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Over Our Heads

Dreaming of nuclear war, again

It’s been seventy-two years since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That means most of us have lived our entire lives knowing that technologies that can destroy whole cities in an instant and life on the planet in less than an hour are in a constant state of “readiness.” We have lived knowing that men we would not hire as a dog-walker are entrusted with “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” as President Truman put it when he announced the bombing on August 6, 1945. The bomb is the ultimate example of science and technology far outpacing our moral and political development. It is a great testament to the human capacity for denial, or as some say, “psychic numbing,” that we are able, most of the time, to sleep peacefully at night.

As long as any human is entrusted with this power, we exist half expecting, as Lewis Mumford put it in 1946, “that final act of madness.” The collective level of fear rises and falls, and leads sometimes to plans for hiding underground and other times to protest in the streets. Americans had been prepared in the 1950s to “duck and cover” if the bombs started falling. So, during the tense days when President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev faced off in the Cuban Missile Crisis, what seemed important was to know where the nearest fallout shelter was. But a steadily growing anti-nuclear activism in the late 1970s led to widespread political protest in the 1980s, with a wave of organizing in towns and cities around America demanding a freeze in the testing, developing, and deployment of nuclear weapons.

It seems vaguely puzzling to me now that I took a strong interest in the nuclear weapons peril as a college student. But I was in the political hotbed of Madison, Wisconsin, and I had been listening to speeches by the likes of Sam Day, who had worked at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and then at The Progressive, where he helped produce in 1976 an issue of that magazine I can still visualize: it had an all-black cover and was headlined “The Doomsday Machine.” The work helped launch a national group called Mobilization for Survival.

And then in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, peace groups of all sorts began to mobilize. Helen Caldicott was barnstorming the country on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Carl Sagan brought celebrity power to an emerging scientific consensus that an exchange of nuclear weapons could bring about a “nuclear winter.” Randall Forsberg emerged to lead the nuclear freeze movement. In June of 1982, New York City saw about 700,000 people (some say as many as one million) march for an end to the arms race, in what is still one of the largest political rallies in U.S. history.

Our fate is in the hands of a man who would not be capable of reading even ten pages of Schell’s book. Perhaps he would not even register an emotional reaction to a TV movie.

One of the catalysts for that popular drive was the publication, in February of 1982, of a three-part series in the New Yorker written by Jonathan Schell, published later that year as a book, The Fate of the Earth. Schell’s work became one of those rare pieces of journalism that literally moved people. “A nuclear holocaust,” he wrote, “widely regarded as ‘unthinkable’ but never as undoable, appears to confront us with an action that we can perform but cannot quite conceive.” So, in vivid detail, Schell described what would be most likely to happen in a full-scale nuclear war. For many painful pages he described the effects of a modern weapon detonated over New York City, first a one-megaton bomb and then the “more likely” twenty-megaton bomb (“which has one thousand six hundred times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb”). If it were the larger one, he reported, “The mushroom cloud would be seventy miles in diameter. New York City and its suburbs would be transformed into a lifeless, flat, scorched desert in a few seconds.” That one bomb would probably doom twenty million people, he wrote. In the case of hundreds or even thousands of such explosions, he reported, in his most famous phrase, “the United States would be a republic of insects and grass.”

Very soon after I read Schell’s article I had one of those dreams that lodges in your memory the way actual experiences do. I was witnessing something like what Schell described. I was wandering in a smoldering landscape, knowing that nothing could be done. The decisions had been made. We were at the end of civilized life on the planet. What stayed with me in the days after the dream was the feeling of it, the crushing feeling of grief—as if I were experiencing not the normal grief over a death, but an exponential grief about the loss of everything good about human life on earth. There was no surprise or shock. It was more like a bitter, powerless surrender: Well, they’ve finally gone and done it.

In November of 1983, ABC broadcast a made-for-television movie, The Day After, which still ranks as one of the most-watched television films of all time. The movie imagined a nuclear bomb going off over a small town. President Reagan had been given an advance screening and, according to his biographer Edmund Morris, was depressed for days by the dramatization. Maybe it resonated with him to have it placed in a Kansas town, with Jason Robards as the local doctor.

Reagan and the hard-liners around him had been dismissive of the nuclear freeze movement. They feared that the gathering forces could cause difficulty for his 1984 reelection campaign. Whatever awareness Reagan had of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons took him in exactly the wrong direction: he imagined a stupendously expensive Strategic Defense Initiative—popularly known as Star Wars—that threatened to upend the precarious balance with the Soviet Union known as “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Reagan’s unwillingness to let go of the SDI dream ultimately scotched what could have been a huge reduction in nuclear arsenals that Mikhail Gorbachev proposed.

Nevertheless, the end of the Cold War led to dramatic reductions in the size of U.S. and Russian arsenals through the 1990s. The nuclear freeze movement melted away. And those who are worried today about “the fate of the earth” are organizing around the cause of slowing down catastrophic climate change.

But for me, the awareness of this current president’s incompetence has made it feel like the 1980s again. As Stephen King said on Twitter in May, “That this guy has his finger on the nuclear trigger is worse than any horror story I ever wrote.” (And the true horror is that “this guy” could mean any number of sociopaths or rash monomaniacs other than Trump.) Thinking about the Fate of the Earth, you can’t help but quake knowing that our fate is—once again—in the hands of a man who would not be capable of reading even ten pages of such a book. Perhaps he would not even be able to register an emotional reaction to a TV movie, as Reagan did. It’s true that Trump has made comments about the dangers of nuclear weapons, but he’s also asked why we have them if we’re not going to use them. His words mean nothing.

With any president, though, it’s not primarily a question of intelligence, or mastery of facts about throw-weights or megatons of destructive power. These weapons were given to us by the most intelligent of men; whether nuclear weapons are used is a matter of qualities other than intelligence—such as moral awareness, emotional maturity, restraint, and wisdom.

Consider the qualities of our one president who made the fateful decision. Here is a passage from Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell:

Then on August 6, upon receiving a message from [secretary of war Henry] Stimson that Hiroshima had been successfully bombed, Truman grabbed the officer carrying the message and said, “This is the greatest thing in history!” . . . He was “exuberant,” in a manner comparable to the scientists at the moment of the Trinity test. So much so that he tapped on a glass with a utensil to make an announcement to the enlisted men present—much as one might do before making a toast—declaring that “we have just dropped a new bomb on Japan which has more power than twenty thousand tons of TNT. It has been an overwhelming success!” The crew cheered and Truman himself, according to a reporter, “was not actually laughing but there was a broad smile on his face.”

Lifton and Mitchell portray Truman as a man in over his head. In his radio address on August 9, the same day Nagasaki was hit with a plutonium bomb (somewhat off-target, so that it detonated 500 meters from the largest Catholic church in the Far East), Truman acknowledged the “tragic significance” of the atomic bomb. But he said, “We thank God it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.” Was he not able to think ahead ten or twenty years and imagine the time when the bomb would also be in the hands of enemies? And then in the hands of people who would pray to a different god with different purposes?

In psychological terms, Truman, according to Lifton and Mitchell, “experienced an atrocity-producing situation,” an occasion when any average person might engage in human slaughter. But he also lacked the strength to hold back the generals around him: “In the end he decided to use atomic weapons on undefended cities because he was drawn to their power, and because he was afraid not to use them.”

Such matters can be discussed in America within quiet books read by thoughtful people. But if you ever worry there is some kind of “political correctness” problem on the American left, just try discussing the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in a public forum. Try using the word “atrocity” and see how fast you get hooted down by the American Legion. When the Smithsonian Institution attempted to assemble an exhibit in 1995 for the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings, veterans groups and superpatriots howled so loudly about it being “anti-American” that curators first tried to sanitize it and then gave up, abandoning the whole project.

Even though the official narrative about how the use of atomic bombs in 1945 hastened the surrender of Japan is too rooted in the American mind to dislodge, there is also a deep ambivalence about where we are now. If even conservative elites like Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz, former hawkish George Senator Sam Nunn, and Clinton defense secretary William Perry can come to the point of advocating the complete elimination of nuclear weapons—as they have—then a majority of the public could get there, too. Groups such as Global Zero are trying to reignite a widespread campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons, which is, of course, the only real hope.

What kind of powers of denial are necessary to avoid losing sleep over this?

In the meantime, partial steps are still worth taking. To prevent a president surrounded by generals from using a power to destroy that, after all, was never remotely imagined when the Framers created the presidential office, a bill has been introduced in Congress to take away the president’s unilateral capability to launch an unprovoked first strike. As Lifton and Mitchell wrote about Truman, for the president to have acted differently “would have required an extraordinary combination of courage, moral vision, and capacity to step back from immediate pressures (on behalf of a commitment to humankind)—a combination sufficiently rare that it should discourage all of us from creating situations in which it is required of any president.”  

Who can possibly imagine that the current president has any kind of courage, vision, or wisdom to be trusted with planetary life and death decisions when he seems to have less impulse control than the average pre-teen? What kind of powers of denial are necessary to avoid losing sleep over this?

One night this spring I went to bed after hearing news about North Korea testing long-range missiles while their propagandists rattled on about thermonuclear war. I had a dream that night that reminded me of the nightmare caused by reading The Fate of the Earth. This time I was on a country road, walking at dusk. I came up over a hill to see that a small crowd of people had assembled. They were holding up their cell phones, all looking off in the same far-off direction, taking photos, the way you see people photographing the sunset. I looked to the distance and saw a series of spectacular mushroom clouds on the horizon.

That’s anxiety, not prophecy. Still, we live with the knowledge that a war we would passionately protest—if only we knew how—could really happen, if some crackpot wishes it. It is “unthinkable” but not undoable. It’s a war that can only be stopped before it starts. After the poet Carolyn Forché visited Japan in the 1980s she wrote: “If Hiroshima in the morning, after the bomb has fallen, is like a dream, one must ask whose dream it is.”