A-Bomb to H-Bomb to what?

I wrote a historical novel called Rain of Ruin in 2011 for a couple of reasons: to honor my mother’s memory and recognize her experience working with the Manhattan Project during WWII and to, even in a small way, encourage people to think about the dreadful threat posed to the world by nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In telling the story of General Leslie R. Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, I reported truthfully the conversations between the U.S. government and the scientists who worked with Oppenheimer over the future of the bomb after the war.

Groves wanted to build lots more bombs and favored centering American foreign policy around the nuclear deterrent. Many of the scientists, after seeing the horrific devastation wrought by the first generation of nuclear weapons, pleaded with the government not to go down that path. They were overruled. With the genie out of the bottle (an outcome I sincerely wish had never happened), the government–particularly political leaders–had lots more wishes for the bomb, including using it in the Korean conflict.

Thanks to a very kind friend of mine, I recently read a book entitled The Hydrogen Bomb, written and published in 1954 by James R. Shepley and Clay Blair, Jr. Their book, nonfiction, picks up the story of bomb creation where Rain of Ruin leaves off. The hero of their book is Dr. Edward Teller, who had the genius and political savvy to convince the U.S. government to pursue the hydrogen bomb, a weapon many, many times more powerful than the A-bombs that took out two Japanese cities and the hundreds of thousands of people living there.

Teller and his adherents argued that the rising Soviet Union already had an atomic bomb and was well on its way to building the super bomb. In their view, we had no choice but to build it first and maintain our dominance in nuclear deterrence. As Teller campaigned for funding and facilities needed to beat the Soviets to the punch, many American scientists continued to plead for an end to the nuclear madness. Oppenheimer was among them. But their calls for sanity rather than creation of a M.A.D. world (mutually assured destruction) were overridden by the joint efforts of scientists who had linked arms with politicians and government leaders who saw no other way. Oppenheimer, the man who created the A-bomb in record time, was pilloried for his reluctance to head into an apocalyptic future and driven from government service.

The authors of The Hydrogen Bomb acknowledge the possibility of nuclear annihilation, but end by agreeing with Teller and others that the solution is for the U.S. to become so obviously the world’s only superpower that no one (the Soviets, in the 50s and 60s, add China and others today) could even contemplate trying to take us down.

That brings me to an article by Robert Parry of Consortium News (republished at readersupportednews.org) entitled, “Playing Chicken With Nuclear War.” Parry castigates U.S. leaders for talking tough to Russian bad boy Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and other issues, while Putin still has his finger on thousands of nuclear missiles aimed directly at the heartland of America. Parry raises an issue we haven’t thought about a great deal since George W. Bush distracted the nation and the world with his forays into ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What really disturbed me was his report that one of the participants at a recent Helen Caldicott Foundation event in New York City “offered a sobering look at how the percentage chances of nuclear war–though perhaps low at any given moment–add up over time TO QUITE LIKELY IF NOT INEVITABLE (emphasis mine). The panelist (Seth Baum of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute) reportedly added that “doomsday odds rise at times of high tensions between the United States and Russia.” Is it gratuitous to say that building bigger and bigger nuclear bombs obviously didn’t fix anything?

In Rain of Ruin one of my characters expressed the wish that brilliant men and women of science had never penetrated the atom to release its awesome and awful power for military purposes. After the Trinity Test (the first atomic bomb test), some scientists and even military leaders hoped we could intimidate our enemies by simply demonstrating what we could do, if they didn’t cooperate. Obviously, no one listened to them. And no one listened to the scientists after the war as Edward Teller pushed us into the H-Bomb era. Is there any chance at all that anyone is listening to panelists at a Caldicott Foundation conference? I can’t imagine anyone with the power to make a difference is listening to the message of my novel. And so, after spending my entire life under the mushroom cloud, I am truly reluctant to contemplate a future in which my grandchildren will have the same experience.

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