Saturday, July 16, 2005


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of the atomic age. On July 16, 1945 at 5.30 a.m., the world's first nuclear weapon was detonated in the stillness of the desert at Alomogordo bombing range in New Mexico. It was the first time since the dawn of mankind that, as Einstein said, humans obtained energy directly from atoms in a process not taking place directly in the sun. The test was code named 'Trinity' by Robert Oppenheimer, a reference to a poem by John Donne, whose metaphysical poetry frequently explored and transcended our conceptions of life and death.

The nuclear genie that was released that day promises us eternal life or death. Richard Feynman said, "To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates to hell", an adage that could not apply to anything more aptly than to atomic power. The harnessers of that awesome power, people like Einstein, Niels Bohr, and most importantly, Oppenheimer, realised the implications of their work immediately. Oppenheimer, always known for the supreme elegance of his words, said, "In some crude way that no humour, no overstatement, no vulgarity can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge that they cannot lose"...In a somewhat less eloquent shade but resounding the same emotion, was the statement made by Ken Bainbridge, the physicist in charge of Trinity. After the test, some people laughed, some people cried, and most were silent. The line from the Bhagavad Gita that flashed into 'Oppie's' mind went down into history..."Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds". But the last words belonged to Bainbridge. As men around him were still trying to comprehend the otherworldly, and yet all too earthy spectacle they had witnessed, Bainbridge walked over to his Director, clasped his hand and said, "Oppie, now we are all sons of bitches"...

If the physicists had known sin, they had passed it on to their administrators. Meeting Harry Truman after Hiroshima, Oppie languished that he "had blood on his hands", a comment that was not taken too kindly by Truman. The Cold War inflamed the isuue of final armageddon like nothing else. Oppenheimer warned that the United States and Russia were like "scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing each other, but only at the cost of their own lives". The hydrogen bomb signaled the final and most singular weapon that human beings can use for killing each other, in Oppie's words, the "plague of Thebes". Thankfully, it has never been used.

We have come a long way since Trinity, for better and worse. We escaped another morass when the decision not to use nuclear weapons was taken during the Korean War. We looked down the bore of a nuclear gun during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. We owe a lot to administrators like JFK, when he overrode the fatalist judgements of his belligerent generals such as Curtis Le May, and empathized with his counterpart Nikita Khrushchev who said that they were engaging in a "knot of war", so that pulling on it would only make the other side pull harder. The efforts of dedicated scientists and administrators to loosen this knot materialised in a significantly encouraging development, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, that forbade atmospheric nuclear tests.

We also saw electricity from nuclear energy showing great promise, and then vanishing in a poof of resentment, because of the flawed judgement of overzealous Government officials and business officials. However, we are back on our feet running, and with the right efforts in the right direction, I believe that nuclear electricity will be a commonplace and essential phenomenon.

Nuclear terrorism is an unfortunate new development, probably not completely unanticipated by the veterans of the heroic 40s and 50s. Even in 1946, when innocence still persisted, Oppenheimer in an interview, was asked what he thought was the best weapon to counter nuclear proliferation. Without hesitating, he quipped, "A open every case that arrives in a port of entry". It is a remarkably prescient appraisal of the current state of things. And it is in the context of nuclear terrorism, that I think we see a paradigm shift that ought to be embraced, made evident by America's failed war in Vietnam, of empathizing with the 'enemy', instead of trying to annihilate or defeat him. Cheesy as it sounds, as far as ignorance, poverty, injustice, and economic disparity thrive in our world, no number of screwdrivers, fingerprints, and security checks are going to mitigate nuclear proliferation by 'rogue' states and terrorists, and we are always going to live in a ludicrous state of fear. We should gain wisdom from the fact that even a high priest of science like Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, one of the principal architects of the nuclear age, believed that in the end, it is not science and politics that are going to save the world, but simple and commonsense dialogue with other human beings, and a sustained effort to reach an agreement.
Unfortunately, the current administration of the United States does not seem to have taken such notions seriously, flippantly dismissing them as left-liberal. National Missile Defense still seems to be its first priority rather than man-to-man talks at the table. Instead of words like empathy and dialogue, words like 'deterrence', 'peremptory' and 'unilateral' still seem to abound in the corridors of power, which frankly look like remnants of a Cold War age when the world had gone half-mad...How many times are we going to make the same mistake before we learn? In Robert McNamara's words, how much evil do we have to do in order to do good?...We may call pacifists as idealists, but they are where they are for a sane reason.

In the end, no matter how profound the specific question of nuclear weapons is, it is still a subset of the more profound question of where exactly lies the moral watershed in war, and hence of the meaning of war itself. In World War 2, by the time Little Boy wiped out the innocent civilians of Hiroshima, more than that number had already been destroyed in the strategic bombing of Tokyo. In Germany, Dresden, and long before that, Hamburg in 1943, had already signalled the demise of morality. Was Hiroshima then, simply another eye for an eye? Physicist Kurt Gottfried, in his insightful article about 'moral calculus and the bomb' says, (Nature, September 1999, p. 117)

"The profound moral divide that was crossed by the great democracies was their considered decision to systematically kill civilians by strategic bombing. Once that became routine, the use of the atomic bomb for the same purpose followed inexorably...The combination of new science with the abandonment of a profound moral principle can lead to dangers that could not have been imagined"

It's at such times that the absurdity of killing starts to become apparent. How many people should die before it is called a 'genocide'? What kind of gratuitously violent action should a General take, before he is labeled as a 'war criminal'? In the end, dictionary definitions cannot obliterate the deep anguish. Perhaps that is why James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard and one of the chief administrators of the Manhattan Project said, "The only tenable position is of the absolute pacifist. Once we cross that line, then only can we argue about whether it is better to kill a man by maiming him and spilling out his guts, or to asphyxiate him with poison gas"...

Sure, nuclear weapons do signify a manifest change in conflict. However, 'credible detterence', 'rapid retaliation' and 'multiple reentry vehicles' can only obscure the real question that was asked by a report of a panel of consultants on disarmament that was submitted to the Secretary of State in 1953. It said,

"Fundamentally, and in the long run, the problem which is posed by the release of atomic energy is a problem of the ability of the human race to govern itself without war."...

That bleak dawn of July 16, 1945, we committed ourselves to forever walking a precipice. The future is in our hands, finally again, in Oppenheimer's words, "a future that has so many elements of high promise in it, and is yet a stone's throw from despair"...I hope we all will see each other there...


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