Nukes and Me (for Donna)

I was born when the Cold War was still going strong. When I was eight, my family took a trip to South Dakota, to visit my Uncle and his family. He was in the USAF, and we got to go on base to see the sights. My favorite was watching the huge, awkward B-52’s, with eight engines throwing out soot, lumber down the runway and into the air. What I didn’t know was that at any time–24 hours a day, every day–there were some of those awesome planes in the air, carrying nuclear bombs, and ready to strike the Soviet Union. [1]

The bomb didn’t really worry me. The Cuban Missile Crisis, that week when the world held its breath, was before my time. I remember some kids in my class talking about how the Red Chinese were going to invade us any day, but they were morons, and I didn’t listen to them.

As I grew older, naturally I learned more about atomic weapons, both how they worked and what they have done. I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how those bombs saved a million US Soldiers from being killed when we invaded Japan. Or it was 150,000. Or 3,000,000. What I was taught was that nobody could tell how many GI’s would have died, nor did the government give the same information consistently. One teacher dared tell us that we’d practically won the war already, even without dropping Fat Man and Little Boy.

But that was just history. Even when Ronald Reagan was President, I didn’t fear impending nuclear death. To be honest, I still don’t.

However, I’ve watched two disturbing documentaries over the past week. The first was called “Radio Bikini,” which followed the U.S. nuclear test called “Operation Crossroads.” “Crossroads” was fun–we just evacuated the 200 people who lived on Bikini Atoll, then blew up two a-bombs: “Able” was exploded in the air; “Baker” was like 90 feet underwater. The plan was to do our tests, wait till the radiation cooled down, then move the grateful Bikinians back to their home atoll.

Then we decided Bikini Atoll was a lovely place to set off nuclear firecrackers, so we did more tests, including the literally awesome Castle Bravo Test.

Oops. Forgot to carry the 3.

Oops. Forgot to carry the 3.

Bravo is the largest atomic explosion ever detonated by the US. (The Soviets lit one off three times as powerful)

Here’s what gets me. It’s not so much the madness as it is the math. Bravo was only supposed to be a third as big as it was. It was estimated to have a yield of 4 to 6 megatons, instead of the 15 it ended up producing. The resulting bomb was 1000 times as powerful as the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So the way I see it, a group of men were sitting in a conference room somewhere, and a couple guys were standing there giving a presentation, probably with charts and a pointer and graphs. One of the guys somehow convinced the people around the conference room table that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horseshit explosions; that what the US REALLY needed was a bomb 333-times as powerful as Fat Man and Little Boy. They must have been persuasive; the guys around the conference table agreed, and the bomb–ironically nicknamed “Shrimp”–was built.

Then, “Whoops! You know Bob over in the bomb lab? He forgot to account for the Lithium-6 isotope possibly igniting. Don’t worry. The lab boys will never let him live this down. Hahahahaha.”

Bob screwed up by a factor of three.

There are plenty of defense-related things I don’t know about–threats to us, and counterattack plans by us–and I sleep more easily for not knowing about them. I neither need nor want to know everything the Department of Defense and the US Military know. I know enough to know I don’t want to know more.

But the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction–whereby the Soviets could attack us, and we could counterattack them, and our missiles would cross paths en route to annihilating our two nations–this concept boggles the mind.

The Cold War is over. The way I understand it, the most-likely nuclear threat will come from a small suitcase nuke set off in an urban environment, not from a Castle Bravo sort of cataclysm. So why don’t we just disarm? Probably because there are nine nations we know of with nuclear weapons, and we’d hate to put down our biggest guns, only to have one of them hold us up with a nuclear Saturday Night Special. It just seems ridiculous to me.

One bomb, one-thousand-times the power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

One thousand cranes…

In Japanese folklore, if a person folds one-thousand origami cranes, a crane will grant this person a wish.

One of the slow victims of the Hiroshima bomb was two-year-old Sadako Sasaki. As a result of the radiation to her young body, she developed leukemia. She had the idea to make 1000 cranes, and hope that her wish would come true, that she’d live. She got to 644 before she died at age 12. Her classmates made up the difference, and she was buried with a thousand cranes.

I can’t help but love the parallel: the Castle Bravo explosion was 1000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. It takes 1000 origami cranes to make your wish come true. That’s a million cranes.

We’d better start folding.

(The following is a video tribute to Sadako Sasaki; the music is by the L.A.-based, Japanese-American group, Hiroshima. The song is also a tribute to Sadako, called “A Thousand Cranes”. I worked at two stations that played Hiroshima, and I used to slip this song on after my boss had gone to sleep. I always told Sadako’s story. It goes beautifully with the song.)


One Response to “Nukes and Me (for Donna)”

  1. The story of Sadako depressed me when I first read it. Hope is a great thing, but it gets squashed over and over again by jerks who think war is a viable foreign policy. When my own kids began folding cranes in honor of Sadako, I teared up, thinking they and everyone else’s kid are at the mercy of a handful of politicians who might or might not decide to press the button. As smart as the guys at Los Alamos were, I curse them for opening this Pandora’s box on all of us.

    It does make for an interesting test of human morality, though. Now that we have the power to destroy the earth in an instant, do we have the smarts not to use it? So far, we’ve been able to restrain ourselves. Or maybe it’s dumb luck. Whatever it is, let’s keep hoping the lesson Sadako left for us sticks to future generations.

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