BOSTON — In that dawn of the nuclear age, man stood in awe of his most dread-filled creation. When the first atomic bomb was tested in the deserts of New Mexico 55 years ago, with a flash of light brighter than a thousand suns, there came to the mind of a watching scientist a line from the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Robert Oppenheimer was not alone in his worry. When World War II ended with a bang and the utter destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, James Agee memorably wrote for Time Magazine that the “war itself shrank to minor significance” compared to the destructive power of what the mind of man had wrought.
“More fearful responsibilities, more crucial liabilities rested on the victors even more than with the vanquished,” Agee wrote. “In the dark depths of [men’s] minds and hearts, huge forms moved and silently arrayed themselves: Titans arranging out of the chaos an age in which victory was already only the shout of a child in the street.”
In the coming decades, as no further use was made of nuclear bombs, the world lost some of its fears. The doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” kept the Cold War within bounds. No state would dare to attack another with nuclear weapons because it would, in turn, be destroyed.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, concerned scientists put back their “doomsday clock” that was always set within minutes of midnight. But in recent years, with the horrifying knowledge that Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan was selling nuclear secrets to the highest bidder, and the advent of suicidal terrorists for whom no conventional deterrent would apply, fear began to mount.
It was fitting, then, that President Barack Obama would hark back to the words of Albert Einstein in the context of this week’s international conference in Washington to secure what are colloquially called loose nukes: “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison.”
At first only the United States possessed the awful knowledge. But soon the Soviets ferreted out the secrets, helped by espionage and the deluded ideology of traitors. Britain soon developed her bomb, and then France in what came to be known as the “force de frappe.”
When China began developing the bomb, both America and Russia considered collusion to destroy China’s nuclear facilities, but wiser heads prevailed.
Israel would build her bomb in secret and has never admitted it to this day, repeating only the familiar mantra: Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Others would follow: North Korea, India and Pakistan. Libya and South Africa pulled back from the brink — South Africa because the then-white government did not want to deliver nuclear weapons into the hands of the soon-to-be black leadership, and Libya because it wanted to lift its pariah status.
But with Iran seemingly hell-bent to develop a bomb, fears rose again. Some of it is exaggerated. Iran itself is not a suicidal nation, and deterrence could work to contain it. But the fear is that it would launch a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with some of the most volatile states on earth scrambling for their own bombs.
In a sense, Israel’s position of ambiguity has worked. By never admitting to having a bomb, pressure on neighboring Arab states to produce their own nuclear weapons was lifted. The best that can be hoped for Iran is that it will, like Israel, never admit to having the bomb; or, like Japan, stop short of the last step that would produce an actual weapon.
The problem is that nuclear weapons have become part of a nation’s prestige and the ultimate deterrent against an attack. It is very difficult to tell nations that only a privileged few can have nuclear weapons while others cannot. This is an untenable position with which to approach Iran, and it is unlikely that any amount of sanctions will check Iran’s march to a weapon of mass destruction.
Nor is there much beyond symbolism in the new pact between Russia and the U.S. to eliminate some weapons. Both will continue to have more than enough to destroy each other, and the concept of a nuclear free world is a pipe dream.
But symbols can be important, and the gesture was a convenient curtain-raiser to the far more important issue of keeping enriched uranium and plutonium out of the hands of terrorists. As the president said, terrorists need only enough to match the size of an apple to destroy any city in the world.
The 47-nation conference that ended in Washington this week was a unique effort to spotlight what has become the most dangerous prospect the world faces, the summation of all terrors. Securing the world’s loose nuclear material began and continued under previous administrations, but is rising to the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda.
Sadly, nations put too many caveats into their agreements to ease anxiety. Russia, for example, reserves the right to drop out of the recent arms reduction treaty should America’s missile defense technology improve, which it surely will.
It seems that even A.Q. Khan refused to sell his country’s nuclear secrets to Al Qaeda, but who is to say that some scientist today, filled with religious fervor, and obsessed with the real or imagined grievances of the Muslim world, isn’t now plotting how to deliver secrets to terrorists much in the way misguided Communists delivered similar information to the Soviet Union half a century ago? Or perhaps North Korea will find a way to deal with Al Qaeda simply for money?
Huge, destructive forms still move in the dark depths even as the world seeks to control them.