NEW YORK - Albert Einstein, one of the great physicists and political activists of his generation, once famously remarked: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
As Einstein foresaw, if there is a nuclear war, the world is in danger of being reduced to rubble forcing most humans to go back to a pre-historic era in a post-nuclear world.
As political activists cry out for peace in a war-ravaged world, the international community has been successful so far in banning a wide variety of deadly weapons, including biological and chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and most recently cluster bombs.
|This TV footage from the National Chinese Television channel shows the public demolition of North Korea's cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex on June 27, 2008. North Korea blew up the cooling tower to symbolise the communist state's commitment to scrapping its nuclear programme. AFP
But eight countries still hold onto their huge arsenal of nukes: the world's five declared nuclear powers (who are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council): the US, Britain, France, China and Russia (along with India, Pakistan and Israel).
Last week, after years of on-again, off-again negotiations, the US said North Korea (the ninth nuclear power, although undeclared) was giving up on the development of nuclear weapons prompting the Bush administration to take Pyongyang off the list of so-called "terrorist states."
The government of North Korea, which is still to fully account for its mini-arsenal of nukes, agreed to blow up the cooling tower of its nuclear plant in a public spectacle before the world media. But the jury is still out on the North Koreans.
How much does the US know about the North Korean nuclear programme? How extensive was the transfer of technology from North Korea to other would-be nuclear powers? And how much of nuclear know-how did North Korea receive from Pakistan?
President Bush's decision to curry favour with the North Koreans has antagonized the hardline conservatives in his own Republican Party who never trusted, and will never trust, the unpredictable North Koreans. Perhaps the biggest single hardliner in the Bush administration -- on war and peace -- is Vice President Dick Cheney.
According to a story in the New York Times last week, Cheney was addressing a group of foreign policy experts in an off-the-record session when one of them asked whether it was true that the Bush administration was planning to de-list North Korea as a terrorist state.
Cheney apparently "froze", stared at his questioner, and shot back: "I am not going to be the one to announce this decision. You need to address your interest in this to the State Department" -- and then left the meeting without taking any further questions.
The decision to play ball with the North Koreans was obviously a victory for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who heads the State Department, and has been more politically flexible on foreign policy issues than a sceptical Cheney.
But still the hard fact remains that even if North Korea, in the unlikely event, is proved to be sincere in its commitment to be nuclear-free, we are still left with eight nuclear powers armed to the teeth.
Jayantha Dhanapala, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and longtime anti-nuclear activist, points out that the rest of the world is being denied possession of nuclear weapons on the basis that nuclear proliferation is a bad thing.
"Now, nuclear proliferation is certainly not good, but if you have those countries that have nuclear weapons arrogating the right to retain their weapons for themselves alone, while others are denied possession, then you are almost certainly stimulating other countries into wanting to have them."
Non-proliferation and disarmament are two faces of the same coin. "That is why it is so important to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. If there were no weapons, they could not proliferate," Dhanapala rightly argues.
Japan, the only country in human history to be nuked by the United States, has been one the world's most vocal campaigners for nuclear disarmament. The Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and followed it up with a similar attack on Nagasaki three days later.
The Peace Memorial Museum in the city of Hiroshima, one of Japan's more sombre tourist attractions, is a grim reminder of the horrors of nuclear war, pictorially depicting the devastation caused to Hiroshima by a U.S. atomic bomb. And within one year, over 140,000 died as a result of the 1945 U.S. attacks.
Last August, a 'Peace Declaration' adopted by the city of Hiroshima detailed the impact of the US attacks that fateful day, describing it as "hell on earth". "The eyes of young girls watching the parachute (which opened in the skies before the blast) were melted. Their faces became giant charred blisters. The skin of people seeking help dangled from their fingernails." Many who escaped death initially are still suffering from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and a vast array of other afflictions.
All of this is very starkly depicted in photographs that hang on the walls of the Hiroshima Peace Museum.