years ago, I co-taught a course on the making and use of the atomic
bomb at the U.S. Air Force Academy. We took cadets to Los Alamos
National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first nuclear weapons
were designed and built during World War II, and we also visited the
Trinity test site, where the first atomic device exploded in a test
conducted in July of 1945. It was after that first test when J.
Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, mused that he had
become death, the destroyer of worlds. And that is what nuclear
weapons are: they are death, and they can literally destroy our
world, producing nuclear winter and mass sickness and starvation.
the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of
people across the globe. A general nuclear war could kill billions of
people in a matter of days. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
reportedly said in 1963, “The living will envy the dead”
after such a nuclear cataclysm.
a good idea
this, an intellectual fad of the Cold War era was to “think
about the unthinkable,” to “war game” or plan for
various nuclear “exchanges” resulting in the deaths of
hundreds of millions of people, even to imagine that there could be a
“winner” of such a war. Remarkably, in the context of the
ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, that fad is returning today as pundits
write articles that suggest the US needs to show the Russians it is
willing and able to fight and win a nuclear war, as an
op-ed in the Wall
argued on April 27th of this year.
suggestions are madness.
a young Air Force lieutenant, I sat in the Missile Warning Center in
Cheyenne Mountain during an exercise that simulated a nuclear war.
This was 35 years ago, but I still remember those simulated Soviet
missile tracks crossing the North Pole and ending in various American
cities. There were no snazzy special effects or colorful
high-definition computer monitors. It all happened in silence on a
monochrome monitor as I sat under two thousand feet of solid granite
in America’s largest nuclear bomb shelter. “There goes
Kansas City,” somebody quietly said. It was a sobering
experience that I’ll never forget.
years later, I watched a stunning documentary, The
Day After Trinity,
that detailed the development of the atomic bomb. I’ll never
forget the words of Hans Bethe, legendary physicist and one of the
bomb’s key developers. The first reaction among the scientists
to the news the bomb had exploded over Hiroshima, Bethe recalled, was
a feeling of fulfillment. The crash project to build the bomb had
worked. The second reaction was one of shock and awe, of “What
have we done,” Bethe quietly noted. And the third reaction: It
should never be done again. And after Nagasaki the world somehow
managed not to do it again, despite nearly catastrophic events like
the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago.
was raised Roman Catholic, and I can think of no worse crime against
humanity than mass murder by genocidal weaponry, not only of
ourselves but of all life forms that would be vaporized by
thermonuclear warheads. Let’s not think about the unthinkable;
let’s not think we must show the Russians (or anyone else) that
we’re willing to use nuclear weapons. Rather, let’s
achieve the difficult but doable. The only sane course of action here
is for all the world’s nations to negotiate major reductions in
nuclear arsenals with the eventual goal of total nuclear disarmament.