“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war. We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth.”

— President Ronald Reagan, 1984 State of the Union Address

Seventy years ago, this Aug. 6 and 9, marked the last time nuclear weapons were used in war, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Now, more than three decades after President Reagan’s clear statement, what has become of our efforts to reduce the nuclear threat?

Although most of us keep this reality out of our conscious minds, the threat of nuclear war remains very much with us. Today, the United States, Russia and seven other nuclear-armed countries still possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert and capable of launching within minutes.

Tensions with Russia during the past year and recent media coverage of international efforts to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon have brought this threat back into focus.

As President Reagan came to realize, we cannot survive even a limited nuclear war. Recent reports by Physicians for Social Responsibility document ever more definitively that use of even a small percentage of nuclear arsenals by adversaries anywhere in the world likely would cause a climate catastrophe and social disruption across the globe, resulting in a famine that could kill 2 billion people.

In spite of this now widely recognized reality, the United States plans to increase spending up to $348 billion during the next 10 years to maintain and modernize a nuclear arsenal that is unusable in any meaningful sense and that does nothing to protect us from current threats of cyberwar, the self-described Islamic State, al-Qaida and homegrown terrorism.

In the next few months, Congress must make crucial decisions that will either increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used again or help pull us back from the potential catastrophe such weapons may unleash.

Do we want Congress to commit to spending $83 billion during the next 10 years for a new generation of ballistic missile submarines? To spending $40 billion for a new generation of nuclear-capable bombers? And to spending $26 billion for a new generation of land-based nuclear missiles?

All of that on top of the $200 billion to be spent on stockpile stewardship, command and control, and other support functions.

Fortunately, there is some good news.

The recently negotiated agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany illustrates that diplomacy can be effective in reducing nuclear threats.

This agreement with Iran will limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The Iranians will get rid of 98 percent of their enriched uranium and be blocked from producing any weapons-grade uranium or plutonium for 15 years.

Numerous other provisions limiting their nuclear activities, including the agreement’s verification procedures, will last indefinitely. Significantly, the verification procedures don’t depend on trusting Iran’s government; they depend on inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Independent Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King has declared his intentions to withhold judgment about a decision whether to approve the new agreement with Iran until he actually has read the agreement and heard testimony at planned Senate hearings.

The record of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, suggests that she also will give careful consideration to the actual details of the agreement.

King and Collins are getting plenty of advice from those who stand to benefit from building new nuclear weapons delivery systems, as well as from those motivated by outdated Cold War thinking and presidential campaign politics. They need to hear more from thoughtful constituents who recognize that such weapons programs are wasteful, unnecessary and dangerous.

Of equal importance, they need to hear from us that the nuclear agreement with Iran will greatly enhance our national security.

As people around the world recall the atomic bombings of 70 years ago, will Congress choose to head down a path to military confrontation and war, or will it support successful diplomacy and peace?

Dr. Peter D. Wilk of Portland serves on the board of Maine Physicians for Social Responsibility and on the organization’s national board.

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