The footage of that huge explosion in Beirut last month was startling and has stuck with me. It looked almost like a nuclear detonation in an urban area.
Two days after that Aug. 4 explosion, the world observed the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which was followed three days later in 1945 by the bombing of Nagasaki.
Now, listen, I’m not trying to get all bleak on you — though how can you discuss “the nuclear age” without being the downer in the room? I’m just sharing another thing on my mind — the fact that the nuclear age turned 75 last month. So much of modern reality is tied to the development of these weapons.
I think of my own life in that context. My grandfather was serving in the Pacific when those bombs were dropped. With the war ending, he didn't have to be a part of a potential invasion of Japan, which would have cost many American lives. He got to come home and have a family — me included. It’s sort of an odd connection to make with a mushroom cloud. But for years, I’ve thought about the connection between my life and the loss of other lives. Maybe it’s pointless to think like that, but we do live within broad, historical contexts that we often don’t contemplate.
If you think about it, these weapons were born of Hitler. As Hitler sought to dominate the world during World War II, our nation gathered some of the world's brightest minds to form the “Manhattan Project” in Los Alamos, New Mexico, under scientist Robert Oppenheimer in a race against the clock. We had to destroy Hitler before he destroyed us. Thankfully, Hitler had never had a nuclear button. But his madness led to the frenzied rush to develop an ultimate weapon. The nuclear age is a byproduct of his megalomania. We indirectly have the “gift” of potential human self-destruction from the 20th century’s most reviled killer.
Of course, nuclear technology has been used in energy production, not just in warfare. And the technological advancements since the Manhattan Project have splintered in many different ways, certainly not all bad.
But it’s the destructive potential that humans can’t ever ignore. There is insane footage from the early days of the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union held test bombings. I am fascinated by those old videos. I watch them sometimes. There’s footage of soldiers having to observe blasts from positions that appear too close. Many of us are wired to enjoy spectacle, like big explosions. From the safety of a television or computer screen, a nuclear explosion can seem merely “interesting.”
But then you have to think about your own family, your own community, your own country, your world. And you have to think about what those weapons do to bodies and what that would actually look like, and how all life in the aftermath would be irreparably worse, and how life wouldn’t be life anymore, but suffering. Those bombs are literally the torture and death of us if we ever go that route. Look up the “Tsar Bomba” and see what Russia detonated in 1961. It was 1,500 times the power of Hiroshima with a fireball five miles wide, with a mushroom cloud 42 miles high. Think of what this would do to your hometown.
So that’s why international relations can never be truly ignored. For 75 years, the world has avoided a nuclear war. There have been close calls, for sure. Tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union reached an almost world-ending tipping point with the Cuban Missile Crisis. There have been mishaps, such as the 1961 Goldsboro, North Carolina B-52 crash. The plane was carrying two nuclear bombs and one of them nearly detonated.
I know it’s completely annoying to talk about nuclear issues in a pandemic, in an election year, in a time of uncertainty and deep societal distress. It absolutely is.
But the 75th anniversary of those bombs being dropped makes me think about where we stand in relation to nuclear weapons. Basically, we don’t think much about them. And I worry that our leaders around the world are complacent, too. I worry that the world has generally lost its vigilance and that emotionalism and tribalism might overtake the cool rationality that is required to maintain peace.
Can we go another 75 years without a nuclear catastrophe, another 150, another 250? There’s no choice is there? We must maintain the peace in this big way, or we won’t be around. Look at that Beirut footage and recognize that as awful as that was, it is a mere sneeze compared to what is possible.
When all of our angers and hatreds run free and unchecked in this world, we open ourselves up to danger. We need stability and commitments to peace. Part of that means we can never fully ignore the horror that is always possible. We have to be mindful of it and work against it.
The nuclear age is an old man now, but we have to turn him into Methuselah.
Life has to be nurtured. If there’s a birthday wish for the 75-year-old nuclear age, it has to be that.