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Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Bomb: Flirting with the End of the World

I just saw a new documentary about the most powerful technology - nuclear weapons - not only in our lifetime but in all of human history, courtesy of PBS, where The Bomb is set to air for two hours (8-10pm) on July 28.  I always judge a documentary by what I've truly learned from it that I didn't know, or didn't know enough about, before.  There were several such moments in The Bomb including
  • Some historians believe that Truman never ordered the dropping of the first two atom bombs on Japan in 1945 - which fortunately turned out to be only time a nuclear weapon was used in anger, as one of the historians commented in the documentary. Truman instead just let our military continue on the path it had begun under FDR - making the dropping of those first two atom bombs almost an effect of inertia rather the result of a deliberate Presidential command.  (Truman did, however, order the development of the hydrogen bomb, a few years later, in a futile attempt to stay ahead of the Soviets in nuclear weaponry.)
  • It was the hilly terrain of North Korea that was primary reason we didn't use nukes against them in the Korean war - more specifically, our experts thought the hills would blunt or weaken the impact of the nuclear weapons, and we didn't want to advertise to our Soviet adversaries that the weapons had limited capabilities.
  • JFK called his predecessor Eisenhower for advice in the early days of the Cuban missile crisis. I think I knew that, but I hadn't heard the actual recording of their conversation before, in which Kennedy nervously laughs several times, in a tone that says everything about how worried he was.
  • The bikini bathing suit was named after Bikini Atoll, where atomic tests took place shortly after World War II - I knew that, but I liked the quote of the French swimsuit designer that he hoped the name would call attention to the "explosive" effect that the skimpy bathing suit would have.
That last was about the only humor in The Bomb, which is only appropriate, given the grave business of nuclear weapons.  Seen as a connected story, from the discovery of fission in Germany in 1938 to the end of the Cold War in 1991, that narrative could almost have concluded with a happy ending: Kennedy and Khrushchev pulled back from the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis, and their successors had the good sense to continue to show restraint and even put a lid on nuclear expansion.   But as The Bomb makes all too clear, the US and Russia are now and have long been not the only countries on Earth with nuclear arms.

Perhaps the agreement reached just a few days ago with Iran will halt that country's development of nuclear weaponry - The Bomb of course was made well before that announcement - but what The Bomb nonetheless tells us is that nuclear capability cannot be unlearned, and, if the human race is to survive, we must continue to learn how not to use it.

See this documentary for a vivid depiction - with breathtaking footage - of how far we have come and how much further we need to go in this life-and-death self-restraint.   The Bomb has never been more timely.

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