Recent events have brought into focus the merits and liabilities of a national security policy built on the threat to kill millions of innocent civilians with nuclear weapons.

While in South Korea, President Donald Trump pointedly referred to the leader of North Korea, declaring: “The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer; they are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face.”

It’s a tragic irony that national leaders around the world who are building up their nuclear arsenals don’t recognize this is equally true for every country, including the United States and Russia. Essentially, we’ve all become hostages to nuclear policies that we ourselves created.

Currently, nine countries possess over 14,000 nuclear weapons, with thousands of them poised to destroy each other’s cities at a moment’s notice. At the Helsinki Summit, Trump seemed to recognize the danger, acknowledging the U.S. and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpile and declaring, “It’s ridiculous.”

It’s not just nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. that puts us all at risk. Reports by Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War document that detonation of a much smaller number of nuclear weapons in a war between India and Pakistan, or on the Korean peninsula, would cause climate disruption across the planet, drastically cutting global food production and putting 2 billion people at risk of starvation.

This Aug. 6 and 9 are the 73rd anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The fact that we’re still living under this self-created threat to our own survival is simply unacceptable. In a 2014 Statement of Conscience, religious leaders representing various national faith-based organizations declared that the use of nuclear weapons is “inherently immoral because of the horrific and indiscriminate effects on civilians and the environment. …There can be no moral or religious justification for continuing to subject humankind and the planet to this kind of danger.”


The only way to step back from the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe is through diplomacy. Across the United States a new advocacy campaign is growing. Here in Maine health professional organizations such as the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maine Nurse Practitioners Association, along with numerous churches, synagogues, and other civic organizations, have endorsed the five crucial policy prescriptions contained in the “Back from the Brink: A Call to Prevent Nuclear War” statement.

First, the U.S. should renounce its current first-use policy. A “no first use” declaration would reduce the incentive for an adversary such as North Korea or Russia to decide to use its nuclear arsenal first, for fear it might otherwise be destroyed by the United States.

Second, Congress should end the sole, unchecked authority of any president to launch a nuclear attack. This would not limit a president’s capability to respond if we are attacked. Yet shouldn’t it be required that a president secure agreement from a few others, perhaps the secretary of defense and the secretary of state, before initiating destruction of the world as we know it?

Third, negotiate an end to hair-trigger alert postures around the world. Over the past 40 years there have been numerous near-launches from false alarms stemming from human error and system failures.

Fourth, and perhaps most urgent for our congressional delegation to act upon, is Trump’s plan to accelerate our race down the dark path to potential nuclear annihilation. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. plans to spend more than $1.2 trillion to replace its entire nuclear arsenal and build “more usable” nuclear weapons.

The fifth policy prescription in the “Back from the Brink” statement reflects the most encouraging international development yet. In July 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was approved by 122 countries at the United Nations, making it illegal under international law to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Our government ought to lead other nuclear weapons countries in moving towards the treaty’s goals, rather than opposing it.

Sen. King and Sen. Collins: please support diplomatic efforts to pull us back from the nuclear brink. Whenever spending for new nuclear weapons is proposed, please vote to stop accelerating the new nuclear arms race.

Dr. Peter Wilk is a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Chapter, Portland. The Rev. Carie Johnsen is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Augusta.

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