High Schools Should Teach the Facts About Nuclear-Arms Issues

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What is an SLBM? A simple question. But the number of Americans who do not know the answer is staggering. During the Peloponnesian wars, any Greek child could have identified the weapons of war--spears, swords, shields--and known which kinds of troops used which weapons, why a particular weapon was better in one situation than another, and so on. What child today could even answer the question: "What is an SLBM?"

Most people are unaware of a whole set of simple facts that could change their thinking about nuclear weapons issues. If, for example, every citizen knew that one of our Lafayette-class submarines--carrying 16 Poseidon missiles with up to 14 warheads each--could theoretically threaten 224 Soviet cities with destruction, then statements that the Soviets are nearing a credible counterforce capability could be more realistically appraised.

Experience in dealing with these issues leads to the conclusion that the facts of nuclear weapons are not so much incomprehensible as incredible. People can understand; they just do not want to believe. They must be given the facts that will enable them to think realistically about nuclear-weapons issues.

At the heart of any effort to inform a large proportion of U.S. citizens must be America's educational institutions. Because most of those who know about nuclear weapons are very highly trained, it is generally assumed that only institutions that produce highly trained people can teach about nuclear weapons. But that is not so.

A course conveying the basic facts about nuclear weapons could be taught at practically any level. Indeed, the ideal level for this kind of course is the high school. The facts involved and the understanding required would be no more difficult than courses already taught in high school: the fundamentals of math or writing, or of the Constitution. And high-school courses have a crucial advantage over college or university courses: They reach far more people. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 17 percent of U.S. citizens over 24 have graduated from college, but 68.7 percent have graduated from high school. Education about nuclear weapons must go on at all levels, but it is clear that high school is the place to begin.

When first asked for information about nuclear weapons, high-school students do not volunteer much. Some students know some of the names of missiles. ICBM is generally familiar and can be defined; MIRV, on the other hand, although recognized by some, cannot be defined. Almost all students have heard of Hiroshima, but almost none know the the size of the bomb, the number of people killed, or any relevant statistics. Megatonnage of present weapons, knowledge of which is comparable to knowing the difference between a bronze-tipped spear and an iron one in earlier civilizations, cannot even be guessed.

The greatest lack of information has to do with the effects of nuclear explosions. Although students know about radiation, in none of the discussions were burns mentioned as an effect of nuclear explosions. Flashblindness and electromagnetic pulse are also unknown to them.

When confronted with their lack of knowledge, students generally ask serious and honest questions: What's it like when a nuclear bomb goes off? What would be our chances here if there were a nuclear war? How long would we have once a war started? What about shelters? What do we have? What do the Russians have? What's being done?

How much is taught about nuclear weapons in high school? A number of administrators and teachers suggested that the subject would most likely be found as part of a social-studies course, but in four months of investigating, I did not find a single course that dealt with nuclear weapons. If any exist, the number must be very small.

Probably the only place where students are consistently exposed to facts about nuclear weapons is in their history textbooks.

Seven of these texts dominate the market, accounting for 75 percent of all such books sold in the country. Their scope and detail are amazing. A quick journey through the index of any one of these 700-page volumes will demonstrate that there is a great deal you have forgotten (or never learned) about American history.

It also reveals something else: Even the most elementary facts about nuclear weapons are almost completely absent.

A survey of four of the top seven texts shows that only one has an index listing for "hydrogen bomb." One mentions it in the narration, but does not index it; two have no reference to its development at all. Two of the texts do not mention the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and one that mentions it in the narration omits it from the index. Not one of the four texts indexes MIRV's or any other significant escalation of the arms race since the intercontinental ballistic missile, which is mentioned in only three of the books examined.

Three of the four texts surveyed devote fewer than 50 words to either SALT I or SALT II. By comparison, Norman K. Risjord's People and Our Country (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978) contains some 130 words about the G.I. Bill, and These United States, by James P. Shenton et al., (Houghton Mifflin, 1978) devotes more than 150 words to "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell and China during World War II.

This information is dismaying because it demonstrates the tendency to ignore the facts about nuclear weapons and related issues. But a look at the narrative treatment of nuclear weapons reveals another, perhaps more serious, problem. The following description of the bombing of Hiroshima is a good example. It is from Rise of the American Nation, by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), by far the largest selling high-school history text in America:

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 A.M., a solitary plane flew high over the Japanese city of Hiroshima (hee-ro-SHEE-ma). No alarm sounded. Suddenly the city disintegrated in a single searing atomic blast. Nearly 100,000 of the 245,000 men, women, and children were killed instantly or died soon after. A new force had been added to warfare, a force that would enormously complicate the postwar world.

As in almost every other text, important facts are missing. The simplest comparison with present nuclear weapons is impossible because the size and power of the Hiroshima bomb are not reported. But the most disturbing problem is with the last sentence: "A new force had been added to warfare ... that would enormously complicate the postwar world.'' This is the total explanation of the meaning and importance of nuclear weapons.

What should a high-school course on nuclear weapons cover? The aim should be twofold: to acquaint the student with the facts about nuclear weapons and to prepare him or her to think about living in a nuclear world. Four general areas should be covered: the difference between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons; the history of nuclear weapons; the efforts to control them; and their meaning and importance.

  • The qualitative difference between nuclear and conventional weapons is at the heart of why nuclear weapons are considered a distinct and separate problem. The basic physics should be studied in order to make this distinction in the abstract. But the distinction should also be made concretely. The effects of nuclear weapons--blast, prompt radiation, thermal radiation, electromagnetic pulse, and fallout--should be covered carefully and examples given from the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Readings for this section could include, for example, "A Tutorial in the Effects of Nuclear Weapons," issued by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment.
  • An attempt to understand the role of nuclear weapons in world affairs is crucial to understanding decisions that must be made about their deployment and use. The effect of the actual use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki also must be examined. Hand in hand with that history must go the story of the development of nuclear weapons: the initial race to build a bomb, and subsequent decisions to advance the technology or increase our nuclear arsenal.
  • A look should be taken at the efforts to limit nuclear weapons, with attention to the Test Ban Treaty, the SALT I and SALT II Treaties, the statements of various physicists, including Einstein, and those of American Presidents from Truman to Reagan.
  • Finally, the course should face the issue of the meaning and importance of nuclear weapons. How do they affect the economy of the United States? How do they affect the lives of U.S. citizens?

For atomic scientists and those working in related fields the reality of nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war is strong. But there is a new generation: forgetful, untutored. A high-school student, 14 or 15 years old, whose class I was visiting, approached me at the end of the hour. He was troubled by something that had been said during class:

"You say these things have been used before?"

"Yes. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (No response.) "In World War II."

A downward glance, his eyes serious, a little guarded: "Huh. I had never heard that."

Vol. 01, Issue 18, Page 24

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