God may have created all men, but it was Sam Colt who made them equal. So it was said of the Old West, where Colt’s six-shooter gave the small man a certain equality. In the 21st century, the atom bomb is the great equalizer. No matter how evil the outlaw regime, acquisition of an atom bomb can earn it respect. When one has the bomb, attention must be paid.

Compare how America treats Kim Jong Il, the Stalinist who has starved millions, and Saddam, who has gassed thousands. Kim has a secret uranium enrichment program, a nuclear reactor, and a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium. He has kicked out his UN inspectors and threatened to turn South Korea into a sea of fire.

Saddam has no fissile material, no nuclear facilities, no atom bomb, and has invited UN inspectors to rummage about his country. Yet, as Maureen Dowd writes, Kim gets a fruit basket and Saddam a Tomahawk missile. Why? Kim may have the bomb, but Saddam does not. Get the bomb, and U.S. belligerence gives way to sweet reason.

In the 1950s “Red China” was isolated. In 1953, Eisenhower threatened to use atomic weapons on Chinese troops in Korea to force Peking to accept a truce. In 1958, Ike sent nuclear-capable mortars to Quemoy—and Chairman Mao decided he could live with Nationalist troops on the tiny island within sight of the Mainland.

But in 1964 China tested an atom bomb. In a decade, Mao had China’s seat on the Security Council and the old anti-Communist Richard Nixon had come to pay the Great Helmsman his respects. China was soon getting World Bank loans, was sponsored for the WTO, and has been granted $100 billion trade surpluses by the United States.

One must commiserate with Fidel. He did not help kill 33,000 U.S. soldiers in Korea. While he has executed thousands of Cubans, unlike Mao and his henchmen, he has not annihilated millions. And though his human rights record is wretched, it is not in a league with China’s. Yet, Fidel cannot get U.S. sanctions lifted while China exports a tenth of its gross national product to the USA. But if Fidel tested an atom bomb, Uncle Sam would suddenly have its own “sunshine policy”—with Cuba. History teaches that when a rogue regime gets an atom bomb, it gets respect.

Because Khrushchev had them and the means to deliver them, Eisenhower, who had threatened Beijing in 1953, did not even break relations with Moscow over its crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. And just as Dulles’ bluster about “rollback” gave way to the Spirit of Camp David after Moscow called our bluff in Budapest, so too, Bush’s bombast about “regime change” gives way to talk of food and fuel aid now that Kim Jong Il may have nuclear weapons.

The knowledge that an enemy can kill you induces a certain maturity of judgment and suspension of bellicosity. But the spread of atomic weapons also means an end of empires. Those 37,000 U.S. soldiers on the Korean DMZ look less like imperial troops today than hostages. Even the neocons are talking about pulling out. In Asia, the sun is setting on an American empire begun in 1898. That is the meaning of Yongbyon.

John McCain wants confrontation and war if necessary with North Korea because he believes Kim’s weapons constrict “our ability to shape the international order.” McCain is right about the last point. And when Iran or an Arab regime tests an atom bomb, the neocon vision of Middle East empire vanishes. No wonder Sharon is calling for a U.S. attack on Tehran the day after we enter Baghdad. No wonder the War Party is calling for “Action This Day!”

The atom bomb was a truly awful and awesome invention. But America’s monopoly on the weapon until 1949 saved Western Europe from Stalinism. And the possession of atomic weapons by both sides prevented a U.S.-Soviet war in the Caribbean and Europe in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Except for the border clash between China and Russia in 1969 and the 39 Scuds that landed on Israel in 1991, no nuclear power has ever been attacked or invaded. And all the members and candidate-members of the Axis of Evil know it. They have seen the disparate treatment Americans accord to nuclear and non-nuclear enemies.

As for President Bush’s talk of preventive wars and preemptive strikes, it has probably been the greatest propellant to proliferation since Stalin got the news of Hiroshima.

“Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not,” wrote Belloc, after Kitchener’s slaughter of the dervishes at Omdurman. Now the damn natives have got the Maxim Gun. What is a good imperialist to do—except go home?