Feeling Powerless About Nuclear Weapons? Try "Zero"

Have you seen the new documentary? If not, get thee to a cinema post haste. You will see remarkable footage of one of the most interesting characters of the 20th century, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
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Ever noticed how the most destructive weapon in human history makes people feel powerless.

How do you feel about nuclear weapons?

Pulsing with positivity? Sizzling with self-empowerment? Or insignificant?

It's not just us who feels impotent beside megatons of explosive power. Even those who thought they could control nuclear weapons find themselves in thrall to the power -- or broken by it.

By the way, have you seen the new documentary Countdown to Zero?

If not, get thee to a cinema post haste.

Here's one reason why: you will see remarkable footage of one of the most interesting characters of the 20th century, the scientific director of the Manhattan project, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The scenes of Oppenheimer are haunting and unforgettable. He helped usher in a new age of human experience and yet he seems a shadow man. This black and white footage plays like the last scene in a Shakespearean tragedy and the theme of the drama is clear:

We have let the monster killing machines intimidate us. We have given nuclear weapons ascendancy over our better judgement. Oppenheimer's hollow-eyed, spiritually-sapped figure shows us that nuclear weapons not only corrupt through power and intimidation, they poison the spirit.

(BTW, Countdown to Zero, from Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., The Cove) opens in a number of US cities this weekend after a very limited premiere in New York and Washington DC last week.)

Now you're wondering -- who's this woman? Glad you asked.


Lucy Walker is the writer and the director of Countdown to Zero. She says Participant Media "threw her the car keys" and told her to go make a documentary about nuclear weapons. (These weapons were her biggest nightmare as a child.) She took the keys and began the film research project of a lifetime. Along the way, she encountered Mr. Oppenheimer, the man some people call the father of the atom bomb. And she developed a great respect for him. Oppenheimer, she believes, had a deep understanding of how vulnerable we become when we share the earth with nuclear weapons.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another. -- J. Robert Oppenheimer

That is Oppenheimer's best known quote -- made 20 years after the first atomic test. As he speaks in the clip, he keeps his gaze downcast -- never once raising his eyes to meet the camera or the interviewer. It's powerful footage.

And Walker's film has much more Oppenheimer. In one clip from 1945, he starkly (and accurately) predicts the nuclear threat to come:

"I have been asked whether in the years to come if will be possible to kill 40 million American people in the 20 largest American cities and towns by the use of atomic bombs in a single night. I am afraid that the answer to that question is yes."

Here's a featurette from the Countdown team which focuses on Oppenheimer. It's well worth a watch.

Oppenheimer also said, in testimony before a Senate committee, that the way to protect New York City from a nuclear attack is with a screw-driver -- to open up every single container that enters the city.

The line fits perfectly with the first part of Countdown to Zero, which examines how vulnerable a major city might be to a terrorist with a nuclear device.

"He (Oppenheimer) understood the issue better than anybody," Walker told me in a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived phone interview this week. "It's both remarkable and utterly unsurprising how prescient he was."

While Oppenheimer gets a lot of attention in documentary, the US attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not get much time. No survivor of these attacks is interviewed. No human being explains to us the horror of what it's like to be on the receiving end of an atomic bomb.

Walker explained that her Countdown team did try to get an interview with one survivor who amazingly lived through both attacks, but they failed. Besides, her focus was elsewhere for a reason. "I felt it was more important to unite people around the current threat than divide people over history." She felt she didn't want to squander the opportunity to get things done now. She said there seemed be a great opportunity to unite around a nonpartisan effort to finally move toward zero. She said Hiroshima was controversial.

To me, the atomic bombings of Japan are the most important part of the nuclear story to date. The United States killed an estimated 200,000 people -- most of them civilians -- with two bombs. Many people say the attacks ended the war. Certainly, the war ended after the attacks.

But the point isn't how we justify using weapons of mass destruction. The point is the result was horrific. And it should never happen again.

Using nuclear weapons is wrong. So getting to zero nuclear weapons is a moral challenge, not just a political, strategic or technical one. Torture is banned for moral reasons. Freedoms and rights are enshrined in our Constitution for moral reasons.

May I suggest a new amendment? Let's safeguard the right to live out our lives and bring up our families free from nuclear attack.

There's only one way to do that.

Zero nuclear weapons.

The 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks is coming soon. And Lucy Walker told me she will be writing about them for Huffington Post. I look forward to her comments. I hope she is able to say what I sense is in her heart, but she felt she could not put in her documentary.

Walker told me she wanted her documentary to give the most important information about nuclear weapons, information that people need to know immediately. She told me she felt the subject was "the Everest of documentaries" because of its importance and complexity. She said she felt so humbled by the task that she wanted to reach for a superhero cloak to don. But she also said that she was empowered by the urgency of the subject matter.

"I couldn't believe we were snoozing on this most important of threats," she said.

The other difficulty was a narrative one. Her other documentaries, she said, were character-driven. Her films followed people trying to do a really challenging thing. Now she was the one with the challenging task: making a film about the most immediate catastrophic threat to humankind.

But in Countdown, the viewer has little sense of Lucy Walker's personal journey. And narrative gives way in the film to the delivery of information in three main areas: The director identifies them as: 1) Rogue states making the bomb; 2) Terrorists making the bomb; and 3) Human error setting off the bomb.

Overall, the film is seamless in execution, stylish in presentation and intellectually powerful. It manages to be level-headed, sobering and alarming all at the same time.

"I wish there was less ground for concern," says Walker, "that the situation was less urgent... [But] the truth I found out was very scary."

Still, Walker holds out hope for change. She started work in 2007 before the US Presidential elections of 2008, and finds Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons to be "very validating."

When I asked her what she would recommend people do to help the nations of the world get to zero, she naturally suggested they see the movie. She also mentioned supporting the film's social action (asking your Senator to support the New START treaty between the US and Russia is a great first step). But then she came back to Oppenheimer again.

In 1945, the man who had directed the scientific development of the atomic bomb was already thinking about how the world might get rid of it:

"I think the only hope for our future safety must lie in a collaboration based on confidence and good faith with the other peoples of the world."

In the end, the technological solution to the problem is straight forward. We know how to dismantle nuclear weapons. We even have good systems to verify that no new nuclear weapons are being built.

The biggest challenge in getting to zero is moral. We must decide if we care enough to get past the feeling of powerlessness and push our governments towards zero. We must insist that common sense and common decency once again orient our policy. These are weapons with destructive power so terrible they should never be used. So we get rid of them and create safeguards against their re-introduction.

Zero is a great way to start again.

For those who want more detail on how we might get to zero, here's one roadmap from David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:

A plan to get to zero nuclear weapons will require negotiations on a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. Such good faith negotiations are a requirement of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Other indicators that the US is serious about achieving zero nuclear weapons would include:

  • Ceasing to provide special favorable treatment to parties outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such as the US-India Nuclear deal.
  • Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and urging other countries to do so, so that the treaty may enter into force.
  • Stopping to press for strategic advantage -- weapons modernization, missile defenses, space weaponization, global strike force, etc.
  • Recognizing publicly the existence of Israel's nuclear arsenal as a starting point for achieving a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East.
  • Taking all nuclear weapons off a quick-launch or launch-on-warning posture.
  • Adopting a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons, with no exceptions, changing the current policy of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states not in compliance with the NPT.
Getting to zero will require US leadership and a sense of urgency. How is that to happen? In the way any significant change has always occurred; it will require the people to lead their leaders. That means that each of us has a role to play.
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