Sixty five years ago, in a historical confluence of brilliant minds, global events and a kind of untempered colonial hubris, the United States took all of the collected knowledge of fundamental physical sciences known at the time and used it to create the most fearsome weapon man had ever known. Inured to large-scale horror by years of savage, industrial scale bloodletting and cautiously watchful of the shifting balance of global power and wealth, we unhesitatingly used that weapon twice on the Japanese home islands, forcing their surrender and the end of the Second World War, killing over 100,000 civilians in the process.
In fairness, it was a different world then, with different understandings and expectations, and in many ways a simpler, less nuanced way of considering other nations and their cultures. Those who can only rail against these decisions in terms of the modern understanding of the human community are like those who are uncomfortable with the language in “Huckleberry Finn”. Events occur in the context of their times, as a result of decisions made by people without the luxury of time and perspective. Even so, humanity took a collective breath in the realization that everything had changed that week in the summer of 1945.
Today, nuclear weapons are a basic reality, a kind of simmering, background concern that adds a layer of tension to our already chaotic and uncertain lives. While not the ongoing threat to our lives and our civilization that they were during the cold war, it is their proliferation, their very ubiquitous banality that defines the modern fear of a nuclear detonation. Even as the likelihood of a genuine war, the dryly euphemistic “nuclear exchange”, has lessened drastically, the likelihood of an individual local nuclear explosion has increased immeasurably, with consequences so unpredictable you seldom even see them speculated upon. The requirement for electrical power generation has increased the availability of fissile materials even as the technological and manufacturing capability of even impoverished and third world nations has made the bomb accessible to almost anyone with the funding and the right reactors.
Part of our fears are artificial, driven by the politics of governments, including notably our own, who find it in their interest to demonize external enemies while describing the threat they supposedly pose in the starkest of existential terms. But there is more than just that. While the superpowers reduce and secure their stockpiles, edging away from the hair-trigger alert status that characterized a strategic doctrine named by the frighteningly accurate acronym “MAD”, Mutually Assured Destruction, other nations seem to be budding nuclear powers, or have put themselves in a position where they are de facto nuclear weapons states, needing only months to finalize and deploy the actual weapons. So while there are fewer weapons overall, they are in more hands, in more places, with more complex and obscure justifications.
So now the potential for miscalculation is higher than it has ever been, the possibility that in the chaos of a nighttime border skirmish a blunder might become a holocaust, and the only thing we can know for certain is now Pandora’s box is opened, and it seems more likely every day that those twin thunderclaps of that long-ago August won’t be the last time we see that ominous cloud rising over a broken city. We’ve tried treaties, we’ve gone to war, with bribery and coercion and export controls, but nuclear weapons represent the kind of power mankind is hard-wired to seek. And given what we know about people in general and leaders of nations in particular, it’s unrealistic to think they won’t be used again.