Something to Lift Your Spirits

Matt Bivens, MD
4 min readOct 29, 2020

Here’s something: Remember nuclear weapons?

They’re illegal.

As of this weekend.

Well, technically, the deciding moment happened on Saturday, but the ban officially kicks in 90 days later, on January 22, 2021.

No nuclear-armed state plans to recognize the ban. But even so, military experts from the Pentagon to the Kremlin are clearly rattled: Last week, news broke of a letter the Trump administration has sent asking national governments to walk away from this “dangerous” treaty. The letter describes this as a consensus shared by the United States, Russia, China and all of the NATO allies.

When the military-industrial experts of America, Russia, China and NATO all share the same panicked indignation — that probably means something good is happening.

Countries that ratify the treaty are obliged never to make, test or own nuclear weapons. Countries that decline to ratify aren’t under any particular obligation. But nuclear-armed nations (and associated private military contractors) will now face legal challenges and public embarrassment — just as they have with, for example, the treaty banning land mines.

“History shows that the prohibition of certain types of weapons facilitates progress towards their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed by international treaties are increasingly seen as illegitimate,” says a statement by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons. “Arms companies find it more difficult to acquire funds for work on illegal weapons, and such work carries a significant reputational risk. Banks, pension funds and other financial institutions divest.”

In summer 2017, 122 nations at the UN voted for the Ban Treaty, over the objections of the nine nuclear-armed nations (America, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). In the years since, the treaty has been wending its way through parliaments. When Honduras dropped off documentation at the UN as the 50th state to have ratified, it came into legal force. (Thirty-four other nations are actively debating ratification).

Like runaway climate change, huge arsenals of nuclear explosives are an existential danger to public health. But unlike climate change, the solution to this particular species-level threat is arguably pretty easy: Rather than keep spending billions of dollars a year to stockpile indiscriminate mass-killing devices — don’t.

Which is exactly what humanity did in outlawing other mass killing weapons such as sarin nerve gas and smallpox virus.

Isn’t it odd how no one misses sarin nerve gas? We’ve never heard think tanks fret about “the sarin nerve gas gap” with our adversaries, or pundits insist that “sarin nerve gas keeps us safe.” When nuclear explosive devices are de-commissioned and gone, will all of the blather about their utility seem a bad dream?

Tick Tock

So we are in a race, between a bright future and no future. The experts behind the famous Doomsday Clock at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists remind us that we have never been closer to a devastating nuclear war.

Recently published data suggests that even a small exchange of nuclear weapons — less than 1% of world arsenals, like a tiff between India and Pakistan — would erase all global warming we’ve so appropriately worried about, careen us back toward a global cooling, and crash planet-wide agriculture.

Under COVID-19, have you enjoyed struggling to find toilet paper or being overcharged for rib-eye steaks? That’s a tiny taste of the collapse of food supplies and global civilization itself that could come with an exchange of nuclear weapons anywhere.

The International Red Cross, the American Medical Association, Pope Francis, former U.S. cabinet officials both Democrat and Republican, from defense and state — these and many others have begged the world to stand down and disassemble the thousands of nuclear weapons we have pointed at each other.

Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama spoke out publicly against hair-trigger alert, shorthand for the policy of launching missiles after just minutes of a frantic Pentagon briefing. As a practicing emergency medicine physician, I get more time to make decisions about a heart attack or a stroke than presidents are allowed before hitting the world-ending Big Red Button. I fervently agree with the former CIA director who calls this “absolutely insane”, and the former NSA director who calls it “absurd,” and the former head of all nuclear forces who wants Americans to just pray really hard to God we take the weapons off of hair trigger alert.

We simply have to take nuclear explosives off of hair-trigger alert, and then in cooperation with other nations — as we’ve done with chemical and biological weapons — stand down and dismantle them.

Matt Bivens, MD, is an emergency medicine physician and chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.



Matt Bivens, MD

Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering journalist & Russia-watcher.