Before then, each person lived with the prospect of individual death, he explained. But “since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”
Seventy years later, the danger of instant eradication in a global nuclear war seems past, and we are becoming more conscious of ecological threats to long-term human survival. But the nuclear threat is not over, nor is it confined to the possibility of isolated terrorist attacks. The threat of human extinction that begins with a nuclear exchange may still exist.
All 9 countries with nuclear bombs are either expanding their arsenals, building new delivery systems or modernizing old weapons and systems.
Though the U.S. and Russia have reduced the number of weapons from Cold War levels, together they maintain about 1800 missiles carrying thermonuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes and therefore most susceptible to momentary miscalculation and accident.
These terminal dangers were embedded in popular culture for decades. But as memories of Hiroshima and the Cold War recede, so apparently does awareness of the nature and danger of nuclear weapons.
The US has ten times the number of nuclear weapons that US citizens believe there are, according to polls. A survey of members of Congress revealed that almost none of them knew how many nuclear weapons are in the US arsenal. But the US is not the exception--several studies show that knowledge about nuclear weapons today is low.
More worrisome are movies and TV dramas that treat nuclear bombs like conventional explosions, only a bit bigger and more colorful. For example, in the 2014 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima device was detonated on the water apparently within view of the San Francisco shoreline without damage to the city or its people. Not even a wave.
This is an irony worthy of Doctor Strangelove, since the original Japanese Godzilla movie was a response to the radiation dangers of hydrogen bomb tests in 1954, directed by a man who had seen Hiroshima shortly after its atomic destruction.
To misconstrue the true nature and difference of nuclear weapons could lead to horrific mistakes. The Physicians for Social Responsibility calculated that a relatively small nuclear “bunker buster” attack on Iran would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours, and expose some 35 million to radiation. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Radiation killed almost twice as many people in Hiroshima over the following five years than died on August 6, 1945.
In particular, the danger of instant nuclear annihilation remains because of those missiles on hair-trigger alert, especially with tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, and both sides talking about nuclear options.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among the many leaders who have advocated an end to hair-trigger status. President Obama has the authority to take at least the 450 land-based ICBMs off hair-trigger. If Russian President Putin is serious about recent conciliatory statements, he could match that action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb would be a powerful moment to do so.
My essay on the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, and my essay that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary.