JAPAN | THE COLUMN / Fumihiko Yoshida: Japan should lead global movement toward a nuke-free world

Posted on August 3, 2011


photoThe Asahi Shimbun

Yuri Solomonov is a leading expert in missile technology who had great sway over the fate of Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

When I recently visited the Moscow Heat Technology Institute to interview Solomonov, I was surprised to find myself actually talking with the man who is a supervisor for designing nuclear missiles at the institute. He is known as a person who seldom agrees to meet with a foreign journalist.

Throughout the interview, held in a room at the institute, our entire conversation was monitored and videotaped. Despite being closely watched by the authorities, Solomonov didn’t hesitate to make his case that Russia can reduce its nuclear arms further.

He argued that Russian would be able to protect its security with 1,200, or even 1,000, strategic nuclear warheads. He has been entertaining this theory since more than 10 years ago, when Russia had far more warheads than now, according to him.

Solomonov pointed out that nobody would dare to launch an attack on countries such as Britain, France or China even through each of them has less than 300 nuclear warheads.

One week later, the U.S. government announced an interesting fact.

The New START, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between Washington and Moscow that took effect in February, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550.

But Russia actually reduced its warheads below the limit immediately after the pact came into force in February, well ahead of the 2018 deadline.

Observers say Russia’s national interest is well served by a certain degree of nuclear arms reduction. While some of the country’s nuclear arsenal are already quite old, developing and deploying new weapons costs huge amounts of money.

Moscow’s quick action to cut its nuclear warheads appeared to suggest that Solomonov’s opinion may not necessarily be in the minority in Russia.




Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once revealed to me his true personal view of nuclear weapons, which was not totally in line with Washington’s official position.

McNamara, who served as defense chief under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, said nuclear weapons could not actually be used.

McNamara played a key role in the Kennedy administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which brought the Cold War to the brink of a nuclear conflict.

While I was interviewing him during his visit to Japan in 1999, McNamara suddenly started voicing his usually unvoiced thoughts about nuclear arms after telling me not to tape-record the conversation.

All nuclear powers, including the United States, had plans for nuclear wars, McNamara said. But it was inconceivable in the post-Cold War era to actually advise the president to use nuclear weapons, he asserted.

Nuclear arms are only for intimidation, not for actual use, he said. If the U.S. government said so in public, however, that would weaken America’s nuclear deterrence and could undermine the credibility of the “nuclear umbrella” the superpower provided for its allies. This concern made McNamara unwilling to allow his candid talk about the topic to be recorded.

Still, McNamara offered his true thoughts about the subject during the interview apparently because he felt like making them known to a Japanese journalist. Two years since his death, I feel it is now permissible to write about this episode.

Some would question the importance of his remarks made long after his retirement from public office.

But his claim that it was an illusion to believe a nuclear war could be managed according to a predetermined plan is no doubt relevant even today.

He was right. There are always many invisible pitfalls in mapping out a nuclear strategy because the task involves dealing with an array of unpredictable factors that could trigger a nuclear war, such as the misreading of the enemy’s intentions and a system malfunction.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, which released huge amounts of radioactive materials into the environment, drastically changed former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s views about the danger posed by man’s attempts to use nuclear power. As a result, Gorbachev took steps toward a bold nuclear disarmament treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Will the Fukushima nuclear disaster have a similar political impact? Will the radiation crisis accelerate the world’s progress toward the vision of fewer nuclear warheads laid out by Solomonov? Will the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant help popularize McNamara’s view that nuclear weapons are unusable and catalyze moves by nuclear powers toward national security strategies not dependent on nuclear arms?

Evgeny Velikhov, former vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who was a close adviser to Gorbachev, was skeptical.

In an interview at his home in Moscow, Velikhov said the Fukushima disaster, which has not resulted in a single death, is unlikely to accelerate nuclear disarmament.

The world may not start making serious efforts to eliminate nuclear arms unless a nuclear war takes place in South Asia or somewhere else.

These are candid observations of the reality of the world. But are they based on an accurate assessment of the impact of the lessons from Fukushima?




Then, I flew to Berlin to meet Egon Karl-Heinz Bahr, who made his name as a brain truster for West German Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War era.

Bahr, an outstanding intellectual in Europe, equated the historical importance of Fukushima with that of Hiroshima.

The first atomic bomb in human history was dropped on Japan. The nuclear devastation of Hiroshima made people around the world aware of the horrors of nuclear war, he said.

Fukushima has taught the world how difficult it is to manage and control atomic power. Two important warnings to mankind about nuclear power came from Japan, Bahr noted.

But he just said he wanted to keep watch on the course of human history in coming years.

Did he deliberately avoid discussing his views about the nuclear future of the world? Or was it that even he had no clear answer to the question?

Anyway, his remarks made it clear to me that Japan will have no choice but to live with the two negative legacies from Hiroshima and Fukushima. Japan needs to act on these legacies while thinking seriously about the future it should pursue and the role it should play in the international community.

Let me make a suggestion for Japan’s contribution to the international efforts to eliminate nuclear arms.

Gorbachev had the power to influence the course of the world by reducing his country’s nuclear warheads.

If Japan, a non-nuclear state, really wants to help promote global nuclear disarmament, it needs to work with other non-nuclear states and win support from international public opinion for its efforts.

Japan could take a first step at the United Nations General Assembly this autumn by talking about its experiences about the terrifying and inhuman consequences of allowing nuclear power to run amok.

At the same time, Japan should step up its diplomatic efforts for denuclearization and support cross-border citizen movements toward a nuclear-free world.

The fear of radiation heightened by the Fukushima disaster has provoked vocal calls for reduced dependence on nuclear power among people in many countries. Japan should develop an effective strategy for drawing the attention of those people also to the issue of nuclear arms reduction.

The anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will soon come around again. We should not be paralyzed at the enormity of the situation created by the nuclear accident.

This summer, we have to pluck up the courage to confront the colossal challenge of dealing with the situation at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant and start moving beyond it toward a new future.

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(Fumihiko Yoshida is an Asahi Shimbun editorial writer.)

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