This August marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of what is politely called the Atomic Age, when nuclear bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 140,000 and 70,000 persons respectively. We have lived in a world ever since where the apocalypse depicted in the Book of Genesis, Noah’s Flood, is no mere fantasy but a daily possibility. Nor are we merely dealing with an “Age,” in the sense of a period with a defined beginning and end. Nuclear arms are with us for good, for even if all of them were to be dismantled tomorrow, there could be no ironclad guarantee that they would not reappear as long as the technology to produce them existed. The decision to make the atomic bomb to begin with may be the most consequential one in human history. That is because history itself may be its ultimate target.
I speak of the “decision” to make the bomb, but the truth is that the bomb was not a decision but, from the moment when the early twentieth-century physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered that the atom could theoretically be split, a fatality. Scientists concluded that such a feat could create release the kind of energy that powered the stars, and that, properly engineered, it was only a matter of time until such a force was weaponized for use in human warfare. The nation that achieved this first would very likely be in a position to dominate the world. Therefore, no nation with sufficient expertise and resources could afford not to compete in the race to produce an atomic bomb, whether for offensive or defensive purposes.
The practical limit on such a competition was that it would be enormously complex and expensive, with no results guaranteed. Few countries, then, could realistically enter it. Most of them were European, and with memories of the carnage of World War I still vivid and resources constrained by the Great Depression, commitment to such an enterprise was politically infeasible.
One scientist, however, concluded that the atomic bomb had to be made, as a desperate necessity and as quickly as possible. He was Leo Szilard, a young Hungarian working in Germany who as a Jew fled for England with the coming of the Nazis in 1933, and immediately attempted to persuade British authorities to develop an atomic bomb before Hitler could do so. But the atom had yet to be split, and Szilard was a penniless refugee whom no one took seriously.
By the end of the 1930s, however, atom fission had been achieved, and a new world war had begun. A more influential figure, Albert Einstein, wrote to a more influential recipient, Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging that building an atomic bomb be explored. Among the powers that were soon considering this as well were Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia. Germany’s preeminent physicist, Werner Heisenberg, passed on the information that Hitler was intensely interested in the bomb to a Danish colleague, Niels Bohr, and this news reached the United States.
Roosevelt authorized a crash program to build the bomb, the Manhattan Project, which became the greatest research and design project ever undertaken. Einstein did not work on it, but Leo Szilard did. By the spring of 1945, a prototype was ready for testing. At this point, Szilard and some of his colleagues frantically petitioned that the bomb, if successful, not be used. They had worked intently on it to forestall a great evil, namely that Hitler would get the bomb first. Now, suddenly, they were confronted with an evil hardly less terrible: that the bomb would be used by anyone at all.
The petition was suppressed. The first atomic bomb was dropped on July 16, 1945 over Alamagordo, New Mexico in an operation code-named Trinity, presumably to invoke the blessing of the Christian deity. Civilians were not warned or evacuated. An uncounted number, but certainly in the thousands, were ultimately killed by the effects of fallout and radiation. These, American citizens, were the first victims of atomic warfare. Neither they nor their survivors were recognized or compensated. America first made atomic warfare on itself.
“Little Boy” was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, a target chosen because, unlike Tokyo and other large Japanese cities, it had not already been obliterated by conventional firebombing. Without awaiting a response from the Japanese government, a second bomb, codenamed “Fat Man,” annihilated the port city of Nagasaki. The choice of dates and the rapid sequencing of the bombs was not accidental. Between the attacks, on August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan as per previous agreement with the U.S. and Britain, reached at a time when the fruit of the Manhattan Project was as yet uncertain. With the success of Trinity, however, and with a Communist insurrection underway in China, it was regarded as imperative to prevent a Soviet penetration of Asia. Little Boy and Fat Man preempted it. Five days after Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.
There has been long debate over the rationale for dropping the bomb. But there is a perfectly simple explanation for it. The bomb was used because it was made. It was made because it was possible to make it. Science had demonstrated that an atomic bomb was achievable; technology provided the rest. In human warfare, what can be done is done.
The American monopoly of the bomb lasted four years. During that time, the United States conducted an ostentatiousseries of “tests” on Pacific atolls and later in the U.S. itself to demonstrate its intention to maintain and develop its atomic supremacy. Pentagon planners contemplated using atomic weapons in Korea and Vietnam, the latter at that time still a French colony. When the Soviet Union exploded its own first atomic bomb in 1949, an arms race immediately ensued, focused on the development of a hydrogen fusion bomb of vastly greater destructive potential. By the mid-1950s, both the U.S. and the USSR had bombs with a blast potential—50 million tons of TNT and more—that made firecrackers of Little Boy and Fat Man. Delivery systems proceeded apace, with long-range guided missiles carrying multiple warheads capable of reaching enemy territory within fifteen minutes of launch. The world was suddenly, at any given moment, within a quarter hour of Armaggedon.
Other nations—Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—moved to develop their own nuclear arsenals, but none approached the size and power of the Superpower rivals. By this time, scientists had calculated that a full-scale nuclear war might well render the planet uninhabitable for the human race. It was not until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the actual brink of annihilation that steps were taken toward arms control, and not until the 1980s that a mutual reduction of armaments was seriously pursuedafter a reckless escalation by Ronald Reagan and an incident—unreported at the time—when a single Soviet technician averted nuclear war by gambling that an alert of attack was a false alarm. There is even a term of art, “broken arrows,” to describe major nuclear weapon incidents resulting in explosions, widespread radioactive discharges, and the military and civilian loss of life. There are dozens of others that did not make the official list, and an unknown number still veiled in secrecy.
We are now preoccupied with climate change, which brings its daily train of disasters—flood, fire, drought, species extinction. But the fact is that we have lived from moment to moment for seven and a half decades under the threat of instant and terminal catastrophe. Even with a reduction in their arsenals, Russia and the U.S. still have enough nuclear weapons, aimed twenty-four hours a day at each other, to destroy the earth several times over. No nuclear power has ever renounced its weapons; several are politically and economically unstable. Others, notably Iraq and Saudi Arabia, are actively seeking nuclear capability. China is reportedly expanding its arsenal. Donald Trump wants to commit the U.S. to a thirty-year nuclear “modernization” program costing trillions of dollars, and to an arms race in space. For the first time in decades, what are now the two most economically powerful nations in the world are working not to defuse their atomic arsenals but to increase them.
Little Boy and Fat Man are alive and well at seventy-five. The rest of us are in greater mortal peril than ever. We will remain so until we find something far more difficult than technical prowess, moral sanity. If that day does not come, destruction will.