After 75 years, we thankfully have been the only country to drop an atomic bomb or nuclear warhead of any kind on “enemy” soil.
I say “enemy” with quotation marks because, once we had come to terms with just what exactly were the ramifications of the explosion, we understood that nuclear warheads were a global threat. Altogether we became a sort of huddled mass not just in the corner of some solar system, but life felt rarer than ever in the Milky Way Galaxy. For the first time, the ability to destroy ourselves was manageable.
I know little of the Manhattan Project. It was an attempt to get ahold of an atomic bomb before the Germans did, though in hindsight, no one was even close to the production of one besides us. And our justifications for dropping the bombs on Japan came out of loss of American lives. Even after dropping two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese army had no intention of surrender. Only after the interruption by the emperor of Japan did the war come to an end. For a brief moment, we had the ultimate power of nations.
It was short lived. The Cold War, and the introduction of the Soviet Union as a nuclear threat, kicked off an arms race that only barely managed to prevent disaster with the logic of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” as the predominant strategy. The idea being that a first strike of a bomb, and then the retaliatory strike, would be so deadly as to eliminate not just the two powers, but would also destroy the Earth for subsequent generations. And as the warheads became stronger, from atomic bombs to hydrogen bombs to thermonuclear warheads, and once the application of the bombs culminated in ICBMs and MIRVs, bombs could strike multiple targets within a certain radius in an instant, and the strategy fit the name more than ever.
Madness is what physicist Richard Feynman felt in the intervening years after the successful Manhattan Project. In interviews, he recalled how for a time he had little understanding for why construction crews bothered to build bridges. They were just going to get blown away, he thought. He repeated what many scientists continue to argue to this day: that the technology humans had had grown exponentially, while our own behavior had grown arithmetically. As such it was only a matter of time before human beings created something so terrible it could not control.
To realize just how right Feynman could have been, and still could be, is a harrowing journey. If you’re willing to dig into our history, you can find accidental red alerts of a nuclear facility because it had been attacked by a bear. Someone pushed the “nuclear threat” button instead of the “alarm” button, and the sirens ordered a nuclear retaliation for a first strike that never happened. Supposedly another such situation happened with a false alarm, where Jimmy Carter had ten minutes to decide, after being woken up in the night, whether to fire a nuclear missile. And from Toby Ord’s recent book The Precipice, several similar situations of nuclear submarines deep underwater occurred where they received faulty information. Their next actions could have meant the end of the known world.
Luckily for each of these cases, sanity stepped in.
Beyond this, the lessons I know about nuclear weapons come from John Wargo’s fantastic book Green Intelligence and from his Yale Open Lecture Course “Environmental Politics and Law.” He is one of the most clear speakers I know, and even if you despise such dry information, you may simply enjoy his discussions on the history of the environmental policy in this country.
Why environment? It turns out that many of the lessons on air and water quality come out of the research done by the Atomic Energy Commission. The tests we did on the Bikini Atoll led to such horrific radiation poisoning, not just here but on the mainland as well. We had little understanding of radioactive fallout once it hit certain levels of the stratosphere. It took the eventual donation of baby teeth from across the country to realize the differing levels of Strontium-90 stored inside, an isotope only possible from the extreme conditions of nuclear tests. Eventually, both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev signed a ban on Atomic Testing on August 5th, 1963, because they realized that to test nuclear weapons above ground would be to have a global environmental crisis on their hands.
Fortunately, this work allowed scientists to better understand the interdependence of the environment.
But still, the legacy of the nuclear bomb is one of folly at the very least, insanity at the most. It will be one of the varied problems of our generations that history textbooks will deride as being a provisional exercise of stupidity. Like blood letting in the middle ages, or leeches, it will be a practice thought of as inane.
The difficulty with nuclear bombs is that the immediate effects are the most obvious. The mushroom cloud you see above is easy to recoil at with horror. But the real damage occurs afterward in secondary short term damage and tertiary long term poisonings that effect genetics for ages to come. Radiation sticks with us, in our DNA, and it morphs us and creates maladies and sufferings that could have been easily avoided had we not gone down an experiment in self-mutilation.
It is one of those events in human history where the term “unnatural” has real power and authority. These explosions are so rare in the universe as to only occur in supernovae, an event where a star, one of the most primordial collections of matter our creator has designed, has decided to cease living. To reproduce that power on Earth is a danger one could argue should never have been attempted. It is Prometheus’s fire. It is the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. To taste the fruit is to die a metaphorical death. It is the death of a time before the explosion of a nuclear warhead. And it is death that lingers over us now.
I always go back and forth on the use of nuclear power. It is becoming abundantly clear to me that renewable energy, while it is perfect for residential and commercial use, will not be the source of greater and exponential uses of energy for things like construction, research, experimentation, and production. We’ll need heavier sources of power, ones that burn cleaner than fossil fuels. That can come from nuclear fusion and fission.
But our track record with nuclear power leaves plenty to be desired. Whether it is Chernobyl, or Fukushima, or Sellafield, granting power and them getting rid of its waste is an issue we still need to resolve. Nuclear power has had a bad taste in our mouths for some time, yet we will need it before all is said and done. Doing it right will be a top priority.
And while the Cold War ended, the issue of nuclear missiles is far from over. In a globalized world, the ability to harness and create warheads has proliferated not just to the United States and Russia, but to many other developed nations of the world. And recently, the United States walked away from a peace plan with Iran which was a step in the right direction for nuclear disarmament. President Obama introduced a nuclear missile modernization plan that would cost TRILLIONS of dollars. So despite the fact the warheads stopped detonating years ago, we still live with the results to this very day.
To remind myself of the history of the nuclear bomb, I have been reading through Jonathan Schell’s almost poetic books highlighting the philosophical dilemmas by these destructive acts. It is a sobering reminder of how much we must be ignorant of possible damnation in order to live a normal and carefree life. To consider the amount of warheads, and their damage, and to consider the constantly arising threats to their safe housing, could lead you to stay curled in your bed as you watch the sun’s arc descend into darkness.
Getting rid of the things, or using them to power nuclear facilities, seems to be the only way. Though I doubt such a day will arise in my lifetime, I am thankful for the writers who have come before me who recognize the seriousness of these things we’ve built.
Will we approach the better angels of our nature? Or will we accidentally destroy ourselves? Or…to get rid of the binaries…will we inadvertantly cause damage that will simply linger within the human race, either in our biology or in our history, as an embarrassment to our species?
Time is the best determinant.