Ever since nuclear weapons fell into the hands of the USSR and other countries beyond the United States, human civilization has been under tremendous risk of extinction. For decades now, the Doomsday clock has ticked perilously close to midnight; we continue to flirt with disaster which could strike once any nuclear leader falls into a suicidal mindset, which breaks the calculus of Mutually Assured Destruction. There is no solution in sight: we will only continue to avoid the destruction of all that we care about insofar as a handful of world leaders value living more than winning or being right. Perhaps down the road, some institution will emerge which will lead denuclearization to non-extinction levels, but even navigating this transition will be risky.
Given the dilemma of this current state of affairs, we messed up. We should have had the strategic foresight to prevent this deadlock from happening, and done nearly everything in our power to prevent it. We should have negotiated more fiercely with the Soviet Union to make them stand down their nuclear development, and we should have backed up our words with the threat of bombs. Further, moral philosophy messed up by not laying the groundwork for this to happen at the time: as undesirable as it would have been to target a research lab in Siberia or even a populated city, this pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions, billions, or even all future people (we are talking trillions+) who remain under significant, perpetual risk in the current nuclear environment we created.
We should have never allowed more than one state to develop the Bomb. “But this one state might abuse their power and try to dominate the world” one might counter. This could be the case, but I would venture that one state enforcing its values on another would probably not have been as bad as extinction. Further, this one nuclear state would have an incentive to be good stewards of their power to discourage others’ pursuit of nuclear development; insofar as non-nuclear states are not desperately unsatisfied with their lives, it does not make sense for them to pursue nuclear development under the threat of annihilation should the one nuclear state find out before they had amassed an arsenal big enough for Mutually Assured Destruction.
We cannot change the past, but we can affect the unfolding of the future. Going forward, if we ever develop technology more destructive than thermonuclear missiles, I do not think we should democratize it. The future, which could very well consist of trillions of people, is safer if only one faction has the power to destroy the world over.