The Atomic Age Turns 70

6 August 2015


“1945-1998” by Isao Hashimoto

Five Years ago on 06 August 2010 I wrote The Atomic Age Turns 65, on the 65th anniversary of the use of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan — the first atomic bomb of the first nuclear war. Now, five years later, the Atomic Age has reached its three score and ten, and we have another five years of historical perspective on what it means to live in the Atomic Age.

In this previous post on the 65th anniversary of the Atomic Age I discussed the failure of philosophers to think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is no more glaring that the failure of politicians, or of any other class of society, except that it is less forgivable in philosophers, because philosophers should be more aware of political and ideological bias, and therefore better able to avoid it. The few individuals who did think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war — most notably Herman Kahn — were often demonized for “thinking the unthinkable.” How many years, how many decades, how many generations before we can think dispassionately about our ability to destroy ourselves?

07 October 1963  President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

07 October 1963 President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

While the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War did not trigger an age of atomic warfare (at least, not yet), it did trigger a period of the development of atomic weapons, and this led to a period of intensive atomic testing that continued until the pace of atomic testing was slowed somewhat by the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The period of the most intensive testing of nuclear weapons corresponded with the period of the highest tensions of the Cold War. This suggests that the Cold War not only consisted of proxy wars in Third World nation-states, but also the proxy war of nuclear testing — nuclear warfare at one remove. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has not come into force officially, but most nation-states have chosen to abide by its provisions nevertheless. The only nuclear tests in recent years — in recent decades — have been those of India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which were undertaken in the face of significant international disapproval. The Cold War is over and nuclear weapons testing has slowed to a trickle.

We are very slowly and gradually putting the nuclear age behind us. Once nuclear weapons were developed, it was often said that the nuclear genie could not be put back in the bottle. That is true, in so far as we have the knowledge and the technology of nuclear weapons. Moreover, each year this knowledge and technology is more widely distributed and more available. Now deliverable nuclear weapons are seventy years old; in another ten years, nuclear technology will be eighty years old, and not long after that nuclear weapons technology will “celebrate” a centennial. Assuming that human civilization remains intact, the knowledge and the technology will not only remain intact, but will be more widely available than ever. Nevertheless, we have reason to hope that we can exercise rational control over our nuclear weapon technology and avoid a second nuclear war. This hope is certainly not a certainty, but it is based on evidence, and there are historical parallels that could be adduced.

Herman Kahn and escalation

If we had cultivated the ability to think clearly and dispassionately about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare instead of heaping shame, scorn, and disapproval on those who did so — driving it underground into secret military and government think tanks — we would be capable of a more clear-headed assessment of where we are seventy years into the Atomic Age. Instead, we have the hopeful record of controlling this technology coupled with silence and discomfiture with plain speaking when it comes to this hopeful accomplishment — a mixed record, but at least a mixed record that is consistent with the continuing existence of our civilization.

I expect this mixed record to continue, despite provocations. If we can prevent nuclear war for seventy years, we can continue to prevent it for another seventy years. If, despite the desire of many nation-states to possess nuclear weapons, non-proliferation efforts can make this possession expensive and difficult, we can continue to make proliferation expensive and difficult. More nation-states will join the “nuclear club,” but they will do so with untested arsenals, knowing that their conventional weaponry is probably more effective and does not involve pariah status in the international community. And we have to diffuse the tension the constant and continual low-level conventional fighting that is taking place around the world. This may sound like a less-than-ideal, less-than-optimal nuclear future, even a cynical future, but it is, again, a nuclear future consistent with the continued existence of civilization. And until we think our way through to clarity about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, this remains the closest to an ideal and optimal future that we can reasonably hope to have.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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