Experts Warn of Risk of Nuclear War During Panel

Roughly a dozen experts on American nuclear policy said United States laws regulating the use of weapons of mass destruction likely increase the chances of nuclear war during a day-long conference held in Harvard’s Science Center Saturday.

United States Senator Edward J. Markey—one of many speakers, which included a former secretary of defense, a congressman from Massachusetts, and professors from elite universities across the country—expressed support for nuclear restraint and disarmament.

“The risk of inadvertent nuclear war has risen to a level that is simply unacceptable,” Markey said.

English professor Elaine Scarry—who served as one of the co-chairs of the conference, titled “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?”—said one of the goals of the conference was to spark a conversation about the legality of nuclear weapon use by the United States government.

“There is a deep and important question about the legality of the country’s presidential first use policy, which has essentially been in effect for 70 years,” she said, referring to a policy that gives the president the power to unilaterally decide to use nuclear weapons.


Many of the speakers said this policy of presidential first use makes the United States more likely to become embroiled in a nuclear war.

“If adversaries believe that we may go nuclear, we create the very pressure that encourages them to build nuclear arsenals and keep them on high alert,” Markey said.

In the first panel of the morning, Sissela Bok, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies, urged attendees to think about the consequences of nuclear war.

“People all over the world are at the mercy, in a way, of what would happen if a nuclear war broke out and so it’s in their self interest to pay attention,” she said afterward.

Over the course of the afternoon, other speakers discussed whether or not the United States Constitution should prevent the president from unilaterally launching nuclear weapons—and whether the strength of the nation’s armed forces renders the use of nuclear weapons unnecessary.

Mass. Congressman James P. McGovern said he believes the United States does not need to use nuclear weapons.

“We are not weak. We are not vulnerable. We have many options to take the initiative and strike first for retaliation,” McGovern said. “Nuclear retaliation, let alone ‘first strike,’ is not needed.”

Reflecting on the day, Scarry said she thought the invited speakers were all of “uniformly high quality.”

Some attendees, though, said they wished more undergraduates had come to the conference.

James Song ’20, an attendee, said he believes it is important that young people continue to pay attention to the issue of nuclear proliferation.

“Awareness motivates actions,” Song said. “It is important to continue to be sensitive to the question, to the issue, to participate.”


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