Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiroshima: Lessons Unlearned

Einstein envisioned it. Oppenheimer created it. Truman deployed it. Little Boy, the first ever weapon of mass destruction, was nestled snugly in the belly of a B-29 fighter jet and sent sailing over the town of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The explosion left the world both horrified and awestruck, and left a large bloody stain in U.S. history books. It also began the race and opened the flood gates for the development of more powerful artillery. And in the continuing wake of international turmoil, throughout the years our awareness of this clear and present danger has bred a very real fear into daily life.

With the second World War hinging on its fourth year for the U.S. and Japan still clinging by a thread, common sense and humanity gave way to frustration and impatience. Just a few years earlier, Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt noting that a bomb of mass destruction must be built in order to definitively end the war. A top secret assembly of scientists and engineers gathered under what would be called the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the helm. Soon, the atomic bomb was born.

Though it seemed that Roosevelt had no intention of utilizing the bomb, as Europe seemed to be losing power and Japan was slipping along with them, after his untimely death in April 1945, Vice President Truman took over. Once victory was achieved in Europe, Japan had little to lean on and ran dangerously low on artillery, planes, and manpower. Despite the fact that the Japanese seemed to be on the verge of raising the white flag, Truman saw an opportunity for the gross demonstration of power the U.S. had suddenly come to wield with this bomb, and ordered it be dropped.

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, Little Boy was released over Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 feet in the air, the bomb detonated, and a radiant white flash lit the morning sky. Waves of heat exceeding 7,000 degrees raced through the town. Everything within a one mile radius of the explosion was incinerated; within 5 miles, the city was completely destroyed and everyone killed; within 10 miles, a severe risk of exposure to radiation that injured and killed thousands more weeks, months, and even years after, but not before putting them through the agonizing pain of radiation poisoning, burns, and cancers. The casualties topped 150,000. Three days later, in Nagasaki, we dropped a second bomb that killed another 80,000.

While a few narrow-minded people regarded these attacks as sufficient reciprocity for the Pearl Harbor tragedy, bear in mind that while devastating and terrible, Pearl Harbor was an attack on armed forces preparing for war, which resulted in the deaths of 2,300 soldiers. The atomic bombs were attacks on civilian towns (Little Boy missed his target by 800 ft and exploded over a hospital), and resulted in the deaths of 230,000+ innocents who had no say in the matter of Pearl Harbor or whether they desired any part in the war at all. It goes without saying that these two matters are a dark mark on our records (but you wouldn't think some people had gotten the memo, given the petty responses that littered Facebook following the Japanese defeat of the US women's soccer team at this year's World Cup).

Nowadays, we have moved on to more deadly substances: nuclear power, and the looming threat of such power falling into the wrong hands is ever-present. The Nuclear Club, an unofficial title for the states that acknowledge they possess such warheads, consists of eight countries: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is suspected of having nukes, but it has yet to be confirmed. The first five of the preceding list are nuclear-possessing members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an agreement which in short states that it will prevent any countries who do not have nukes from obtaining them, will allow for the use of nuclear energy without the threat of abuse, and more importantly, binds the participating countries of the treaty to gradually move towards a total disarmament and abolition of nuclear warheads. The latter pillar seems a little more difficult, given that the language of the agreement is hazy, lacking a timeline or any real obligation to succeed, and suspicions of one another leave the states acting like five criminals in a room, holding one another at gunpoint, and no one trusts the others enough to lower their firearm first.

Throughout the past 5 decades, the fear of a nuclear apocalypse rose and fell with the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a narrow standoff between U.S. forces and Russian-backed Cuba which left John F. Kennedy sweating and the world on the verge of a miocardial infarction, brought paranoia knocking on the average American's door. Bomb shelters were built, bomb warnings were developed, bomb drills were exercised at schools and offices, and talk of the Red Menace littered daily conversations. Though the CMC ended at the last moment with Cuba turning away, the reality of a nuclear war came dangerously close. Another incident occurred much later, when the U.S. had scheduled an exercise to test a rocket model. Notifying Russian authorities that the test would take place to avoid suspicion, the message went astray. When a supposedly unannounced rocket showed up on their radar, Russian President Khrushchev was given less than a minute to respond, his finger twitching on the button that would send a nuclear warhead hurtling toward the U.S. With seconds to spare, Khrushchev decided against the move, and after clarifications were given, the near-mistake left everyone with sense of dreadful relief. Today, the daily threat of hostile countries and terrorist organizations obtaining nuclear bombs lingers at the backs of people's minds, but who do we have to blame but ourselves? The fire we started has roared out of control, beyond our power to contain it, and it may prove to be our own self-inflicted demise.

While there is always the growing threat of hostile forces gaining access to nuclear arsenals, we have made progress in international disarmament. In the time from the Cold War to the present, nuclear warheads have been reduced from 70,000 to roughly 20,350. South Africa, once a country that had developed 6 nuclear warheads, acted in good faith and dissembled all before signing the NPT. But if you're thinking that 20,000 warheads and 8 countries are still too many, you're right. All it takes is one bomb to obliterate a nation, one explosion to set off a series of explosions as state retaliations take flight. Without total disarmament and the careful watch of all nuclear sources, we as a global community will never be safe.

"Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." -John F. Kennedy

For more information on the movement to total disarmament, watch Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero

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