The Atomic Bomb at 70: Its Fearsome Impact, Frightful Legacy, and Potential Stellar Redemption

Perhaps the most horrifying thing about the nuking of Hiroshima 70 years ago is that it did not end World War II. The event that ultimately did lead to the end of the war came three days later, on August 9th, 1945 when another American B-29 dropped a slightly larger atomic bomb on Nagasaki, making the evil of nuclear weapons a staple of the modern world.

Naturally, the gong show Republican presidential debate, held on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima, made no mention of the anniversary. Nor did the debate raise the other existential threat to human civilization, that of climate change. The problem there goes far beyond the front-running know-nothing Donald Trump. But do carry on with the hyper-partisan noise-making, gentlemen. It fits in with our culture of entertaining distractions.

Much more surprisingly, President Barack Obama, who declared nuclear abolition to be one of his top priorities early on, and and who has just concluded a highly controversial deal to forestall Iran's nuclear weapons program, also had nothing to say on the 70th anniversary of the first and, so far, only use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations.

Some raw aerial footage of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It's too bad, yet all too emblematic of an amazingly unreflective, decidedly devolving period in our politics. And all the more foolish, as a serious discussion of our past on nuclear weapons carries important lessons for the future.

Even after the second atomic bombing, the Japanese War Cabinet wanted to continue resistance. It took the intervention of the usually largely honorific yet officially divine Emperor Hirohito to force the surrender of the Japanese government as he at last took the side of ineffectual civilian officials.

The Pacific War had been that kind of war, a war of striking savagery and great stubbornness, in some ways much more rugged that the much more frequently chronicled war in Europe.

** Should the Bomb Have Been Dropped?

Japanese culture has many fabulous aspects of which I happily partake. I think that Japan should be an even closer ally in our Asia/Pacific Pivot, as I suggested this past spring. But the reality is that Japanese forces in World War II fought with a stunning fanaticism, frequently to the last man. Surrender was largely anathema; to be a prisoner was to be dishonored. Their own treatment of prisoners, perhaps not surprisingly, was frequently horrifying, as Americans learned in 1942 with the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

When their once dominant navy was reduced to a shell of itself, a burgeoning corps of kamikazes, suicide pilots, crashed their own planes into American ships. They simply would not give up even when logic dictated that they could no longer win the war. My grandfather and uncle were both on ships attacked by kamikazes. They were more fortunate than some others.

This reality of that war touched my own life very directly. My father was one of the first Americans into Manila during the liberation of the Philippine in 1945. Manila, capital of the Philippines, was famed as the "Pearl of the Orient" to that point. When American and Philippine forces determined they could not hold the city during the Japanese invasion three years earlier, they withdrew from Manila rather than risk its destruction. Japanese forces, when faced with their own inevitable inability to hold Manila in February 1945, made a very different decision. They fought to the bitter end, block by block and frequently building to building. And they tore Manila down around them, pursuing a scorched earth policy dictated from the top.

In the course of house-to-house fighting, which at times was hand-to-hand, my father's helmet came off, and a grenade exploded. He ended his long war in the Pacific with shrapnel in the brain, which affected him forever after, a third Purple Heart, and an all-expenses paid two-year stay in the lovely Presidio of San Francisco's unlovely Letterman Hospital. The only good news was that he would not have to invade Japan.

The old New Left came up with a revisionist view that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not about ending the war but instead were really about intimidating the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. But why are those mutually exclusive propositions?

It would have been best if the scourge of nuclear weaponry had never been unleashed, but that revisionist perspective is flawed and unsophisticated. While the Japanese high command was trying to enlist the Soviets -- who were neutral in the fight with Japan -- as mediators with the U.S., their interest was not in surrendering even though they could not win the war. Their interest was in cutting a deal to remain in power in Japan and hang on to some of their conquests throughout Asia.

After Hiroshima, the Japanese War Cabinet redoubled its efforts to gain Soviet mediation. Recognizing that the U.S. would not cut a deal with Japan, just as the Allies in Europe would not cut a deal with Hitler or any potential Nazi successor, the Soviets opportunistically declared war on Japan themselves two days after Hiroshima and promptly invaded Japanese-held Manchuria.

Still, Japan did not surrender. And so a second U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th.

The Japanese War Cabinet again decided to fight on. Only then did Emperor Hirohito intervene on the side of ineffectual civilian officials who wanted peace.

But it still took another five days, till August 14th, before Japan offered its surrender. The Soviets, incidentally, killed over 80,000 Japanese troops in their invasion of Manchuria, losing just under 10,000 Red Army troops in the fighting.

Could a more benign path have been found to end the war? Assuming that cutting a deal with the Japanese fascist government was out of the question -- and it would be foolish to think that the American public would have stood for that -- it would have been a difficult thing to pull off.

Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt had the vision and imagination to do it. But he was dead, and Harry Truman, a much more limited and inexperienced figure who instinctively sought confrontation with the Soviets, was the president.

But considering how stubbornly the Japanese fought on in the real world -- as distinguished from the revisionist construct of the world -- as they continued to refuse to surrender for nearly a week even after two atomic bombings by the U.S. and a murderous Soviet offensive on the Asian continent, that may be wishful thinking on my part.

** Should the Bomb Have Been Shared?

The atomic bomb, as distinguished from its vastly more destructive follow-on, the hydrogen bomb, was largely developed by scientists who were liberal to leftist in their political orientations. From Alfred Einstein's fateful fall 1939 letter warning Roosevelt that that the atom could be split to create a new order of weaponry of vastly destructive potential to the project's direction by UC Berkeley's Robert Oppenheimer, the Bomb was a left of center, anti-fascist project countering the perceived threat from Nazi Germany. As it happened, neither the Nazis, despite Germany's rich scientific heritage, nor the Japanese, who also had an atom bomb project, got especially close to producing a bomb, though the Nazis did produce other late-breaking super-weapons such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the jet fighter which threatened at times to upend the close of the war in Europe.

All this is chronicled in Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."

Oppenheimer and company tried and failed to come up with an effective non-lethal demonstration of the A-bomb to force a Japanese surrender.

They also urged international control of nuclear weapons and a sharing of the tech with the Soviet Union.

FDR characteristically gave off mixed signals, reportedly telling Danish Nobel physics laureate Niels Bohr that he favored the idea while saying the opposite to Winston Churchill, a vehement opponent of sharing the secret. (A little-known fact is that Britain and Canada shared decision-making power with the U.S. over the first use of the A-bomb. Both governments approved the nuking of the two Japanese cities. The British and Canadians subsequently lost their joint decision-making power over America's soon-to-be burgeoning nuclear arsenal.)

But as I wrote in April around the 70th anniversary of the United Nations founding conference in San Francisco, FDR had big plans for the UN as a sustainable global security architecture.

Had FDR gone on to become the UN's first permanent secretary-general, as he discussed privately, it becomes much easier to to see the Bomb coming under a framework of international control. Roosevelt had already agreed in the Quebec Agreement of 1943 that a Combined Policy Committee of American, British and Canadian officials would have to allow any actual use of the atomic bomb.

And, as Rhodes reported, a very intriguing quantity of lower level nuclear materials evidently flowed to Russia under the Lend-Lease program.

Although our popular history doesn't tell it this way, FDR was very well aware that Soviet forces were the single largest factor in defeating Nazi Germany. He was also well aware that our essential ally Stalin, with whom he had a good rapport, was also an absolutely murderous tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians and other Soviet citizens.

But Roosevelt was convinced he could work with Stalin, that he could contain Soviet aspirations even as he continued to make America the foremost power in the world. For that matter, Churchill himself, despite his 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech, delivered nearly a year after he was voted out of office by a remarkably unsentimental British electorate once Hitler was defeated, had been discussing "spheres of influence" with Stalin since 1942.

The problem with FDR, who clearly didn't think he was going to die in office at age 63 despite the obvious strain he was under, is that he never had a proper successor. He didn't think enough of Truman, his third vice president, to make him a confidant. The new president didn't even know about the massive atomic bomb project till he was informed by Eleanor Roosevelt.

When he did learn about it, Truman, like his hawkish new Secretary of State Jimmy Brynes, who also had no international experience or expertise, seemed intoxicated by nuclear power. Byrnes actually threatened the Soviet foreign minister, in joking form, with the A-bomb at a meeting a few months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

** How Bad Did the Cold War Have To Be?

Of course, Stalin did not share Truman's ignorance about the A-bomb. Soviet agents infiltrated the American bomb project early on. When FDR personally informed Stalin about the bomb months before it was tested, Stalin didn't bother to act surprised. And, while Russian scientists made great headway on their own, when the Soviet Union did its own first test firing four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb was based on a purloined American design.

By that point, the U.S. had several hundred bombs and a war plan that the U.S. Air Force said would effectively shatter the Soviet Union. We had a massive edge in nuclear weapons and a huge advantage in delivery systems and in air defense. Since we had nuked the Japanese and threatened the Russians, we can't have expected anything other than an active Soviet program.

America's development of the hydrogen bomb truly created the ability to destroy our world. Less than a decade after the end of World War II, the U.S. detonated a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb with 7.5 times the power of all the explosives used in all of World War II.

But it was at the point of the that first Soviet test, dubbed "First Lightning," that the madness of the nuclear arms race metastasized. The Soviet bomb was of the same magnitude of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons, 13 to 22 kilotons yields. A kiloton being the equivalent of a thousand tons of the conventional high-explosive TNT. In all of World War II, from 1939 to 1945, the total explosive power of all the bombs detonated, including the two A-bombs, was 2 million tons of TNT, or 2 megatons.

When the Soviets exploded their Hiroshima-scale bomb, the U.S. decided to develop a "super" bomb, the hydrogen bomb, based not on fission but thermonuclear fusion, the mega-forces contained in stars.

Within five years, a 2-megaton hydrogen bomb, equivalent to all the explosive power detonated in the entirety of World War II, would become a new standard weapon. This is when insanity became the order of the day.

The Soviets, not surprisingly, responded to this massive escalation on our part with their own H-bomb program. And, although we almost always had a huge advantage, we continued to react to each successive Soviet development as if we were somehow behind.

If anything, the paranoia increased exponentially under President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike is best remembered today for his farewell address warning about "the military-industrial complex." Credulous lefty revisionists on Hiroshima and Nagasaki liked to cite his claim that he opposed the bombings. But the reality is that it was the moderate Eisenhower administration that drove a paranoid nuclear arms race.

It was good old Ike who promoted one of the most dangerous officers ever to wear an American uniform, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, allowing him to turn the Strategic Air Command into a personal fiefdom as America's principal nuclear strike force, one focused on winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. LeMay, who regularly directed provocative overflights of Russia and other Soviet territories, controlled his own nuclear targeting list, refusing to share it with other senior officers and civilian superiors. As commander of the U.S. Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay seemed bent on provoking nuclear war, accusing President John F. Kennedy of cowardice for his refusal to attack Cuba. LeMay, convinced that Richard Nixon would be soft on the Soviets, ended his public career in 1968 as the vice presidential candidate on Alabama Governor George Wallace's neo-Confederate ticket.

Even today, with Obama positioned as a nuclear abolitionist, we continue to upgrade our nuclear arsenal which can already devastate the world many times over.

As horrifying as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were, the quantum leap forward in destructive power afforded by the hydrogen bomb made our situation far more perilous. We've been fortunate that virtually unthinkable destruction has not ensued since the nuclear arms race of the 1950s. We've certainly had close calls.

** Are We Capable of Handling Technological Civilization?

We are caught in the terrible paradox of deterrence. For we rely on a balance of terror.

Absent abolition, and no one is moving to get rid of the weapons they believe make them strong, nuclear war is prevented by deterrence.

A highly motivated and capable state, or stateless organization, can become a nuclear power if it insists. Only the threat of a devastating nuclear attack ultimately deters the actual use of nuclear weapons. But in order for the threat to be credible, the willingness to wreak havoc with major ill effects for the world as a whole must be credible. On at least some levels, such a willingness is a form of irrationality.

How long can madness be staved off by madness?

Now the existential threat of nuclear weapons has been joined by the existential threat of climate change.

Are we capable of handling technological civilization? Or are we fated to destroy ourselves even as we think we are making ourselves stronger, our lives better?

The nuclear bomb is an x-factor which threatens us, an outlier of innovation that was perhaps inevitable but was largely unforeseen. Once going down that path, of course, the hydrogen bomb was very much foreseen, and sold to the American people through time-honored methods of fear.

Climate change, in contrast, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is built into our industrial and consumer cultures. The science is very clear, the needed course corrections fairly obvious and readily achievable. Yet we are failing to meet the challenge.

In my lifetime, our civilization has produced not one but two serious threats to its very existence. Frankly, we've gone very much in the wrong direction with regard to a sustainable human culture on this planet. And to complete the tragicomic picture, we're not really looking beyond ourselves any more, either.

Despite lip service from every president since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, our commitment to space exploration has become largely an afterthought. That needs to change. The future of humanity may well be at stake.

Back in 1980, the late Carl Sagan's landmark PBS series Cosmos discussed Project Orion, a venture to use hydrogen bombs as a nuclear pulse drive to power a hoped-for starship. The project was actually pretty far along but was cancelled in the wake of JFK's Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbids the detonation of nuclear weapons in outer space.

Well, space is an awfully big place with all sorts of sources of radiation. Though the impetus should come from America, internationalizing the project would makes its exploratory, non-military focus clear. For those concerned about even a potential threat to Earth, the ship can be assembled in orbit, then moved out of orbit with chemical rockets before the nuclear pulse drive is engaged.

Think of it as Project Alpha, the very beginning of our voyage to explore stars beyond our own. As fate would have it, the nearest stars are in the Alpha Centauri system, a pair of stars, Alpha and Beta, orbiting one another which are in turn orbited by a third star, Proxima Centauri. These stars are just over four light-years away.

As Sagan noted, at one-tenth the speed of light, our rudimentary first starship would take over 40 years to reach Alpha Centauri. That's a long time. Cosmos discussed a generations ship. Then as now, cryogenics was not far enough advanced for a sleeper ship.

But, while propulsion technology has not advanced -- which it will eventually with a focus on the starship project -- computing and robotics technologies have made great leaps forward in the past decades.

So it would probably be best to make our first Project Alpha mission a robot starship captained by as best an artificial intelligence system as Silicon Valley can devise. And we already have, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in LA, a very experienced deep space mission control operation which has already directed the exploration of this solar system.

If we launched a Project Alpha starship in 2020, it would be the 2060s before it reached Alpha Centauri. We can't forget the four years it would take for its signals to reach Earth at the speed of light.

But we're not going to get anywhere until we start. And once the ship leaves the solar system, we'll be learning new things on a regular basis.

There is also no reason why we can't send other Alpha survey ships to other nearby stars once the Alpha Centauri mission is underway.

It would be a fitting irony of history that the weapon which at last has the capacity to destroy the world, a weapon which itself crudely reproduces the furious energies of the stars, would be used instead to begin our journey to stars far beyond our own.

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