There was a time when nuclear weapons were a significant part of our national conversation. Addressing the issue of potential atomic annihilation was once described by nuclear theorist Herman Kahn as "thinking about the unthinkable", but that didn't keep us from thinking, talking, fantasising, worrying about it, or putting images of possible nuclear nightmares (often transmuted to invading aliens or outer space) endlessly on screen.
Now, on a planet still overstocked with city-busting, world-ending weaponry, in which almost 67 years have passed since a nuclear weapon was last used, the only nuke that Americans regularly hear about is one that doesn't exist: Iran's. The nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons on missiles, planes and submarines possessed by Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea are barely mentioned in what passes for press coverage of the nuclear issue.
Today, nuclear destruction finds itself at the end of a long queue of anxieties about our planet and its fate. For some reason, we trust ourselves, our allies and even our former enemies with nuclear arms - evidently so deeply that we don’t seem to think the staggering arsenals filled with weaponry that could put the devastation of Hiroshima to shame are worth covering or dealing with. Even the disaster at Fukushima last year didn’t revive an interest in the weaponry that goes with the “peaceful” atom in our world.
Attending to the bomb in a MAD world
Our views of the nuclear issue haven't always been so shortsighted. In the 1950s, editor and essayist Norman Cousins was typical in frequently tackling nuclear weapons issues for the widely read magazine Saturday Review. In the late 1950s and beyond, Ban the Bomb movement forced the nuclear weapons issue onto the global agenda, gaining international attention when it was revealed that Strontium-90, a byproduct of nuclear testing, was making its way into mothers' breast milk. In those years, the nuclear issue became personal as well as political.
In the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy responded to public pressure by signing a treaty with Russia that banned atmospheric nuclear testing (and so further Strontium-90 fallout). He also gave a dramatic speech to the United Nations in which he spoke of the nuclear arms race as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the human race, poised to destroy us at any moment.
Popular films like Fail-Safe and Dr Strangelove captured both the dangers and the absurdity of the superpower arms race. And when, on the night of October 22, 1962, Kennedy took to the airwaves to warn the American people that a Cuban missile crisis was underway, that it was nuclear in nature, that a Soviet nuclear attack and a "full retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union" were possibilities - arguably the closest we have come to a global nuclear war - it certainly got everyone's attention.
All things nuclear receded from public consciousness as the Vietnam War escalated and became the focus of anti-war activism and debate, but the nuclear issue came back with a vengeance in the Reagan years of the early 1980s when superpower confrontations once again were in the headlines. A growing anti-nuclear movement first focused on a near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania (the Fukushima of its moment) and then on the superpower nuclear stand-off that went by the name of “mutually assured destruction” or, appropriately enough, the acronym MAD.
The Nuclear Freeze Campaign generated scores of anti-nuclear resolutions in cities and towns around the country, and in June 1982, a record-breaking million people gathered in New York City's Central Park to call for nuclear disarmament. If anyone managed to miss this historic outpouring of anti-nuclear sentiment, ABC news aired a prime-time, made-for-TV movie, The Day After, that offered a remarkably graphic depiction of the missiles leaving their silos and the devastating consequences of a nuclear war. It riveted a nation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of that planetary superpower rivalry less than a decade later took nuclear weapons out of the news. After all, with the Cold War over and no other rivals to the United States, who needed such weaponry or a MAD world either? The only problem was that the global nuclear landscape was left more or less intact, mission-less but largely untouched (with the proliferation of the weapons to other countries ongoing). Unacknowledged as it may be, in some sense MAD still exists, even if we prefer to pretend that it doesn't.
A MAD world that no one cares to notice
More than 20 years later, the only nuclear issue considered worth the bother is stopping the spread of the bomb to a couple of admittedly scary and problematic regimes: Iran and North Korea. Their nuclear efforts make the news regularly and garner attention (to the point of obsession) in media and government circles. But remind me: when was the last time you read about what should be the ultimate (and obvious) goal - getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether?
This has been our reality, despite President Obama's pledge in Prague back in 2009 to seek "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons", and the passage of a modest but important New START arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia in 2010. It remains our reality, despite a dawning realisation in budget-anxious Washington that we may no longer be able to afford to throw money (as presently planned) at nuclear projects, ranging from new ballistic-missile submarines to new facilities for building nuclear warhead components - all of which are slated to keep the secret global nuclear arms race alive and well decades into the future.
If Iran is worth talking about - and it is, given the implications of an Iranian bomb for further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East - what about the arsenals of the actual nuclear states? What about Pakistan, a destabilising country which has at least 110 nuclear warheads and counting, and continues to view India as its primary adversary despite US efforts to get it to focus on al-Qaeda and the Taliban? What about India's roughly 100 nuclear warheads, meant to send a message not just to Pakistan but to neighbouring China as well? And will China hold pat at 240 or so nuclear weapons in the face of US nuclear modernisation efforts and plans to surround it with missile defence systems that could, in theory if not practice, blunt China's nuclear deterrent force?
Will Israel continue to get a free pass on its officially unacknowledged possession of up to 200 nuclear warheads and its refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? Who are France and the United Kingdom targeting with their forces of 300 and 225 nuclear warheads, respectively? How long will it take North Korea to develop miniaturised nuclear bombs and deploy them on workable, long-range missiles? And is New START the beginning or the end of mutual US and Russian arms reductions?
Many of these questions are far more important than whether Iran gets the bomb, but they get, at best, only a tiny
fraction of the attention that Tehran's nuclear programme is receiving. Concern about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and a fear of loose nukes in a destabilising country is certainly part of the subtext of US policy towards Islamabad. Little effort has been made of late, however, to encourage Pakistan and India to engage in talks aimed at reconciling their differences and opening the way for discussions on reducing their nuclear arsenals.
The last serious effort - centered on the contentious issue of Kashmir - reached its high point in 2007 under the regime of Pakistani autocrat Pervez Musharraf, and it went awry in the wake of political changes within his country and Pakistani-backed terrorist attacks on India. If anything, the tensions now being generated by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands and other affronts, intended or not, to Pakistan’s sovereignty have undermined any possibility of Washington brokering a rapprochement between Pakistan and India.
In addition, starting in the Bush years, the US has been selling India nuclear fuel and equipment. This has been part of a controversial agreement that violates prior US commitments to forgo nuclear trade with any nation that has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (a pact India has not signed). Although US assistance is nominally directed towards India’s civilian nuclear programme, it helps free up resources that India can use to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal.
The "tilt" towards India that began during the Bush administration has continued under Obama. Only recently, for instance, a State Department official bragged about US progress in selling advanced weaponry to New Delhi. Meanwhile, F-16s that Washington supplied to the Pakistani military back in the heyday of the US-Pakistan alliance may have already been adapted to serve as nuclear delivery vehicles in the event of a nuclear confrontation with India.
China has long adhered to a de facto policy of minimum deterrence - keeping just enough nuclear weapons to dissuade another nation from attacking it with nuclear arms. But this posture has not prevented Beijing from seeking to improve the quality of its long-range ballistic missiles. And if China feels threatened by continued targeting by the United States or by sea-based American interceptors deployed to the region, it could easily increase its arsenal to ensure the "safety" of its deterrent. Beijing will also be keeping a watchful eye on India as its nuclear stockpile continues to grow.
Ever since Ronald Reagan - egged on by mad scientists like Edward Teller and right-wing zealots like Lt Gen Daniel O Graham - pledged to build a perfect anti-nuclear shield that would render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete", missile defence has had a powerful domestic constituency in the United States. This has been the case despite the huge cost and high-profile failures of various iterations of the missile defence concept.
The only concrete achievement of three decades of missile defence research and development so far has been to make Russia suspicious of US intentions. Even now, rightly or not, Russia is extremely concerned about the planned installation of US missile defences in Europe that Washington insists will be focused on future Iranian nuclear weapons. Moscow feels that they could just as easily be turned on Russia. If President Obama wins a second term, he will undoubtedly hope to finesse this issue and open the door to further joint reductions in nuclear forces, or possibly even consider reducing this country’s nuclear arsenal significantly, whether or not Russia initially goes along.
Recent bellicose rhetoric from Moscow underscores its sensitivity to the missile defence issue, which may yet scuttle any plans for serious nuclear negotiations. Given that the US and Russia together possess more than 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, an impasse between the two nuclear superpowers (even if they are not "super" in other respects) will undercut any leverage they might have to encourage other nations to embark on a path leading to global nuclear reductions.
In his 1960s ode to nuclear proliferation, "Who's Next", Tom Lehrer included the line "Israel's getting tense, wants one in self-defence". In fact, Israel was the first - and for now the only - Middle Eastern nation to get the bomb, with reports that it can deliver a nuclear warhead not only from land-based missiles but also via cruise missiles launched from nuclear submarines. Whatever it may say about Israel's technical capabilities in the military field, Israel's nuclear arsenal may also be undermining its defense, particularly if it helps spur Iran to build its own nukes. And irresponsible talk by some Israeli officials about attacking Iran only increases the chance that Tehran will decide to go nuclear.
It is hard to handicap the grim, "unthinkable" but hardly inconceivable prospect that August 9, 1945, will not prove to be the last time that nuclear weapons are used on this planet. Perhaps some of the loose nuclear materials or inadequately guarded nuclear weapons littering the globe - particularly, but not solely, in the states of the former Soviet Union - might fall into the hands of a terrorist group. Perhaps an Islamic fundamentalist government will seize power in Pakistan and go a step too far in nuclear brinkmanship with India over Kashmir. Maybe the Israeli leadership will strike out at Iran with nuclear weapons in an effort to keep Tehran from going nuclear. Maybe there will be a miscommunication or false alarm that will result in the United States or Russia launching one of their nuclear weapons that are still in Cold War-style, hair-trigger mode.
Although none of these scenarios, including a terrorist nuclear attack, may be as likely as nuclear alarmists sometimes suggest, as long as the world remains massively stocked with nuclear weapons, one of them - or some other scenario yet to be imagined - is always possible. The notion that Iran can't be trusted with such a weapon obscures a larger point: given their power to destroy life on a monumental scale, no individual and no government can ultimately be trusted with the bomb.
The only way to be safe from nuclear weapons is to get rid of them - not just the Iranian one that doesn't yet exist, but all of them. It's a daunting task. It's also a subject that's out of the news and off anyone's agenda at the moment, but if it is ever to be achieved, we at least need to start talking about it. Soon.
William D Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses the upside-down world of global nuclear politics, click here or download it to your iPod here.)
A version of this article previously appeared on Tom Dispatch.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.