December 2, 1942, is not a date that has lived in infamy, and yet it is one of the most important dates in human history. That is the date upon which mankind probably sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
On that Wednesday afternoon, under the racquetball courts at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and his group of scientists popped open a bottle of chianti. Moments before, “Chicago Pile-1,” the world’s first nuclear reactor, had gone “critical” and become self-sustaining. Mankind had unlocked the power of the atom.
The output of CP-1 was minimal – barely enough to energize the filament of a light bulb. And yet, so diligent were those who sought to amplify that power that less than three years later an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan that detonated with the same amount of force as 15,000 tons of TNT, killing 80,000 people. Many thousands more subsequently died from burns and radiation poisoning. Three days later (today is the 72nd anniversary, in fact), a second bomb was dropped.
Instead of looking at the wasteland that these bombs created and viewing them as something that should never have been done, people went in the opposite direction, building thousands more of these bombs, some of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that were dropped on Japan. And here we are today, all of us living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a heavy burden. Oppenheimer and Stimson thought little of tomorrow’s children when they sought to become death. I cannot be the only parent in America who darkly wonders as he drives his daughters to school whether this is the day when they might be vaporized. [As it turns out, I’m not.]
Now, we have a situation. Despite numerous attempts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations, it seems that the North Koreans may have finally developed a bomb that is capable of reaching the United States. The president has threatened nuclear war. The very concept is madness, and yet we inch closer to it. Already, I sense the leadership in Washington priming the public to accept the argument that they had no other choice.
I reject that. Here is another choice: talk to them.
Begin those talks by acknowledging the reason that diplomacy has failed. Admit that a policy of “we reserve the right to destroy you at any time while also rejecting your claim to defend yourself by similar means,” is merely hypocrisy masquerading as diplomacy. “Trust us not to destroy you,” is not something that any hostile sovereign power can reasonably be expected to accept.
How about taking the hypocrisy out of things and simply saying, “we don’t think you should have nuclear weapons and, guess what, neither should we? No one should. So here’s the deal: abandon your nuclear program and we will abandon ours. Truly. Not only will we cease construction of any further weapons, but we will also begin the immediate dismantling of all of our current weapons. It’s going to take us some time, because we have so very many of them, but in ten years the people of North Korea will no longer have to live in fear of nuclear attack from the United States.”
This is radical, I know. “We can’t do that,” you’re thinking. “The Chinese and the Russians will never follow our lead. We’ll be vulnerable.”
It’s okay, just breathe. First, I actually think that if we began a complete and unilateral draw-down of our arsenal, the Chinese and Russians might follow our lead because they could no longer justify the risk and expense of maintaining their own arsenals. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because of the simple truth that for some things there is no sufficient justification. The mass incineration of children is one of those things.
I want you to engage in a little thought experiment with me. It’s going to be a touch uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary in these times.
Imagine that you’re in a room by yourself and you’ve just received word that the enemy has launched their nuclear weapons. Our defenses have failed. In ten minutes all of America will be lost.
But, on a control panel in front of you, there is a large red button. Pressing the button will launch our devastating and unstoppable retaliatory attack. There is nothing left on earth for you to do now except to push it, or not push it.
Do you push it?
In your mind, push it, and ask yourself what you have done, really. Have you saved your country? Have you done something that the withered remnants of humanity will thank you for? Have you done what Jesus would have done?
The development of the atom bomb was folly; mankind is too impulsive, unpredictable, and accident-prone to control such power — that we haven’t killed ourselves with it yet is nothing less than a miracle. But now we have an opportunity. We can use this opportunity to further prove our unworthiness to possess deep knowledge, or we can use it to save face while walking back an advance that should never have been made.
The people of my generation had no choice but to be born under a nuclear threat. What better gift to give to the next generation than to sweep that threat aside?
Ought we not to at least try?