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Light, Ghastly and Beckoning

President Obama plans to visit Hiroshima, Japan later this month.  This will make him the first sitting president to visit the memorial site, a politically fraught decision certain to be hailed as a humanitarian gesture by some, as one more groveling apology from the United States by others.  While the act of acknowledgement by the President of the United States will be received with gratitude by the dwindling number of survivors of the nuclear attack, Obama’s message may be aimed at another audience altogether:  You and me. 

Historians continue to debate the moral and strategic ramifications of President Truman’s decision to unleash the only two atomic weapons ever detonated in war.  Were the bombs necessary to end the war?  Did they save massive numbers of American lives?  Would a “demonstration” bombing, or one that targeted a clear military target rather than a civilian population have sufficed?  Was Japan on the verge of collapse already, soon to surrender?  These questions will be posed again during the presidential visit; the answers will likely continue to lead to conflicting conclusions.

While historians write their books and articles, most Americans don’t worry much about a large scale nuclear conflagration.  A 2010 opinion poll by CNN found that only a little more than a third of Americans worry that a nuclear war is either “very” or “somewhat” likely.  That’s quite a change from the years of my childhood when we crouched in school hallways during nuclear drills, went on Scout outings to nearby Nike missile bases targeting potential incoming Soviet warheads, heard about neighbors building backyard shelters, and sat glued to televisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  American anxieties have shifted to different threats – terrorists with so-called “dirty bombs” in suitcases, viruses of one sort or another, climate change or, if you live in certain urban neighborhoods, the police officer on the corner.  With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear threat became for most of us a kind of historical artifact, like old clips from Dr. Strangelove or On the Beach.

It is true that the number of nuclear warheads has dropped dramatically since the peak years of the 1980s when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists “Nuclear Notebook” counted over 60,000 warheads worldwide. (http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-notebook-multimedia) The world is now down to about 10,000, most shared between the United States and Russia.  While this, along with the recent Iranian nuclear agreement, is good news, even that level of nuclear firepower ought to alarm us, as should the fact that the nuclear club has drastically expanded from one to ten nations in the nearly 71 years since Hiroshima.  And at least two of those ten – Pakistan and North Korea – can hardly be considered trustworthy stewards of these weapon.

Meanwhile, the United States, with the support of the President, is preparing to embark on a massive modernization program for its nuclear weapons program:  A new class of nuclear submarines each carrying multiple warheads, new strategic bombers and upgrades to the nuclear bombs they carry, and refurbishing of the missiles armed and ready in underground silos across the Great Plains and Mountain states.  This thirty year program is estimated to cost $1 trillion, a number that seems certain to rise given the Pentagon’s notoriously weak cost containment record.  Proponents argue that the modernization is necessary in order to maintain an adequate deterrence.  Better weapons means they will be less likely to be used.  Others, like former Defense Secretary William Perry, argue that the modernization program simply adds to high risk nuclear volatility at a cost far exceeding what is necessary to provide a reliable deterrence.  At the very least, such a massive modernization program would seem to make it harder for the United States to urge reductions in nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world, one of Obama’s much heralded initiatives.

Americans – you and I – however, are not talking about this much.  Neither are our presidential candidates, the ones vying to have their hand on the nuclear trigger.  As Rachal Witlark of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government puts it in an article in the Bulletin, “the candidates from both major parties leave much to be desired in their positions on nuclear issues. Individually and collectively, these positions are far too superficial for people hoping to occupy the Oval Office. Given the stakes, the nuclear portfolio demands much more than the cursory treatment it presently receives.”  (http://thebulletin.org/where-will-next-president-stand-nuclear-weapons9391?platform=hootsuite)

Hopefully Obama’s visit this month will result in more than an iconic photo op before the familiar shattered dome of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, or further academic debates over the justification for those horrific events in 1945.  Instead let’s hope it provokes a much needed discussion about our nation’s nuclear programs moving forward, and about how the United States can lead the way beyond deterrence to abolition through concrete and aggressive polity and diplomatic initiatives.

In 1961 at the World Council of Churches’ Assembly in New Delhi, Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler reminded us of the cosmic stakes involved:  “This radio-active earth, so fecund and so fragile, is God’s creation, our sister, and the material place where we meet the brother in Christ’s light.  Ever since Hiroshima the very term light has ghastly meanings; and ever since Bethlehem meanings concrete and beckoning.”  The presidential visit will recall for many the ghastly light that once exploded and now lingers ominously over our world. May it be beckoning as well.

                         John H. Thomas

                         May 12, 2016


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