The Atomic Age turns 65

6 August 2010


What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. Today marks 65 years since the first atomic bomb was detonated as an airburst over Hiroshima, annihilating the city in one fell swoop and marking the advent of the Atomic Age. Three days later, on 09 August 1945, a second atomic bomb eliminated Nagasaki. We have not yet had a Second Nuclear War. This in itself is remarkable, and suggests the profundity of the impact of the use of atomic weapons to end the Second World War.

The principle behind the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was sufficiently straight-forward that the scientists didn’t even bother to test the design before its employment. This is quite remarkable in this history of munitions. With a technology so new and so difficult to master, those who designed it were so confident in the scientific principles of the design and its execution that they were willing to risk their careers that the “Little Boy” bomb would work. This demonstrates the degree to which even military technology came to be driven by pure scientific research.

The “Fat Man” bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later was more complex in execution, and the scientists wanted a test for this. The “gadget” device that was exploded as the “Trinity” test, the first ever atomic explosion on the earth, was essentially the same design as the Fat Man bomb. Again, technological sophistication was central to the design and execution. The Fat Man design became the basic design for nuclear weapons until the advent of the hydrogen bomb a few years later. This technology is still difficult to master. With the appropriate fissile materials, a Little Boy-type bomb is not terribly difficult to build, but even given the appropriate fissile materials (which are not easy to either produce or to steal), the precision needed to implode a plutonium sphere into a nearly perfect smaller sphere still remains a formidable engineering task that could not be managed by terrorists hidden in caves.

The technology is difficult, but has since been mastered by many industrialized nation-states; the moral issues posed are more difficult still, but we cannot simply adopt the nihilistic pose and say that these issues have not been mastered in the same way. The moral problems have not in fact been mastered, but they have not been neglected either. As noted above, there has been no Second Nuclear War — at least, not yet. As a species, we have made progress. We have had the means to destroy ourselves, and we did not do so. Given all the grim “might have beens” of the twentieth century, it ought to give us hope that the world remains largely intact.

The atomic bomb was, among other things, a philosophical problem. Not long after Hiroshima and then the first hydrogen bomb test in 1952, Karl Jaspers wrote an entire book about nuclear war, The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (later published in English simply as The Future of Mankind). Jaspers struggled mightily — and honestly — with the new problem. Many more books have followed, few as good as Jasper’s tome. Philosophical thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare has actually suffered and become less sophisticated as it has become more ideologically driven. Philosophers have created categories of evil unique to nuclear weapons, as though in verbal escalation to demonstrate their disapproval of the very existence of nuclear weapons, but they have not explained why the sudden annihilation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is ethically worse than the greater numbers who died in the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden.

My fellow philosophers have failed in their analyses of nuclear war and nuclear weapons by allowing themselves to become politicized, and this failure will not be redeemed until a new generation of philosophers takes up the problem, however emotionally intense, in the spirit of pure theoretical interest. I think that this will happen as conventional munitions approach the yield of nuclear weapons, which is only now beginning to happen. Nuclear weapons, in this new technological context, will no longer be a terrifying exception; they will be one technology among many in a terrifying arsenal. If we allow ourselves to be terrified, we will end our days in panic; if we use our reason to illuminate a terrifying reality, we will take charge of our destiny and demonstrate our emotional maturity.

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