Friday May 13, 2022
Thirty years ago, I co-taught a course on the making and use of the atomic bomb at the US Air Force Academy. We took cadets to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first nuclear weapons were designed and built during World War II, and we also visited the Trinity test site, where the first atomic device exploded in a test conducted in July of 1945. It was after that first test when J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, mused that he had become death, the destroyer of worlds. And that is what nuclear weapons are: they are death, and they can literally destroy our world, producing nuclear winter and mass sickness and starvation.
Over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people across the globe. A general nuclear war could kill billions of people in a matter of days. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in 1963, “The living will envy the dead” after such a nuclear cataclysm.
Despite this, an intellectual fad of the Cold War era was to “think about the unthinkable,” to “war game” or plan for various nuclear “exchanges” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, even to imagine that there could be a “winner” of such a war. Remarkably, in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, that fad is returning today as pundits write articles that suggest the US needs to show the Russians it is willing and able to fight and win a nuclear war, as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argued on April 27th of this year.