Niagara Gazette

March 9, 2014

SINGER: Living in a world of nukes

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Few around here need to be reminded of the Manhattan Project’s environmental impact, and one sometimes wishes that Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr et al. hadn’t done research that eventually helped create a new, Dr. Strangelove weapon and world.

That came home quite recently with the chilling report of a near nuclear explosion in North Carolina of the early ‘60s that would have changed the U.S. and Western civilization forever. It’s also made people look behind anodyne headlines on Pakistan’s or North Korea’s nuclear programs, which have fewer safeguards than over here, not to mention Iran’s possible acquisition of nukes, which their current “moderates” are still trying to finesse.

Somehow, there seems less talk lately of “dirty bombs” being acquired by terrorists who care nothing about anyone (witness the shoot-up of civilians in a Nairobi mall, among so much else). But the threat remains significant, and yes, the world would probably have been better off without all that scientific experimentation that led to this Sword of Damocles over our collective heads.

One caveat’s in order, and that concerns the so-called Greatest Generation that paid with so much blood in the Pacific theater to finally turn back the Japanese in World War II. When it comes to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki tragedy, there has been protracted debate — should President Truman have issued a warning, perhaps detonating on an uninhabited island to show his new weapon’s force? Should he have used only one bomb over Hiroshima and put the screws to Emperor Hirohito, who already wanted peace, before having a second dropped over Nagasaki?

But Hirohito couldn’t control his suicidal, honor-bound military, and then comes the big debate within a debate: how many American lives would have been lost by a conventional invasion of Japan, and how many Japanese? Winston Churchill estimated astronomical numbers there, far greater than those ensuing from the nuclear tragedy, and so did others, except, that is, for “revisionist” scholars of the late ‘60s, emboldened by peace and hippy movements of their time. Such analysts severely reduced these potential human losses, but really, without anything more than war game-type supposition, rather than hard facts.

Funny how age contingents stack up on the issue. Baby boomers, including “revisionists,” took a lot for granted; however, their parents’ generation who would have supplied the bodies for a conventional invasion of Japan have been nearly unanimous: those horrific bombs with grisly mushroom clouds and all the disease and death that followed at least ended the war definitively. Few American soldiers wanted to depart Europe for the Pacific, or if already in the Far East, to continue on in that theater where they had already lost colleagues aplenty in awful conditions. So: this awesome new weapon used by Truman and still an existential menace did at least terminate a harrowing conflict. And sticking with comparative plus sides, there have certainly been beneficial applications of peacetime nuclear energy as well.

You take the good with the bad? In this kind of existential game, that phrase sounds very superficial, indeed. It’s not the same as putting up with a spouse’s penchant for certain game shows or vacation choices, or with badly-cooked burgers at a restaurant.

No longer are young people demonstrating much against the bomb, and there are no Helen Caldicotts around now, no best-sellers to rival Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth” from the ‘80s. Even our idealists don’t want to examine the issue too closely. It’s almost like looking at the sun head-on for a long time. It’s just so beyond the pale that we simply hope the “experts” in their silos etc., and politicians with potential fingers on the buttons know what they’re doing! But we’ve seen big snafus in other governmental domains, not to mention in countries of the Third World, frequently more disorganized and capricious by far.

How does one accommodate to this strange menace begat by those great scientists of yore, who over the din of nay sayers, managed to do the unthinkable by splitting the atom? There’s really no good answer ...

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.