On Aug. 6 and 9 the world will observe the 70th anniversaries of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The resulting explosions, fires and contamination killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed two cities and changed the face of warfare forever.
The weapons, which employed the most recent discoveries in nuclear physics, were viewed with enormous ambivalence by their creators. Some thought their development a triumph of military technology; others saw them as perhaps the greatest perversion of human intellect in the history of our species. The moral arguments are still vital and are reawakened by this tragic anniversary.
As scientific, political and spiritual leaders had feared, the Cold War emerged in the wake of the bombings, supported by the principle of mutually assured destruction. Many leading scientists showed that using these weapons would lead to unrestrained cataclysm and perhaps the death of our species. Even a “limited” nuclear war between Pakistan and India would kill millions outright and billions within a year due to environmental collapse.
For a time, the successes of the strategic arms limitation talks and the destruction of many nuclear warheads offered hope of an end to mutually assured destruction. Nobel prizes were awarded, factories for the destruction of warheads were constructed and many came to believe the Cold War was over. This was appropriately viewed as one of the pinnacle accomplishments of our species.
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However, in November The New York Times revealed in an editorial and several articles that in recent months the Cold War had been remobilized. In a shocking reversal of the president’s Nobel prize-winning stance against nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has begun to support a massive “modernization program” for our 2,500 nuclear weapons. This program requires replacing 100 nuclear bombers ($550 million each) and 12 nuclear submarines ($6.6 billion per vessel) with 16 nuclear warheads.
Over the next three decades, the American people will be asked to pay about $1 trillion to support this repair program whose chief function (if we are lucky) is to transfer billions from the American people to the nuclear arms industry.
Military leaders have pointed out the crippling effect this will have on our conventional preparedness. Perhaps more insidiously, it catalyzes our preoccupation with military force rather than promoting the spiritual and moral lessons that the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so profoundly compels.
Paranoia has returned, feeding a hopeless addiction to illusory nuclear security. We are once again embracing our nuclear arsenal, but the weapons remain unusable because of their destructiveness – not to mention that they are at extremely high risk for terroristic appropriation or accidental detonation. This series of decisions the administration has made mocks our arrogant claims to have learned the lessons of the smoking embers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The question becomes, how do we transcend the rubble of those two Japanese cities in pursuit of a better world? The answer almost certainly will not involve nuclear weaponry. Either by accident or misguided policy, increasing reliance on the nuclear option is far more likely to lead to global catastrophe involving billions of individuals.
We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper in today’s shrunken world. It is up to all of us to reject the principles and actions that are once again leading us to accept the concept of mutually assured destruction. We must reassert our democratic values and speak up against the increasing acceptance of the unthinkable. Unless we demand a stop to business as usual, we are headed in the direction of making us all a nation of suicide bombers.
Clay Whitehead, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and Neil Offen is a journalist in Chapel Hill.