Part Two Point One of my series, “Broodings on the End of the World.”
See the photo? This is from May of 1957: a group of NATO observers are witnessing the Boltzmann “event” (nuclear weapon detonation) of Operation Plumbbob. The device had a yield that was equivalent of twelve thousand tons of TNT, three thousand tons less than the the weapon dropped on Hiroshima twelve years before. Certainly, there American military brass present, as well as high-level politicians and representatives of the weapon contractor.
When I stumbled over this image on Wikimedia Commons, I couldn’t help but stare at it with feelings that touched on subdued horror. As I continued to reflect on it, I wondered what I would feel if I were in their position.
I am aware that in the late 1950s and early 1960s that it was common for the general public in southern Nevada to throw “Nuclear Picnics” to watch from high ground many miles away the “shoots” that were publicly announced. Some kind of mystique had grown up around the subject and had made anything atomic cool … daddy-oh.
We’re looking at the faces of these observers probably only seconds after the detonation. I don’t know who these people are: if we could see their eyes maybe we could make a wager as to their thoughts.
I simply have no idea how I would have reacted in this circumstance, planted in a front-row seat with these observers. When this was taken I was in my infancy, so I can only bring my current perspectives to the scenario. Obviously, we live in a very different world now. The U.S. government controlled what we knew of the health effects, the actual human impact of The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki very closely, and very few in this country knew the enormous extent of it. It was only decades later the general public of this country had a clear idea of the horrors that had been visited upon the Japanese people.
If this were today, I’m fairly certain the event would be etched in memory for the rest of my life as a waking nightmare, of Hell opening its eye for a split second, followed with echoing images of the helpless from past and future wars burnt into shadows.
Only a fool would think nuclear weapons won’t eventually be used again.
Only a fool.
I am aware of the impressions of two witnesses to atomic weapons tests. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the architects of the first atom bombs, wrote the following a few years after the first test of an atomic weapon in New Mexico, the Trinity Test:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
The words of another witness still cling to my memory, but I can no longer find them on the internet. I believe this story was published on a site called “Atomic Veterans,” which is no longer on line. If memory serves, it was the recollections of an Army infantryman who was deployed in ground maneuvers in a joint Department of Defense/Atomic Energy Commission effort in the later ’50s designed to help understand “the nature of a the atomic battlefield.” The commentary that has hung with me was that the soldier said before the test he did not believe in the Devil, and afterward there was no longer any trace of doubt. Evil existed; he had witnessed it in this demonstration of horrifying power.
One of the themes of the film 2001: a Space Odyssey was that we would eventually see our own nature through our technology. Are we, once given access to practically limitless power, as evil as the proverbial Devil himself?
A Disease of the Human Soul
This may seem to some as a case of American Liberal-guilt hand-wringing. No, it’s not. The problem is not an American one: it infects the entire species.
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt to launch a program in developing nuclear weapons, based on their understanding through associates in Germany that the Nazi regime was actively pursuing an atomic weapons program. It was recognized later that the Japanese were also beginning their own nuclear efforts.
Our posture, then, was a defensive one — better we beat the Axis powers to the goal than to hand over the world to them. Truly … imagine an alternate history, where Nazi bombers incinerate London, and eventually Moscow and New York?
Soon after WW-II the Soviets had our nuclear secrets, and in 1961 built the largest hydrogen bomb ever detonated to this date, Tsar Bomba, a device with a yield of nearly 60 megatons. It was an impractical weapon, too large and heavy to transport any strategic distance. Smaller weapons, though, could be delivered by Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) as early as 1959, the same year that the U.S. deployed their first ICBMs.
Soon after, with no real way to shield our country from missiles, the U.S. adopted a nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction — MAD — which was, simply, a promise to destroy the Soviets should they destroy us.
Even as a child I had a glimmering of the horror that nuclear war would bring. For several years we lived near an Air Force base — that might have actually had some strategic significance — and it was always in the back of my mind that some day missiles could streak over my little horizon and dismiss my insignificant little life.
There were treaties, and non-proliferation agreements, but the Nuclear Club kept growing.
With 1991 and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the sense of unease that had hag-ridden me through most of my waking life shriveled up, dropped from my shoulders and slouched away, and, for a time, there was relief in my world. Anyone with any sense understood that the nuclear armaments of both countries didn’t simply vanish, but not having the cloud constantly looming over our heads was something for which I was deeply grateful.
Then came the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016, and the realization for me that America’s efforts in the Nuclear Arms Race were far from over.
No, the Nuclear Genie has escaped, and even the wisdom of Solomon cannot return him to his bottle.
What is Wrong With Us?
One more thing:
How is it that, having understood the power that the atom could unleash, and then having witnessed it in all its Hellish glory, that we, as a living, feeling, and thinking animal did not recoil in abject horror?
What utterly insane need to play God would call us on, like the call of the Lorelei seducing mariners to their doom?
How hard does the heart of any of us — let alone the hearts of those in power — have to be to not be troubled with the immeasurable suffering we might visit upon an enemy at a moment’s notice?
What darkness must one embrace?
What broken god must one worship for justification?
What is wrong with us?
As I was preparing this post for publication, I learned that 122 countries (none of which are the nuclear powers, who refused to participate) passed a U.N. treaty to ban nuclear weapons. I am asking that we hold out hope that the Nuclear Genie will be vanquished, after all.
The prior post in the Broodings on the End of the World Series:
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