Shigeko Matsumoto emerged from a bomb shelter in Nagasaki, 800 metres from ground zero, on 12 August 1945, three days after the US dropped its “Fat Man” atomic bomb over the city, and six days after “Little Boy” had decimated Hiroshima. “I will never forget the hellscape that awaited us”, she recounted in 2017 in testimony republished in Time magazine. “Half burnt bodies lay stiff on the ground, eyeballs gleaming from their sockets. Cattle lay dead along the side of the road, their abdomens grotesquely large and swollen. Thousands of bodies bopped up and down the river, bloated and purplish from soaking up the water. ‘Wait! Wait!’, I pleaded, as my grandfather treaded a couple paces ahead of me. I was terrified of being left behind.”

Scenes like this gripped the popular imagination for much of the remainder of the twentieth century, as the Soviet Union and the US raced to build ever deadlier nuclear arsenals. The modern imperialist system had created the reasonable possibility that human civilisation as we know it might end in a sudden burst of light.

Schoolchildren today aren’t trained to “duck and cover”, as they were in the 1950s and ’60s. Those willing to contemplate apocalyptic scenarios are, perhaps with good reason, more likely to imagine the continued deepening of the climate crisis. Nonetheless, we are now in the midst of an escalating nuclear arms race. We ignore it at our peril.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work on the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. ICAN’s Australian director, Gem Romuld, spoke to Red Flag about the current build-up. “In 2019, nuclear-armed states spent [US]$73 billion on nuclear weapons, resources sorely needed for health care”, Romuld says. “Several are investing in new kinds of nuclear weapons, including ones with a smaller yield for use in a wider range of scenarios. Longstanding nuclear arms control agreements are collapsing, with the only forward progress represented in the treaty.”

This new arms race is driven by the return of great power rivalry. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the unchallenged master of the globe. Its unipolar world order still featured wars, but only asymmetrical ones in which the US antagonised vastly weaker powers such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent years, however, the US has been forced to face down more serious threats to its global hegemony. This includes more aggressive posturing from its old rival, Russia. But more important is China, where rapid economic growth has laid the basis for military expansion and ambitions of superpower status.

The release of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy in 2018 signalled the arrival of a new era: “The central challenge to US prosperity is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition ... As China continues its economic and military ascendance ... it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future”.

Cracks have emerged in the post-Cold War frameworks designed to restrain the proliferation, testing and use of nuclear weapons. Last year, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a statement of US readiness to threaten the annihilation of its rivals. Nikolai Sokov, a negotiator of the START I and START II disarmament treaties, recently explained the new logic to German publication Der Spiegel. “We are returning to the days of the 1950s and 1960s, when each country decided for itself how many and what kind of weapons to deploy”, he said.

It’s difficult to visualise weapons more destructive than those detonated in Japan 75 years ago. But modern devices are capable of much worse. The Hiroshima bomb’s 15 kiloton yield (equivalent to 15,000 tonnes of TNT) is dwarfed by the B-83’s 1.2 megatons (or 1,200,000 tonnes of TNT). If the Hiroshima bomb were detonated over central Sydney, NUKEMAP (an online app that simulates nuclear detonations) estimates 39,520 fatalities. The B-83, by comparison, would produce 411,930 fatalities and 831,880 injuries, with damage stretching from the Harbour Bridge to Parramatta.

The US today has enough warheads to obliterate the world’s major cities several times over and usher in a global nuclear winter, but this destructive arsenal isn’t enough to satisfy the heads of empire in the new arms race. The US is currently undertaking an expensive “nuclear modernisation program”, which started under the Obama administration. One element of the program is the development of smaller or “tactical” bombs, the destructive force of which can be targeted more precisely. A 2016 study by the Lowy Institute found that these more sophisticated arsenals raise “the possibility that these weapons will also become more usable”.

The US Government Accountability Office has warned that the Pentagon’s spending on nuclear modernisation will surpass the planned US$1.2 trillion over coming decades. The threat of nuclear warfare aside, this spending is a criminal economic waste, directing money towards weapons of mass destruction while underfunded healthcare systems strain under the weight of the pandemic.

This story is the same on the other side of the geopolitical divide. China too is pouring resources into nurturing its small but growing nuclear arsenal. Last year, Beijing added 30 warheads, bringing its total to 320, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

There is a popular assumption that nuclear arsenals are entirely defensive and will never be used. The logic of mutually assured destruction, so the theory goes, will keep Trump, Putin or Xi from pressing their doomsday buttons. This assumption underestimates the irrationality at the core of capitalism and the imperialist rivalry it breeds.

First, the original Cold War featured several flashpoints when nuclear weapons were nearly used. These included US threats against China during the Korean War, the 1961 military stand-off in Berlin and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Second, as Romuld explains: “The possession and maintenance of nuclear weapons for the supposed purpose of ‘deterrence’ rests on a readiness to actually use them, thereby inflicting massive radioactive violence. This is why hundreds of nuclear weapons are deployed, and ready to use within minutes”.

There are an estimated 13,400 nuclear arms in the world’s militaries today. Of these, 3,720 are currently deployed and ready for use, whether placed on missiles or otherwise in bases. And unlike in the early years of the arms race, when only a narrow range of countries possessed nuclear weapons, there are today nine nuclear-armed states. This means that regional conflicts—for example, between Pakistan and India—have the potential to lead to unprecedented devastation.

Capitalism is a world system requiring endless military competition, as states compete over spheres of influence and profits. Ultimately, no empire will peacefully allow itself to be displaced by a rival. The Soviet Union never truly reached the strength to challenge the US as the number one global power. Will China? Certainly not if the US can help it. Ruling classes will use anything at their disposal to secure and maintain their dominance.

 Seventy-five years on from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mass annihilation remains only a button away.