Sunday, March 13, 2011

Between Two Nuclear Nightmares

What a difference 66 years makes! In 1945, the Japanese homeland was devastated, not by Nature, by my country dropping atomic bombs to save lives of soldiers like me in what surely would have been a bloody invasion.

Now, an earthquake and tsunami have set off scrambling in that unwarlike nation to avert another nuclear catastrophe, and reports show the 8.9 magnitude seizure has shifted the Earth off its axis.

The difference between now and then is a shattering reminder that nothing in the world stays the same as the U.S. and other former enemies rush aid to mitigate and deal with the damage.

Even more, it underscores the price humanity pays for scientific advances that at first lift our hearts and only later reveal costs that come with them--Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Japan again

America won a war and lost its innocence on August 6, 1945, when the world's first nuclear weapon was detonated over Hiroshima. Six days later, World War II ended.

I was in uniform in Germany, one of thousands waiting to be sent as foot soldiers to invade Japan. All we knew was that a mushroom cloud had ended our dread of going to the Pacific to storm beaches and fight through cities. For the first time in years, we could wake up without feeling there was an IOU out on our lives, held by someone unknown and payable on demand.

It was weeks before we learned the moral price for our relief--that over 200,000 would die from that explosion in Hiroshima and another over Nagasaki three days later and our country would forever bear the burden of being the first to use weapons of mass destruction.

In August 1963, I was interviewing John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. "Since 1945," he said, "we have gone into an entirely new period of nuclear weapons. Most people have no conception of what it all means. A nuclear exchange lasting sixty minutes would mean over 300 million deaths. We have to prevent the end of the human race."

Since then, two nuclear powers have expanded to who-knows-how-many, and with luck and hard effort, humanity has managed to avoid obliterating itself.

The tragedies in Japan bracket our understanding that the world's survival is not entirely in our hands and that we had better work very hard to understand "what it all means." If not, all our other struggles could be irrelevant.

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