NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hat was the seminal event in human history? Was it the birth of a prophet, philosopher, warrior, or king? The discovery of the New World? A revolution or war? A great natural disaster? History may show that the watershed moment occurred 75 years ago in the isolated New Mexico desert. On July 16, 1945, the atomic age began in a burst “brighter than a thousand suns,” as one observer described the first-ever nuclear detonation, and the world was forever altered. Indeed, human history now had its “before” and “after.”
The Manhattan Project, as it was called (because early work was done at Columbia University), was urgently set into motion after a 1939 letter, written by the physicist Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein, warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that German scientists had discovered atomic fission. Hitler, the letter said, might soon have a nuclear weapon, which could be catastrophic. Fortunately, it never came to pass, and Szilard, fearing the escape of the nuclear genie, petitioned that none be used on an enemy. (For his own part, Einstein would later lament: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”) But even as the Third Reich was in its death throes, the Pacific war was intensifying, and Japan showed no inclination toward surrender. The bloodlettings at Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa convinced the military, and the new president, Harry Truman, that only dropping the soon-to-be tested bomb on one of Japan’s cities would shock the nation’s leaders into capitulation.
On that fateful July day in 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated. The brilliant and mercurial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory, would turn to his associates as the churning mushroom cloud reached 40,000 feet into the clear desert sky and say, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
On August 6, 1945, a bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” vaporized the city of Hiroshima. After three days of silence from Tokyo, a bomb of different design called “Fat Man” took out Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 15, and the papers were formally signed in Tokyo Bay on board the battleship Missouri on September 2. The most lethal and destructive war in human history was over. But what did the nuclear age mean for the future?
The United States would retain its nuclear monopoly for barely four years. In 1949 the USSR exploded its own bomb, and the nuclear arms race that has dominated geopolitics ever since was on, just as Szilard, Einstein, and others had dreaded. Today it is estimated that there are just under 14,000 nuclear weapons around the world, in the hands of nine countries . . . several of which are bitter rivals or even blood enemies.
Six thousand years of recorded human history have been effectively cleaved into the period in which mankind could not destroy the world and the period in which it can. We are only 75 years, one lifetime, into this new reality wherein the Damoclean sword of nuclear holocaust dangles over our heads . . . at some times almost out of sight, and at others, such as in 1962, so close we can reach up and touch it. Three quarters of one century is hardly enough time in the span of history to return a verdict. Only time will tell if we have reached the middle of the story of us, or if Los Alamos will be its denouement and we are living on borrowed time. If history has taught us one thing, it is this: There has never yet been a significant weapons platform developed that was not ultimately used in battle. But neither has there ever been a weapon whose use would guarantee the annihilation of both combatants, regardless of who fired first. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) may already have saved us more times than we know.
But then consider the gaping holes where the Twin Towers once stood in Lower Manhattan. It reminds us that for some out there, self-destruction is not just an outcome they do not fear, but one they willingly strive for. If men can be so fanaticized that they willingly fly planes into enemy ships and buildings, or strap on vests loaded with dynamite, who is to say that MAD may not be, to them, the sanest of outcomes?
This is what keeps me awake at night: The power of the atom in the hands of the irrational, the fanatical, even the suicidal . . . the same nightmares FDR must have had about a nuclear Nazi Germany. The weapons are out there now; commoditized mass destruction on the black market is no doubt at this moment being offered to the highest bidder. One wonders what sort of deadly cocktail was brewed on the sands of Los Alamos, when the additive of the apogee of scientific achievement, a controlled nuclear reaction, was mixed with the primitive base alloy of human nature itself.
The veneer of civilization is thin, and as technology advances, it seems to be paradoxically getting thinner and thinner. Will a technology that ended one cataclysm be the final instrument our human nature has been searching for to allow it to express its darkest impulses in a flash brighter than a thousand suns that is the end of life as we know it? The explosion in the New Mexico desert meant that, if we are not hypervigilant, everything we ever were as a race, all of our history, our achievements, our great works of art, our engineering marvels, our philosophies, loves, memories, triumphs, and tragedies, will not just be gone; it will be as if they never happened at all. No one will even be left to whisper the rumors of that race whose capacity for doing eventually outstripped its capacity for being.
Perhaps Oppenheimer grimly summed up best what that July day meant for the human race. When later recalling his inner thoughts and moral torment over the power he’d just unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, he revealed the ominous line from the Bhagavad Gita that was racing through his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”