Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dawn Of The Nuclear Age

Humanity's Folly

Trinity Test: July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. (Mountain War Time)
Trinity Site:  Alamogordo Test Range, Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of Death”) desert. 
Yield: 19–21 Kilotons
Image Credit: Berlyn Brixner, LANL.
Source: Atomic Archives

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Bhagavad Gita

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, in a remote desert of New Mexico, in the southwestern part of the United States, the nuclear age came into being with the first successful testing and detonation of an atomic or fission bomb. This was code-named “Trinity,” it being the destructive fruits of years of work on the Manhattan Project, composed of scientists, chiefly physicists, but also mathematicians and engineers, lead by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Only one nation has used atomic weapons; the United States of America; and only one nation has been the recipient of an atomic attack: Japan. The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945 (15-kiloton), and on Nagasaki (21-kiloton), on August 9, 1945. The result was 200,000 dead and injured, although precise figures are hard to obtain, given the ensuing chaos. Five days later, Japan surrenders, and the Second World War is over.

Looking at events from the past, it is easy to second-guess or criticize the decisions made. notably if they led to destructive consequences—this can be a type of chronological snobbery, a kind of moral superiority, or a kind of rare wisdom. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to do so, if only to see how humanity thinks today, to see, given similar circumstances, if political leaders would arrive at similar or different decisions. These thought experiments remain such; and in the heat of real and genuine battle, the actions might differ from abstract thoughts. Such are the arguments, often valid, of realists.

We do know that there were little public expression of moral concerns then; President Truman and his generals deemed it necessary to end a war that was causing so many deaths to American soldiers. “The atomic bomb was only another step in a horrible war,” as somebody once put it. It is only later, after the act, that moral concerns come into light, and understandably so. Truman, the devout Christian, saw the only use of atomic weapons as morally justified, saying as much in a radio report on the Potsdam Conference to the American people on August 9, 1945:
We must constitute ourselves trustees of this new force—to prevent its misuse, and to turn it into the channels of service to mankind. It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
The language of this speech is revealing. Here you can get a look into Truman’s mind and into his conscience, so to speak, saying phrases that then rang true to his American audience: “ourselves as trustees of this new force,” and “turn it to channels of service to mankind.” How so? Was it President Truman’s view that the U.S. was the only nation capable of having atomic weapons, and using them responsibly in the “service of mankind.” Was it a logic that said death and destruction brings about a new order, a cleansing of the land, a removing of its impurities? If so, it echoes the dual ideas, or as some would say, the myths of “American Exceptionalism” and the ”City Upon a Hill.”

Such patriotic (bordering on nationalistic) sentiments, with all its symbolic meanings, were met with nodding approval by the majority of men and women in the United States. (After all, wasn’t it America’s heroics that preserved democracy?) It is also part and parcel of utilitarian philosophy that says the end justifies the means, which can convince otherwise moral people to act in opposition to their conscience. The American pubic’s view on the use of nuclear weapons remains mixed; throughout the last 70 years, however, a minimum of one in three Americans have been in favour of using nuclear weapons, even after knowing about its destructive power.

There is “knowledge” and then there is knowledge. Some people have more knowledge of an intimate, deeper kind; such describes the mind of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” who was immediately troubled, as a new play about him shows. One can make justifications, rationalizing that there are times in history that one has to commit “evil” to prevent a greater evil. Albert Einstein, who did not work on the Manhattan Project, and who was always the pacifist, came to this realization, but not easily and not without reservations, about what such thinking can lead to; in a letter to Linus Pauling, in 1954, one year before his death, Einstein said: “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.”

That it ended a terrible war is true; that atomic weapons today have the same effect as a deterrent is probably true. Yet, it’s a deterrent based on mad thinking. We have today more destructive weapons, not only nuclear weapons—and more powerful ones in the form of a hydrogen bomb—but also chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction, This is more than enough to kill every human, every animal, every life form on this planet.

When you open Pandora’s Box, it cannot be shut easily; more lethal weapons of mass destruction were made, including the hydrogen, or fusion, bomb; there was a lot of chatter of a neutron bomb (“a more humane bomb”) during the American presidency of Ronald Reagan, and of a Star Wars program (a missile defense system); thankfully, both never came into being. What good could possibly come out of this?

The Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reports, is now set at three minutes to midnight, which it hasn’t been since 1984 when U.S.-Soviet relations were at a low point. Humanity ought to be concerned. Such weapons of mass destruction have only one purpose. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but wouldn’t it benefit humanity if we could, as a start, hold multi-lateral international talks with the desired aim of ridding the world of all nuclear weapons.  We seem no closer to this idea, as we are to the ideal to end all wars, one of the prime thoughts of The Russell-Einstein Manifesto (1955), which celebrated its 60th anniversary on July 9th.

As manifestos go, this is a good one to begin implementing: humanity can start be getting rid of nuclear weapons—a denuclearization program, if you will. Doing so would be a good way to “erase the memory” of this awful event of seventy years ago. By replacing a bad memory with a good one—the day nuclear weapons were eliminated. Now, that would be something to celebrate.