Imagining a world without nukes
by Ian Abrams
Two things came together in the last few days to make
me think that the world's less predictable-- and less
threatening-- than it might seem.
I've been teaching part of a course called the Drexel
Symposium, in which we look at a single subject from a
variety of perspectives. Our topic this term was the
atomic bomb. We've been bringing in guest lecturers to
talk about nuclear weapons from their particular vantage
points-- physics, engineering, history, even myth and
One of our last speakers was Freeman Dyson. Dyson, one
of the world's greatest living physicists, talked about
atomic weapons from a much broader perspective than just
science. He spoke about the Cold War, the effects of a
culture of nuclear fear, and what he sees as the
Dyson is a lot more optimistic than you might expect
from someone who knows more than most people what
hydrogen bombs can do. One of the things he talked about
was "negotiating down to zero"-- the idea that nations
might, in the forseeable future, not just reduce their
stocks of nuclear weapons but eliminate them
I listened to Dyson talking about a chain of events by
which we could go from 30,000-plus warheads worldwide
down to none, and I thought, "It's a nice idea, but..."
I'm 45; I've lived almost half a century with the idea
that I shared the planet with thousands of things capable
of vaporizing a city in a millisecond. That's not going
to change any time soon. The incentives to hang on to
weapons are too strong.
Today I caught a little item in the news. And now I'm
Here's the item: workers at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory who lost their homes in the recent wildfire
received a $3,000 donation.
$3,000 isn't much money. What's interesting is where
it comes from-- a group of physicists in Japan. These
scientists work in conjunction with Los Alamos, mostly on
nuclear power and waste disposal issues, and they took up
a collection to aid their colleagues.
Los Alamos, of course, is where Little Boy and Fat
Man, the first and only atomic weapons ever deliberately
used against human beings, were designed and developed in
the World War II-era Manhattan Project. Two hundred
thousand Japanese, mostly civilians, died either at the
moment of detonation or within the next couple of months;
tens of thousands more have dealt with injury and
sickness ever since.
That's what the Manhattan Project was for-- that was
the goal. I'm not going to debate the morality of
dropping the bombs, only saying that this was why
thousands of the best scientists in America did
backbreaking work at Los Alamos for more than two
And here's what I'm thinking: if, in 1945, you'd
approached General Leslie Groves, who commanded the
Manhattan Project, or J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed
it, and told them about this news item from 55 years in
the future-- is there any way they could have thought of
it as anything except pure fantasy? The Japanese were our
enemies in a total war-- could these brilliant men have
imagined any chain of events that would end with a gift
of $3,000 from Japan to Los Alamos?
If you were 21 in 1945, you'd be 76 today. Probably
you'd have trouble remembering what it felt like to hate
the Japanese that much-- and what it felt like to know
that's how much they hated you.
My students are around 21 now. They'll be 76 in 2055.
Is it possible that they'll have trouble remembering what
it was like to live in a world filled with nuclear
I'd have to think it's at least possible. Based on
today's news item, stranger things have happened.
Ian Abrams directs the Dramatic Writing Program at Drexel