Conference reports When nuclear weapons are reduced to an existential In civil society they are a non-question
David Holloway, professor of international history at Stanford University, has been specializing as a Cold War scholar for a long time. He has recently delved into many archives in an attempt to find the answer to the question of the significance of the atom bomb during the Cold War. He presented part of his findings at a research seminar at CBEES in September.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Page 16, Vol 4:2010
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 10, 2011
The question of nuclear disarmament has been largely absent from the public conversation since the end of the Cold War. The previously widespread political commitment seems to have ended as the issue of nuclear weapons was transformed to an expert matter for nuclear physicists.
David Holloway, professor of international history at Stanford University, has been specializing as a Cold War scholar for a long time, not least through his book Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (1994), for which he won several awards. He has recently delved into many archives in an attempt to find the answer to the question of the significance of the atom bomb during the Cold War. He presented part of his findings at a research seminar at CBEES in September.
According to Holloway, the Cold War was so dominated by the focus on security that the significance of social and political movements in Eastern Europe was misjudged. Holloway and others have noted that there are at least two narratives about the end of the Cold War, one focusing on the dismantling of the Cold War security systems, and the other focusing on social and political movements. Neither of these alone can explain what happened.
In Holloway’s estimation, the role of British prime minister Winston Churchill in the arms race was significant. Churchill believed the atom bomb could restore the balance of power in Europe. One important consequence of the presence of atomic weapons in Europe was the ever-tighter closing of the Iron Curtain: from this perspective, the conflict was intensified by the existence of the bomb, and the bomb did nothing to bring about the end of the Cold War.
In US domestic policy, nuclear weapons functioned as a “guarantee of our security”. Nuclear weapons were considered deterrents and their danger was probably why they were never used: a nuclear war in Europe would have been so devastating that it would not have served the political purposes of either side. Finally, Holloway believes that the disarmament treaties of the 1980s and the conversion to new security systems changed the balance of power in Europe. The trend was reinforced by changes within the nations.
But the end of the Cold War reduced the international importance of nuclear weapons. They still abound and there are no fewer nuclear weapon states.
David Holloway’s seminar was fol-
lowed by a panel discussion at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Other participants in the discussion were Anna Ek, chair of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, and ambassador Henrik Salander, who has many years of experience as the Head of the Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Department of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He served as secretary-general of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, also known as the Blix Commission. The debate dealt with the current nuclear weapons situation from a global perspective: how can the number of nuclear weapon states be limited or eliminated, and what opportunities are there for getting closer to global nuclear disarmament? Holloway, who has also been Barack Obama’s adviser in matters of nuclear disarmament, referred to the American president’s speech in Prague in April 2009, when the issue once again landed on the political agenda. Salander mentioned the Blix Commission’s 60 steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
But even though the issue is once again on the agenda, it still has no major presence in civil society. Teenagers and young adults who have not lived under the threat of nuclear weapons seem to have a hard time understanding the problem and thus a hard time getting involved. The threat of the atom bomb is so abstract that it becomes more of an existential question. But for those who go to Hiroshima and look at the survivors’ drawings of the events on and after the 6th of August, 1945, the consequences of the atom bomb of that time become utterly concrete. It is to think the unthinkable. ≈