August 6 is an international day of mourning. Human beings, who many believe were created in the image of an Almighty Being, were born with extraordinary gifts of creativity. In the greatest perversion and abomination of all, they put their minds to make the terrible weapons of mass destruction.
On August 6, 1945, America dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; on August 9th, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. More than 230,000 civilians died as a result. Some were vaporized leaving shadows on the pavements where they stood. By 1949, the Soviet Union, once our wartime ally, had discovered the secret and become our Cold War foe. We had opened Pandora’s box, confident that we would always retain control over it.
In the 59 years since the bombing of Hiroshima, the threat of nuclear arms has led us to build greater and more destructive nuclear weapons. If, in October of 1962, the Soviet missiles aimed at the United States from Cuba were capable of destroying all our cities except Seattle, how much worse is it now when we don’t know who has them, who is developing them, who might have so little invested in living that they would think nothing of blowing themselves up with one of our cities. And how much worse is it for the world when the United States, the only country to use nuclear weapons against another country, once again has the overwhelming preponderance of them.
We are doing it again. The United States has always believed in the “controlled burn” and we think that we are strong enough to be the controller. We thought that we could drop those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan would surrender. It did. We believed that the terror would be so great that no one would ever threaten us again but instead of creating infinite safety for America, we spawned endless horror on the world.
Had anyone considered the aftermath? Not the reconstruction of Japan itself but the ramifications of loosing the capability of such destruction on the world? The half-life of plutonium? The slow deaths from radiation poisoning for those not lucky enough to be vaporized on the spot? The radiation-damaged fetuses who were born deformed? The envy and competitiveness of the wannabe nuclear powers? What it would mean to have nuclear missiles pointed at our cities?
Our government was focused on the possibility that Hitler’s Germany would succeed in creating an atomic bomb before we did. We won the war in Germany yet we continued to work on the bomb.
Acutely conscious of the role he had played in the development of the bomb, Albert Einstein, who had been a pacifist his entire life, took on a more active and muscular role in the anti-nuclear weapon movement after World War II than he had before the war. One can only imagine the guilt this gentle scholar must have felt: To be lauded for one the most important scientific discoveries in history, and to see that great discovery used to create the greatest horror in history.
“For me,” he wrote, “ the problem is a purely political one. As long as nations demand unrestricted sovereignty we shall undoubtedly be faced with still bigger wars, fought with bigger and technologically more advanced weapons. . .They must advocate the abolition of armaments and of military secrecy by individual nations.”*
It was ironic that on June 26, 1945, only a few weeks before the bombings, the United Nations charter had been signed in San Francisco. The hopes for an era of peace had ended when the League of Nations collapsed in 1943. They were revitalized for a moment with the signing of the Charter and then were smashed on the streets of Hiroshima. In a statement coauthored with a number of prominent people including Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts and author Thomas Mann, he wrote, “The first atomic bomb destroyed more than the city of Hiroshima. It also exploded our inherited, outdated political ideas.”*
Instead of the old imperial powers like Britain and Spain that had used conventional weapons to subjugate less-powerful peoples, in 1945, the world gained a singular superpower, the United States. Soon, it would meet its match in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and then the arms race would begin in earnest, with China and India in hot pursuit and many others scrambling to obtain the resources to built their own nuclear bombs.
Why is it that every great human invention is perverted into a use for war? Not only nuclear power but airplanes into bombers. Iron into crossbows, armor, swords, firearms and ammunition. The taming of horses into cavalry. The list is endless. It is as if nothing exists in life but the pursuit of power over ones neighbors, the world, and perhaps even the universe.
Some may hope wistfully for a world where children could be raised for peace and cooperation, and where love could overwhelm the power of hate. But Einstein and his generation had learned the sad truth that for the first time in history, people had the power to destroy all life in an instant and he took a more hard-headed view, “For thousands of years, men have learned that whenever there is government by law there can be peace, and where there is no law and no government human conflicts have been sure. We must aim at a federal constitution of the world, a working world-wide legal order, if we hope to prevent an atomic war.”
In his final address (which he did not live long enough to deliver), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed Einstein’s sentiments: “Unless by common struggle we are capable of new ways of thinking, mankind is doomed.”*
Our government survived the demise of the Soviet Union leaving it the sole superpower. Once again, it has loosed the monster of hatred in the belief that our supremacy would impose itself on the world and establish a sustained era of peace. Yet we stubbornly refuse to submit to the authority of a world court or to United Nations decisions with which we disagree. How many times must we make the same mistake before we learn the lesson? Before the clock runs out?
As the Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) said, “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”
* from Einstein on Peace edited by Otto Nathan & Heinz Norden (New York: Schocken, 1968)
Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org