Three Minutes Till Midnight
Livermore, our little hometown, has a place on the world stage. I didn’t know that as a nine year old immigrant from the big city. It might always have remained the dusty cowboy vineyard town; had the Cold War not flared up out of the embers of the Hot War.
Recently, WGN TV aired a television series called “Manhattan”, a fictionalized account of the American race to create a nuclear bomb in the last years of World War II, before the Germans accomplished the same. It was a fear that was spread by German and other scientists who fled Europe in advance of Hitler. Set in New Mexico, not far from the real life Los Alamos Laboratory, it depicts the aura of secrecy and the fierce competition among the scientific investigators; with the constant pressure on these frail humans to perfect what was referred to not as a bomb, but a “gadget”, to end the war. But what weight was given to the consequences, as huge and dangerous as the blast that was about to happen?
Robert Oppenheimer was quoted about his reactions to the testing of the bomb in July 1945, a few weeks before they were used in Japan:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’. Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death: the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
-Robert Oppenheimer recalling the first atomic bomb test on July 16, 1945 (dubbed the “Trinity” test)
And yet they proceeded.
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 caused the immediate deaths of 200,000 people, many civilians, some completely vaporized by the unprecedented blast, leaving only shadows that can still be seen in some places, on the ground. The National World War II Museum estimates that 60 million people of all sides and all nations, died in World War II — three times as many civilians as soldiers lost in battle; and another 25 million wounded. The use of nuclear weapons on the eastern front of the war was intended to prevent more American deaths; though there is evidence that the Japanese were close to surrender before this time.
The blast wiped out homes, industry, businesses, and almost any vestige of nature. It is said that the ancient tree species, Gingko Biloba, 270 million years old, was one of the only living things to survive the bombing; and the hardy Oleander was the first flower to bloom again after the blast. Growing up in the Bay Area, I remember learning that Oleanders were planted along the freeways, because they were strong enough to withstand the constant wash of car exhaust. Oh, and that you shouldn’t have them in your yard, because they are poisonous for children.
The surviving soldiers of World War II came home – in every country, from every side in the conflict — to reestablish homes and families. Young mens’ and womens’ lives had been interrupted – their futures set down for the duration of the war; now to be taken up again, to heal around the devastation – physical, emotional, cultural and moral devastation. It was the rebuilding of one family after another; but also a regeneration of the species – 76 million of us world wide made up the baby boom.
And some of them came home to Livermore, and we were their children, their down payment on the future.
Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, physicists who led the Manhattan Project, also had lives to take up after the war. Oppenheimer headed the US Atomic Energy Commission, and Teller came to lead nuclear weapons research at the University of California at Berkeley and its eventual expansion, in 1952, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Yes, it was dedicated to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, national security, and the prevention of future cataclysmic use of nuclear arms – but in fact, nuclear weapons research has been an ongoing and central element of the work of LLNL.
Oppenheimer was correct, — the world could not be the same. Consequences would begin to unfold in the months and years following the end of the war. The Russians were known to be intent on producing their own nuclear arsenal. American nuclear research would continue with a new enemy in its sites, and the Cold War came to characterize the early years of our lives.
Tom Lehrer, a political satirist and songwriter of that era, nailed it with his song “Who’s Next?”, outlining nuclear proliferation from Russia to China to France to Indonesia to the ultimate fear:
“We’ll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb.
Kids who grew up in the 1950’s learned “duck and cover” drills in their schools. We were taught to fear that Russians would turn nuclear weapons against Americans. I am haunted by images of small children curled under their desks, shielding their eyes against the flare of the blast; such a pointless gesture that yet instilled deep terror. I was one of those children. Once, in my Catholic grade school, we were crouched to the floor in a drill, heads covered, awaiting the nuns to give the all clear. Someone came into the auditorium, slow deliberate paces, surely a male stride, sharp sounds on the shiny floor. A child broke into sobs; sure that those footsteps were the Russians coming for us. It was in fact the parish priest, coming to inspect the drill.
(This photo is not from our actual classroom, but one I found as a postcard A creepy postcard)
Down the block from our house, at least one neighbor excavated a huge pit to build a bomb shelter in his back yard, a place where he and his family could barricade themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. The shelter was to be filled with survival rations, water, and if he followed popular advice, a gun to keep out his desperate neighbors. Human connection and community would not survive such a blast. Every cowboy for himself.
(Again, not our actual neighbor. Another creepy postcard)
In 1962, when I was twelve years old, I remember watching the black and white television news of the unfolding of the Cuban Missile crisis – Russian Nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at targets in the United States. No one said that Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was one of those targets, but kids fill in the blanks with their terrified imaginations. I live in Nebraska now, only a few miles from the US Air Force Strategic Air Command, the postwar fortress for the US nuclear strike force. Friends who grew up here have shared the same sense of doom they felt as children on that day in 1962. Surely those missiles are aimed at us. It seemed inevitable that we would die, and there was nothing that anyone’s mother or father or parish priest or government could do to stop it. In my mother’s stories of how she, a child living on the coast of California, heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, I imagine the same paralyzing fear.
How do young people learn to live a moral life in the world? The Livermore school district, growing to meet the needs of the population explosion, opened a second high school in 1964, and many of the faculty were graduates of the University of California at Berkeley. We had gifted teachers of history, literature, humanities, American culture, and social studies. I grew up in classrooms where I was both loved and challenged to think clearly and without sentimentality, and this moral question of war was central. Outside the classroom I remember wading through more than a thousand pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, struggling to understand the scope of evil so recently rampant in the world. But I do not remember any discussion with my father, or mother, about the use of nuclear weapons or about the weapons research still being done at LLNL.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. For 21 years I regularly rode or drove on Oleander lined freeways. In early adolescence I became fascinated with the physics and chemistry of atomic energy; it was mid to later adolescence when I began to construct a moral framework around this question. By the time I entered the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1968, I was no longer focused on pure science, but more on the human psychology behind it – the reasoning and morality of how it was used. I have always lived with those questions, and live with them today; struggling between transcendent hope and despair for the planet.
I came of age in the midst of the Viet Nam war. I do not remember a time when the legitimacy of that war was not being actively debated. First on the streets and on campuses, and eventually, through that constant pressure of cultural questioning, and beyond questioning, to outright resistance, the federal government had to come to terms with it. So I wonder what might have existed in the ‘40s, in the years and months leading up to the use of nuclear weapons, for any level of public debate about the moral implications of what was about to happen.
So , were Americans ill prepared to understand the implications of using nuclear weapons; or were they ill informed, or did they fear they could not influence the choice? We continue to carry out that moral debate today. Clearly there has always been some element of citizen concern and opposition to nuclear weapons, but it has not prevailed to change direction significantly. Look at the fears in the last few years that Iraq and Iran possessed the makings of weapons of mass destruction, prompting more than a dozen years of American military involvement in middle eastern wars, with no end in sight. And now we have reason to fear not only other nations in possession of nuclear weapons, but small political cells, even renegade individuals, capable of using “dirty bombs”.
The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measure of the ominousness of a global nuclear catastrophe, was developed in 1947 by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 1947, it was set to 11:53 – seven minutes to midnight. During the weeks I was working on this essay, the Doomsday Clock ticked four minutes closer to midnight. Today it stands at 11:57: three minutes closer to catastrophe. What would peace even look like?
A few years ago I took up folding origami. A friend gave me a calendar, a page per day with directions for folding something new. When I got to the Cranes page, I stopped, and spent the rest of the year learning the complex folds of that single design. I made them by the dozens, by the hundreds, for my daughter’s wedding reception; for gifts and garlands and mobiles, randomly left in greenery, on the porch, at parks and retreat centers. I didn’t think of why. I did not intentionally or consciously take up a Japanese folk craft, nor was I counting down the hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand cranes that bring fulfillment of a wish; or ensure future peace. I didn’t know then that in the city of Hiroshima there is a Peace Memorial Park. Within it is a Children’s Peace Monument, made up of millions of origami cranes offered as symbols of peace. The association of cranes with peace in the modern world came about when a girl named Sadako Sasaki, two years old when the bomb hit her city, developed leukemia nine years later. In the last year of her short life she folded cranes as a wish for peace. The effort survived this one little girl. Ten million cranes are offered at the monument each year, for the peaceful repose of the many children who died in and after the blast, and for the cause of world peace.
Learning to live a moral life in the world: still trying.