I had this fundamental insight into nuclear weapons and US society this week: “There is a moral component to most people’s thinking about nuclear weapons — one that goes unnoticed. It’s like Pandora’s Box.” I’m not sure when exactly this thought came to me, but I know I haven’t thought anything like it in my 35 years of thinking about this issue.
I can’t actually say when I first had the thought that nuclear weapons are seen as a moral failing, but reflection seems appropriate today, the 76th anniversary of the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and also on August 9, 1945 when the United States bombed Nagasaki. One of the most widespread reactions to the bombings is a sense of loss, as if they were an indelible mistake that marks our character and has changed us forever, as if we had crossed a river and could never turn back. Something about that struck me as wrong, however, although for years I couldn’t say what.
THE DAMAGE SIN CAN DO
I can’t remember now what I was working on, but in one of my many searches for pictures to put on the screen while I gave a talk, I found an image by J. W. Waterhouse of Pandora opening the famous box and letting evil out into the world. Something about it appealed to me — I’m not sure what exactly — and I put the file on my desktop. Over the following three months I would periodically see the thumbnail, click on it, and look at the image. Perhaps subconsciously something was stirring in my mind.
Over the past three years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harm that nuclear weapons do to us as a society, especially the psychological harm. It seems to me that nuclear weapons have somehow fundamentally altered our ability to be confident and hopeful about the future. Something, at any rate, has changed us from a country bursting with a can-do attitude, willing to race to the moon, into a country terrified of poor, footsore immigrants, a country sure that the government is putting microchips into vaccines, and apparently helpless to manage any problem, large or small, from infrastructure to climate change.
It’s as if we had lost faith in ourselves, somehow.
The first step to my realization, I think, was noticing that advocates for nuclear weapons seem to believe that there is no going back. They frequently say that nuclear weapons will always be with us, that they can’t be disinvented. This is a peculiar line of argument, because technology is never disinvented. The history of the evolution of technology shows a pretty consistent pattern: Invention, adoption, use, and eventual abandonment. But for some reason advocates of nuclear weapons have constructed this strange one-way narrative that argues that now that nuclear weapons are here, they will never go away.
I was thinking about this sort of one-way-ness and the Pandora’s Box image popped into my head and seemed to connect somehow, although I didn’t see it then. Pandora’s story is very much like the advocate’s story: Once something has happened it can never be reversed. Open the box and you can’t get the evil spirits back in. It is a parable about irrevocable action. Huh, I thought. And then I put it aside. But I think it worked on me, subconsciously. I think my mind, like a hound on a scent, knew that there was something there, hidden in the dense, almost impenetrable undergrowth of churning opinions and endless talk all around me. Illusive, but tantalizing.
And then a couple of days ago it just came to me. Advocates for nuclear weapons think that we’ve sinned. They see nuclear weapons as a moral transgression, as an act so terrible it cannot be put right. The reason that they argue that nuclear weapons are “forever” weapons is not that they see them as crucial technology, not because they’ve had some fundamental insight into the strategic importance of the weapons, but because they see them as a moral crime that cannot be forgotten or forgiven. In their minds we have committed an act that cannot be undone. They see the invention of nuclear weapons as opening Pandora’s Box.
It’s a powerful narrative. Nuclear weapons immediately unleashed doubt and a sense of looming fear in America. Just moments after the euphoria of winning the war — within days, actually — people started to conjure images of a world destroyed by nuclear war, as described below:
“The primitive atomic bombs of 1945, observed the New York Times on August 12, were analogous to ‘the steam engine of James Watt, the telegraph of Morse, the flying machines of the Wrights.’ As soon as the atomic bomb was paired up with the guided missile, speculated the Detroit News on August 17, the threat to civilization would rise to ‘a new pitch of terror.’ In an interview with the New Yorker, John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, offered a similar vision of World War III: ‘Every major city will be wiped out in thirty minutes. . . . New York will be a slap heap. . . . Radiative energy . . . will leave the land uninhabitable for periods ranging from ten months to five hundred years, depending on the size of the bomb.’ Speaking on a New York radio station days after Hiroshima, the sociologist Harvey W. Zorbaugh (a member of the wartime Committee for National Morale) predicted ‘an armament race such as the world has never seen.’ The life expectancy of the human species, said the Washington Post on August 26, had ‘dwindled immeasurably in the course of two brief weeks.’”
And there’s no question that even today the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki touch tender feelings that make people snappish and angry. From some angles, the bombing of those two cities seems like an unforgivable crime. And there’s no doubt it was a crime, just as the fire-bombing of Tokyo was a crime, and the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden were crimes. But is there really no way back?
SHUTTING PANDORA’S BOX
I believe the Pandora’s Box narrative is the wrong narrative when it comes to Hiroshima. I am no less moral than my grandparents, people who knew nothing about nuclear weapons. I’m no less capable of moral learning. I can practice good values and, over time, acquire better ones. I can make good choices and have those choices lead on to even better ones. All Americans can. We are not a people permanently marked by sin. We are not crippled into incapacity by our moral failings.
We are, by and large, the same group that De Tocqueville characterized as endlessly optimistic. We are the people who confronted the Great Depression and rather than mutely hunker down and wait for it to pass, decided to build our way out of it. And the keynote project of that effort was the Grand Coulee Dam — the biggest dam in the world at the time. Even when we were faced with tough times, Americans dreamed big. We are the people who cheerfully and confidently took on a two front war, fighting against two powerful and dangerous adversaries on two different sides of the globe. We are the people who embraced the big, brassy, bold music of the big band era. We are the people who were once brimming with confidence.
And we are still those same people, still the Americans who not only took on challenges, we welcomed them. Nothing separates this generation from those past generations. We were optimistic and energetic in the past and we can be again.
Nuclear weapons were a bad choice? Well, everybody makes mistakes. Sins are the lot of humankind. I am not diminishing the horror and wrongdoing of bombing those two cities. I am arguing that they are not a death sentence. We need not sit and mourn our sins until death overtakes us. The nature of sin is that it can be forgiven. We can accept the past, we can own our mistakes, and we can work to set things right and start again.
This notion, therefore, that nuclear weapons are here forever is nonsense. There is no endless condemnation that cannot be escaped. There is no evil that can never be put back in the box. There’s just us, able to choose how we live. We can be better. And we can go out and accomplish what needs to be done with clear eyes and open hearts. We know what we need to do.
Let’s get to it.