The Man in the TNT Vest

Imagine a man wearing a TNT vest were to come into the room and, before you could escape, managed to tell you that he wasn’t a suicide bomber. He didn’t have the button to set off the explosives. Rather, there were two buttons in very safe hands. One was with President Obama and the other was with President Medvedev, so there was nothing to worry about. You’d still get out of that room as fast as you can!

Just because we can’t see the nuclear weapons controlled by those two buttons, why do we stay in this room? As we would if confronted by the man in the TNT vest, we need to be plotting a rapid escape. Instead, we have sat here complacently for roughly 50 years, trusting that because Earth’s explosive vest hasn’t yet gone off, it never will.

Before society will look for an escape route, we have to overcome its mistaken belief that threatening to destroy the world is somehow risk free. Changing societal thinking is a huge task, but as with achieving the seemingly impossible goals of ending slavery and getting women the vote, the first step in correcting this misperception is for courageous individuals to speak the truth: The nuclear emperor has no clothes — except for that stupid vest!

You have an advantage that the abolitionists and the suffragettes did not. You can propagate the needed message to all your friends merely by emailing them a link to this post, or whatever you think would be most effective. While communicating with friends may seem trivial compared to the immense task we face, as explained in the resource section below, at this early stage of the process it is the essential action. I hope you will consider doing that, so that Earth’s explosive vest can become but a distant nightmare to future generations.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

Illustration ©2009 Text ©2009 Martin E. Hellman. Permission is granted to reprint this article, in whole or in part, including the illustration, on a royalty-free basis provided credit is given to the copyright holder. A link to this page or would be appreciated.

To better understand why communicating with friends is such an effective action, see our web site’s FAQ, particularly “The action you advocate is just talk. What good can that do?”

For evidence of the role that public opinion has played in preventing nuclear war (and by extension, the role that it can play in removing the threat), see “What Has Prevented Nuclear War?”

A longer, in-depth article on the problem and solution is “Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons.”

If you missed earlier emails to the group, they are on the web site’s resource page.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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