Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Imagining a world without nukes

by Ian Abrams
Guest Opinion

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 legend.

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 future.

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 entirely.

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.

Aren't they?

Today I caught a little item in the news. And now I'm wondering.

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 years.

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 warheads?

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 University.