At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, in Japan, there is a photograph of a small set of stone steps just outside the Hiroshima branch of Sumitomo Bank, with a large, dark, roughly circular marking on them. They actually have that same section of stone, cut from the rest of the steps, under glass, as well. That dark place, in the photograph, and on the steps themselves, is evidence that once a human being lived. Because at 8:16 in the morning on August 6th, 1945, the first atomic weapon ever to be used against a human population was dropped onto the city of Hiroshima. Its destructive power – then only somewhat understood by the team of scientists that had helped create it – was manifold. There was fire and raw explosive force at a magnitude greater than any single bomb had ever produced before. Largely as side effects of the blast that was the intended goal of the weapon, there were also winds far beyond hurricane-force, and a lingering radiation that poisoned living things and the earth itself in ways that still haunt that city and its people today. But at the instant of detonation, there was a release of incredibly bright light, profound heat, and intense radiation.
This pulse was so strong that it bleached whatever it did not simply destroy, causing color and tone to fade dramatically. The temperature alone was in excess of what we understand to be the natural temperature of the center of the sun. And just as with sunlight, where an object stood before the flash, it cast a shadow, so that a section of whatever lay behind it was not rendered quite to bleached and pale. So the dark patch in that photograph is actually a lightening of everything around its rough circle. It is thought that on the morning of August the 6th, there was a person sitting at that place on those steps, waiting for the bank to open. The effects of the atomic bomb going off in very close proximity destroyed that person’s body to the degree that no obvious physical remains endured. But the shadow they cast on those steps persists; the final evidence of a life that once was, and no longer is.
The arrival of atomic weapons changed our world profoundly and, it has been argued, our species as well. We are tool-users, after all; it is one of the most distinctive qualities of human beings. We are not unique in nature for fashioning objects to help us accomplish what we set out to do, but we do take the practice to a degree of complexity that no other living thing on Earth does. And this was a new class of weapon – weapons being the sorts of tools that human beings use to murder other human beings – with exponentially more raw destructive capacity than any made before by human hands. For some, the existence of this new an terrible weapon simply expanded the degree of violence which humanity was capable of – a blemish, of sorts, on all of us, irrespective of our individual distance from or proximity to the power to use such violence. Others had a more optimistic read: that this new deadly capacity would force us to mature, as a species. British physicist Arthur Holly Thompson, who was a crucial figure in the development of the atomic bomb, said:
“It is hard to think of fissionable materials when fashioned into bombs as being a source of happiness. However this may be, if with such destructive weapons men are to survive, they must grow rapidly in human greatness. A new level of human understanding is needed. The reward for using the atom’s power towards man’s welfare is great and sure. The punishment for its misuse would seem to be death and the destruction of the civilization that has been growing for a thousand years. These are the alternatives that atomic power, as the steel of Daedalus, presents to mankind. We are forced to grow to greater manhood.”
The patriarchal bias in that quote – using words like “men” and “manhood” as though they apply equally to all human beings – is appropriate for a culture of war and science which developed, in secret, a world-changed technology of destruction very-nearly exclusively the province of men. Women and nonbinary folks were, as in so many other cases, impacted by decisions they were prevented from having any say in.
The Manhattan Project – that secret program to develop atomic weaponry – was originally an experiment: a scientific inquiry in to something that had been theorized but not yet proven. Splitting open an atom would release tremendous energy, and if it could be done reliably, in a relatively portable way, it could serve as a tool of war. And the hope was that it could end the war – that is, World War II – and even if it couldn’t there were deep and at least somewhat real concerns that if the US did not develop this terrible new weapon first “the other side” might do so instead, and capitalize on this advantage.
But in the moment after the first successful test, the project ceased to be fundamentally one of inquiry. The theoretical was now a practical reality, and the demands of military strategy moved swiftly to put that reality to use. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed somewhere in the range of 200,000 people indiscriminately; the overwhelming majority of them noncombatants. There can be no defense of murder on that scale – to kill is wrong, to kill so swiftly and in such quantity, all the more so. But the decision had motives that went beyond spite or a desire for conquest. Before the bombs were dropped, the expected end to the war was a full-scale invasion of Japan, which might have cost more lives – measuring only Japanese lives for the moment, and not even thinking of American casualties – by a factor of 10 or even 100. That also would have been morally indefensible. There are times in life that are not choices between right and wrong, but rather the weighing of unacceptable options in order to choose the least evil. Sometimes we are confronted by morally unacceptable acts which it would be morally unacceptable not to commit.
Once atomic weapons had been loosed upon the world, there was a short, strange period in which only one nation – the United States – controlled this overwhelming force. The authorities at the time were wise enough not to be cavalier in decimating any further cities after Nagasaki – but they could not resist issuing threats that they might, both overtly and covertly. And so the most powerful among other countries, if they were not already rightly afraid of this new weapon, grew to fear the bullying power that it offered to any state that had it while the rest of the world did not. And so, eventually the USSR developed its own bomb, and through a combination of espionage, sharing information with allies, and more hard-won scientific study, we gained the world we have today, with just less than ten nuclear states, with enough nuclear weapons in total in their arsenals to fundamentally diminish human civilization – through destruction of life and infrastructure and the distortion of the environment – if put to use on any significant scale.
A second nuclear power created yet another new reality: there was no longer one nation – the United States – safely immune from fear of the bomb. The potential for destruction was almost impossible for human beings to understand, and there was no reliable way to prevent it. Instead, a philosophy of threat and counter-threat emerged until we arrived at a doctrine that – though, again, exercised only at the very highest levels of power in a handful of governments – completely reshaped what danger and safety meant for everyone on earth: mutually assured destruction. If you cannot protect yourself from your enemy’s attack, you can instead provide them with assurance that you will respond to it in kind, escalating dramatically, such that by the end of the process both nations – and potentially the whole of the world – would be a smoldering ruin. This condition – which has felt less pressing since the end of the Cold War, but has never fully gone away since it began – is particularly dangerous because it rewards irrational action in the short term: the side which behaves with the least concern for the dangers of nuclear weapons consistently holds an advantage over more rightly-worried adversaries. They can make more demands, or refuse to cooperate, leveraging the fears of their opponents. Right up until the actual outbreak of nuclear war, when everybody loses.
In the religion on ancient Scandinavia, there is a belief that the end of the world will come about in a climactic war. The gods will battle the giants, their ancient adversaries, and as well as fighting amongst themselves. Three gigantic wolves will stalk the sky: one will swallow the moon, the next the stars, and the eldest will gobble up Odin, the father god who rules the Norse pantheon. The stars will go out, and a giant snake will poison the sea, the sky, and the earth. This story is hardly unique in its broad strokes – most religions and cultures have some sort of myth or prophecy as to how the world will end. Nuclear weapons simply gave our culture its first version of such a story that was grounded in cold fact and legitimate possibility.
And yet, the nuclear age has also been a time of curious peace. That sounds terrible to say, because the decades since 1945 have seen appalling violence all over the globe. But measured relative to the state of the earth before 1945, we have objectively less large-scale war, less violent deaths as a percentage of all deaths, globally, and an increase in life expectancy (though much more of that increase came from improvements in medicine and nutrition, it should be pointed out). Threat, counter-threat, and mutually assured destruction has tamped down some of the more violent impulses of our species. I would not call it a fair trade, or even a trade at all, but another unforeseen consequence of a weapon that changed our world.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, said in that same gender limited language as his colleague:
“It did not take atomic weapons to make man want peace. But the atomic bomb was the turn of the screw. The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”
I once sat and talked with a man over tea in his living room, and this is the story he told me. When he was younger, he had been in the Air Force. He was a crewman assigned to a long-range bomber, part of the US arsenal responsible for the delivery of atomic weapons to their targets, in the event of nuclear war. It was the height of the Cold War, and in all his years of service the enemy remained the same, and so did the targets he was assigned. He and the rest of the crew practiced the same run, for years, and part of his job was to pore over photographs of the target, so that he could recognize it at night, even when there was no moon out, and the sky was full of clouds. They had a primary target they were assigned to, and they also had a secondary one; it wasn’t as important, but if they could catch it on the way back, or if they couldn’t make it all the way to their main destination, this was where they were supposed to drop their payload. He spent whole days staring at pictures of the place, all taken from overhead.
Luckily for this fellow, and for everyone else on Earth, he was never called upon to put that preparation to use. It never got that far. So he retired from the Air Force, he got a civilian job, and years later, the world changed. Governments fell and new ones rose up, borders shifted, and journeys that had been impossible to make before became much, much easier. This is what made it possible for him and his wife to visit Eastern Europe. They toured the countryside and saw ancient and famous cities, and then one day, they were crossing over a river, and the man stopped. He looked from one side of the river to another, and then down at the bridge they were standing on. He looked at the tall buildings on the Western bank, and he got out a street map just to be sure. “This is it,” he said to his wife. “This was our secondary target.” All those years spent preparing to go there, to bomb the bridge. He had never expected he would ever get to stand on it, or see the river up close. That bridge was so beautiful in person. It was the same bridge, and it wasn’t. It was a man who always expected to see the place in person, but never in that way, and who was so grateful for that surprise.
War is the necessary result when we fear to lose more than we fear to die – or at least to see others die. We have survived for the better part of a century in a world of very real nuclear danger. The only means to survive in it indefinitely is to untie the knot of war: to actually achieve what some of the more idealistic scientists who created this weapon hoped it might force us towards: a more enlightened state of being as a species and a planet. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The essential thing is not to fear at all.” So perhaps, one day, as individuals and as a society, we will learn to live far enough beyond fear to lay down our arms.