Since childhood I have wondered whether New York City would disappear in a flash as Hiroshima did. This terrible thought was initially caused by a article in one of the large- format magazines seen in my best friend’s living room. We were still in a suburban elementary school.
With a map, the article showed what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded above Times Square. This troubled my soul because my Dad’s office was just a few blocks away. Our country would graduate in 1952 from atom bombs to the hydrogen type, new, improved, much bigger. Our enemy the Soviets would test their own in 1953. Taking office that year, Ike promised “peace, progress, and prosperity.”
In 1962 I admired John Kennedy’s speech at American University, a result perhaps of his experience in the Cuban missile crisis. Called “the Strategy of Peace,” the speech can be seen as starting a process that ended in 1989 with the end of (or a lapse in) the Cold War.
In the early 1970s, living in Manhattan, I asked a friend whether she ever worried about the bomb. “Why? Living here, I’d be dead,” she replied. This reply struck me at the time as selfish: what about civilization, etc.? Along with millions of others, she was resigned to being unable to do anything about the Cold War. As a foundation executive, she focused on projects that she knew could help people.
It was not until 1985 that, by then a foundation official myself, I could give a little support to an applicant who had what she called an “impossible idea.” Her goal was to help end the Cold War through citizen diplomacy. Instead of taking a holiday in Western Europe, groups of U.S. citizens would fly a little further and visit people like them in the U.S.S.R. Similar groups of “unofficials” would some to the U.S., staying with families, visiting schools, city council meetings, small businesses, backyard barbecues, the ordinary life of a few urban areas.
With Gorbachev’s help, the program grew. Soviet groups came to most U.S. Congressional districts. When Reagan, for whatever reason, converted to talking about peace, members of his party may have grumbled but their fangs had been pulled. The U.S. President went to Red Square and allowed, in his best aw-shucks style, that the “evil empire” was “another era.
This effort could easily have failed” In any case, the world is still full of nuclear weapons, not only in the two super-powers of the Cold War, but in our allies Britain and France, in Israel, Pakistan and India, and of course in China and North Korea.
Anyone acquainted with the nuclear near-disasters, even just the ones publically divulged, is not so foolish as to be comforted by the absolutely perfect record of no nuclear bombs exploded “in anger” since 1945. Only a single occasion would be too many. A friend of mine refers to our species as “quasi-domesticated primates,” or as he says for short, QDPs. What happened during the second world war and soon thereafter is that “the QDPs got power tools.” Before that, we could blunder into fighting and, within a few years, recover.
Now we are also sliding into a climate crisis, more ocean acidification, and a rapid extinction of species, to name only a few other dangers. What all these events have in common is their silence. To most people, everything seems to be fine until it isn't. When they wake up. it will be too late to save the situation. If nothing continues to be done, people will move from denial to panic.
What a great opportunity for leadership! When capitalism collapsed in the Great Crash, FDR led the way to a “new deal” (staring in 1933) and when the U.N. was formed, his wife rook the lead for the U.S. in framing a “universal declaration of human rights” (1948). Not all of the social inventions pushed through by FDR were successful, and the declaration to which his wife contributed can be dismissed as “idealistic,” but they addressed the real predicaments of the time instead of resting in denial. These leaders thought big.