‘They have no idea what a nuclear bomb is.’ – Americans’ Changing Perception of Nuclear Weapons

Originally published here.

Several weeks ago, the Albuquerque Journal published a very short but very important article. It was buried in the usual pile of stories about local crime, sports, and politicians; if it wasn’t for the large photo that accompanied the hard copy version of the article, it probably would have gone largely unnoticed.

Several members of the 509th Composite Group were in Albuquerque, including Theodore “Dutch” van Kirk. As the navigator for the Enola Gay, he and his unit made history with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

The Albuquerque Journal caught up with van Kirk and his colleagues as they toured the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. The article’s title says it all:

Enola Gay Navigator Says People Should Be Educated on Nuclear War

It quotes van Kirk on nuclear bombs, the flippancy with which people refer to them, and why he thinks the museum is important:

“You know, you get all these people that go around saying things like, with Iraq, ‘We ought to go and nuke those bastards,’ said Van Kirk, a spry 88. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They have no idea what a nuclear bomb is.”

That’s one reason the museum needs to exist, Van Kirk said — to educate people about the horrors of a nuclear war.

“I wish everybody could see it, I really do,” Van Kirk said after touring the 30,000-square-foot museum dedicated to all things nuclear. “I think it would be one of the greatest advancers of peace all over the world.”

It shouldn’t be the case that we need stories like van Kirk’s to remind people that the United States has a large arsenal of inconceivably destructive weapons. It shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

What I Want To Know Is: Why?

Bert the Turtle, from the 1952 Civil Defense film, "Duck And Cover". *

There’s a certain set of us, mostly age 35 and older, who grew up during the Cold War. There’s my mom, who’s 64, and her contemporaries, who remember “duck and cover” drills (or similar), where they would kneel under their desks in school, as a response to a surprise nuclear attack. As ridiculous and scare-mongering as the drills were, they were a reflection of a time when nuclear weapons were foremost in world leaders’ and American citizens’ minds, as part of everyday life as anything else in the news. They were very real, and they weren’t going away; nothing made this more obvious than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

There are people like me, us typical 40-something American citizens who remember seeing documentaries of nuclear tests on TV as kids, and had nightmares for years afterward. A typical “what do you remember about the Cold War” conversation ranges from general impressions to very specific memories; a friend of mine wrote:

I grew up in S. Dakota in the 1970s near a [missile] silo, assuming nuclear annihilation was a when, not if. The Day After, and all that.

As a teen in 1986, if someone had polled me, I would have put the nuclear arms race at the top of my list of concerns, as did many other teens around the world.

The Cold War ended in 1989. George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms” (START I) in 1991, which called for substantial reductions in strategic nuclear weapons on both sides (click here for a timeline).

Lying About Armageddon

And so began, as I see it, the gradual shift in the collective American consciousness, from acute awareness of our capability as a nuclear power, to a vague thought here and there, to the ironic complacency toward nuclear weapons that I encounter in everyday conversation now.

While trying to get a grasp on this phenomenon, I did a very general Google News archive search on “nuclear weapons”, from 1950 to 2009. The search turned up quite a few articles, as you can imagine. What was interesting was the trend, by decade, of the frequency that “nuclear weapons” are mentioned in the news:

Google News archive search on "nuclear weapons", from 1950-2009. (Click to enlarge.)

Note the peak in 2002-2003. If you click through that time period, you’ll see many, many articles referring to Bush’s rhetoric leading up to the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear capability. As we all know, his administration’s claims were lies.

No matter how much we may talk about it, it never ceases to horrify me that a nation with real nuclear capability (and the first-hand knowledge of what these weapons can do) would dare to lie about another nation having them. It’s immoral, to the extreme, and I think it has numbed the American public to the realities of nuclear weapons.

Hope for the future?

Recently, I had a conversation about deterrence with someone who was born at the end of the Cold War. Based on what he’s read in books, seen in documentaries, and observed in video game simulations, he sincerely proposed that all nations be armed with nuclear weapons. To him, they’re a theory, not a fact of life.

They need to be a fact of life. As Richard Rhodes said in my interview with him several weeks ago:

I think as long as people, and government leaders in particular, can just casually talk about “ten of these, a thousand of those, five hundred of those, we’ll trade this for that,” that kind of lack of reality and indifference to their destructiveness, which I presume is premised on the assumption that they will never be used, then we’re in trouble.

My understanding — my guess as to how the leaders of the world have moved into office since the beginning of the nuclear age is they get “the briefing”, they’re horrified, they can’t sleep. That’s what Gorbachev said: “For three nights I couldn’t sleep, and then I realized I’d never use them, and then I could sleep after that”. Well, that’s all very nice, but the Cuban Missile Crisis indicates just how close you can come to using them, with enormous potential for devastation to the world.

He went on to talk about what even a small-scall nuclear war would do to the entire Earth; it would affect the environment for decades.

But, we also talked about the revival of an interest in nuclear disarmament, thanks to Barack Obama’s push for the eventual global elimination of nuclear weapons, i.e. what has become known as the “Global Zero” campaign. Obama himself has said that he may not see the end goal in his lifetime; however, it’s the goal, and the resulting change in American perception of the role of nuclear weapons, that counts.

On Friday, November 13, 2009, as part of Obama’s visit to Japan, the United States and Japan issued a joint statement on nuclear disarmament. Significantly, it said:

The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan call upon states that hold nuclear weapons to respect the principles of transparency, verifiability and irreversibility in the process of nuclear disarmament.  The Government of the United States is committed to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, and the Government of the United States and the Government of Japan urge other states that hold nuclear weapons to do the same.

Barack Obama has brought nuclear weapons back to the forefront of the news, in a positive way. He thinks about them not as chess pieces, but as what they are: complex weapons that have shaped US policy for generations, and how our policy must evolve beyond needing these weapons.

Hopefully, Theodore van Kirk’s wish will come true: that people start taking nuclear weapons seriously. Thanks to Obama’s focus on them, perhaps we will again.

*For more on “Duck And Cover”, click here.

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