Once, children in the United States grew up with the Bomb inside them.
For many of us born since the first atomic explosion 50 years ago Sunday in New Mexico, the Bomb was at the center of our childhood thoughts about death. There is always something to carry such fears - listen to children today talk about guns, AIDS, suicide. But the Bomb was different.
In a flash (who could not imagine it?), the Bomb would make not just you vanish, but everything you had known, touched, loved; it would destroy your family, your friends, your second-grade teacher, the picture of you on your grandmother’s dresser, your first love letter. The Bomb would erase all memory of you, perhaps all memory of the Bomb itself.
Today, the Bomb has lost its power to enthrall. In fact, it is hard to find anywhere. Nuclear policy has been all over the news this year: in debate over the non-proliferation treaty extended in May, in controversy over testing, in negotiations about North Korea’s arms potential. An article in The New York Times this spring called nuclear proliferation “perhaps the most important national security issue facing the United States.” It would seem true: There are more nuclear warheads today, about 40,000, than when the movie “Dr. Strangelove” was made 30 years ago. But the Bomb has ceased to exist as a common source of apocalyptic imaginings, or even of vague anxiety. More people are worried about the ebola virus.
Should we miss it? It is hard to see much good in a nostalgia craze for the Cuban Missile Crisis. But lost along with the Bomb is an understanding of the profound ways nuclear weapons have changed the world, our perception of it and ourselves. In a greater sense than any other of the World War II anniversaries, those of the first atomic explosion, in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, and of the bombings three weeks later of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly killing more than 120,000 Japanese civilians and ending the war, mark less the end of an era than the beginning of one. Fifty years ago, we crossed a frontier, visible now only to those who can recall or imagine what the world was like before humans had the capacity to destroy it.
Although the United States and Russia stopped aiming nuclear weapons at each other’s cities just last year, widespread fear about a nuclear catastrophe ended earlier, with the suspension of the superpowers’ arms race. It is breathtaking that, scarcely a decade ago, a protest in New York City calling for a halt to production of nuclear weapons - “Ban the Bomb!” - drew 550,000 marchers, the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. In suburbs, nuclear freeze committees proliferated like neighborhood crime watches. The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for a 55-page primer on nuclear policy, which included a full-page map under what seems today the almost quaint headline, “If Boston were hit …” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” was as familiar on some high school reading lists as “David Copperfield.” In all these efforts, trying to make atom bombs “real” was part of what made the nuclear debate.
But the impossibility of making the Bomb “real” also shaped our sensibilities. For more than a generation, nuclear weapons virtually defined the absurd, a term that was once megatons more meaningful than it is today. They produced a lexicon of absurdity: “mutual assured destruction,” “missile gap,” “window of vulnerability.” You could be an elementary school student anywhere in America in the 1950s or ‘60s and get the point. Has any more absurd notion ever been as widely imparted to students than the instruction that a formica desktop is a suitable shield against the effects of thermonuclear holocaust? There we hid, in our gum-blemished barricades. Is it any wonder that the best movie made about nuclear war, “Dr. Strangelove,” is a comedy? Who today can make sense of the fact that the world’s nuclear stockpile is 1 million times more powerful than the bomb that lit a sun over Hiroshima?
In a fundamental way, the Bomb became the invention against which all other human creation had to be measured. Devising the means for one’s own extinction raises the bar for ingenuity. The familiar picture of a nuclear explosion expressed such an elemental fusion of nature and technology that it became the image of the sublime. The Bomb was a non-theological version of the Apocalypse. For much of the last 50 years, this was not only taken seriously, it seemed a basic truth. After witnessing that first explosion at Trinity, George Kistiakowsky, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times: “What the last human being on Earth will see is what we have seen this morning.”
The horror that accompanied the dawn of the nuclear age has dissipated with time. Even when there were only a handful of bombs, all of them possessed by the United States, you could hear terror in the voices of scientists, statesmen, survivors, mourners. That is gone. “You don’t hear Clinton talk about it with the same horror,” said Joseph Cirincione, former director of the Washington-based Campaign for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “We’re just so far away from it. People don’t remember … Hiroshima. We don’t feel that. We don’t know that anymore.”
During its early decades, the Bomb was an expression of evil in a broad sense, but it also was a symbol of the specific, potential evil of technology. For years, there was a direct relationship - both in fact and in the public mind - between the Bomb and the Computer. Popular reasoning held that although human beings might be incapable of pushing the button that would end it all, the job could be done by computers, even against our will. Think of the movie “War Games.” Those computers were the malevolent forebears of PCs, the Tyrannosaurus rex to our modern household pets. Today, by comparison, fear of technology is largely dissipated. If you were to ask people today to name the most important technological invention of the century, many would say: the computer.
And they might be right. There is a consensus that the nuclear age has not lived up to expectations. An article in the current edition of Invention and Technology magazine proclaims: “The power of the atom has actually changed the lives of most of us far less than anyone would have predicted after its first momentous unleashing half a century ago.” One could argue that because the arms race drove the Soviet Union to bankruptcy and contributed to the end of the Cold War, the Bomb is actually the first weapon to win a war in which it was not used. It is still the loudest voice that has spoken only twice.
Perhaps it will remain silent. But unlike geographic frontiers, which disappear forever beneath bulldozers and the domesticating impulses of colonists and settlers, the nuclear frontier can be crossed again.
In “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” Richard Rhodes quotes the physicist I.I. Rabi’s recollection of the morning of the Trinity explosion:
“Naturally, we were very jubilant over the outcome of the experiment. While this tremendous ball of flame was there before us, and we watched it, and it rolled along, it became in time diffused with the clouds. … Then it was washed out with the wind. We turned to one another and offered congratulations, for the first few minutes. Then, there was a chill, which was not the morning cold; it was a chill that came to one when one thought, as for instance when I thought of my wooden house in Cambridge, and my laboratory in New York, and of the millions of people living around there, and this power of nature which we had first understood it to be - well, there it was.”
And here it is with us, still.