaders and say, “What about the Middle East War in 1973? You say deterrence has never failed. Clearly it has. Why are we risking our lives for a system that cannot obviously work forever?”
What is your motivation?
So I worked for a long time on nuclear weapons, at least 40 years, and most of that time it was not funded work, it was just working at nights and on weekends, and it has been long and financially challenging and difficult at times, but I would say that working on something that matters has rewards that nothing else does.
And I was thinking about this and I remembered this quote from a skinny Indian man who once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they have seemed invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it, always!”