I was not alive seventy-two years ago this month, but my father was, serving as a B-29 bomber ground crew chief on Kwajalein when planes of the 509th bomb group passed through, en route to Tinian.
Unlike all other bombers, they were parked in a segregated corner of the field, serviced by their own mechanics, and guarded by their own armed sentries. Clearly something was up, and he along with the rest of the world discovered what a few days later when the atomic age bloomed into malign reality in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I did grow up in the enormous fallout of those epochal events, kneeling in darkened elementary school halls practicing for a Soviet hydrogen bomb many times more deadly than those that obliterated two Japanese cities in the blink of an eye. Since my midwestern industrial city was high on the list of Soviet targets, we children were not so foolish as to suppose we would survive by covering our heads.
We grew up with TV and movies incessantly showing mushroom clouds, documentary footage of incinerated cities and tests of atom blasts first blowing buildings, trees and lifeforms to smithereens and then igniting them by hellfire. Our Cub Scout troop took a field trip to the local Nike base to see the missiles that were supposed to shoot down the incoming nukes. Perhaps worst of all were the silent, unseen, unfelt lingering radiation that killed long after the fighting ended. The enemy within our own bodies.
We built plastic models of delivery systems, each more potent than the one before — long range bombers, long range ballistic missiles in silos under the prairie, and nuclear submarines, each armed with 14 to 24 missiles, each missile tipped with up to 14 individually targeted warheads yielding 475 kilotons of TNT compared to Hiroshima’s 18 kt.
Thus, one Ohio Class boomer cruising silent and undetected beneath the sea can drop destruction 25 times as great as the World War II bombs on up to 336 individual cities or military targets. The dead would be counted in the tens of millions, not to mention fallout poisoning the genes of survivors and of the earth, air, water and the plants and animals we depend on to survive. And then there’s the prospect of climate-changing nuclear winter, created by the amount of particulate matter injected into the atmosphere which could reduce sunlight, truncate growing seasons and decimate crop yields. Armageddon, indeed.
Sentient people of my generation watched as we came to the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and essentially abandoned all hope of living our three score and ten. Surely we would all die in a bright millisecond when the forty-year-long Cold War turned terminally hot. Or, even worse, survive to experience what Nikita Khrushchev predicted, an aftermath where “the living will envy the dead.”
Yet, seventy-two years after Nagasaki, no further use of nuclear arms has taken place, perhaps because even implacable enemies like the Soviet Union and the United States, Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan understood in their bones that Khrushchev was right. And when China began to do business with the world and the Berlin Wall came down, we breathed a sign of relief after waiting for the end for forty years. Perhaps the balance of terror, mutually assured destruction had actually worked and the world had been scared straight by the atom.
Yet, here we are — approaching another brink and, unlike Khrushchev, neither Kim Jong Un nor Donald J. Trump seem to understand the kind of fire they are playing with. Kim is alleged to have about 20 missiles and four warheads of a yield half that of Hiroshima. We have about 4,670 warheads dozens of times more powerful. Whether Kim’s weapons could reach their targets and detonate is unclear.
We might also be able to shoot down some fraction of them. And clearly we would run out of targets in the small, densely populated country of North Korea long before we ran out of warheads. It would cease to be not just an adversary, but an entity, a viable habitat. A substantial percentage of its population of 25 million would pay the price for their reckless dictator.
Such an event would likely make us, not the extinct North Korean regime a pariah. It would be an ugly holocaust that would change the rules forever. This might be the first use of nuclear arms in 70 years, but would probably not be the last. Using nuclear arms would no longer be unthinkable. Rather than being deterred, other bad actors might be inclined to strike first, or to stack their nukes ever higher.
Trump, like Kim, seems to believe we’re playing a game of mine’s bigger than yours. Instead, the game may be scorpions in a bottle, but instead of the power merely to sting each other to death they have the power to kill millions and degrade the environment for billions.
It would be nice to conclude that cooler heads will prevail, but does either of these men listen to good advice? Likewise, it would be encouraging to suppose that stealth rather than brute force might be applied to encourage North Koreans who want to survive to eliminate their Dear Leader, or that advanced capabilities like electromagnetic pulse weapons or cyber-sabotage might render Kim’s nuclear threat impotent.
But, as John Webster said, “Death hath ten thousand several doors for men to take their exits.” As long as nuclear weapons exist in huge numbers in the hands of fallible humans like Kim Jong Un, Ayatollah Khamenei, Bibi Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Mamnoon Hussain, or Donald Trump what the nuclear scientist Leo Szilard said in 1942 holds true.
Szilard formulated the idea of a chain reaction which would make nuclear energy and weapons possible and was part of the team that devised a pile at the University of Chicago‘s Stagg Field. It produced the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction. This successful experiment served as proof of concept that such weapons could be built.
Szilard said of this historic event, “We turned the switch, saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow.” He was right then, and he’s still right today.