Bunker-busting the Nuclear Taboo

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[Tomdispatch Notes from Here and There: For those readers wondering about Nick Turse’s long absence from the site, the reason is now apparent. Today, the first article in a major series he has co-authored on previously unrevealed American war crimes in Vietnam appears on the front page of the Los Angeles Times (with sidebar). When the series is finished, he will return to Tomdispatch. In the meantime, we here — which means me, here — at Tomdispatch are exceedingly proud of him for this accomplishment.

On a TD backward/forward-looking note: Even as you sweltered last week, perhaps you were somehow unaware that the rest of the country was gripped in the sort of heat-wave that was a living ad for Al Gore’s hit film; but you surely knew that Mel Gibson, on being stopped by the police for driving while intoxicated, launched into an anti-Semitic tirade of media-stopping proportions — and later asked for meetings with prominent Jewish community leaders so that together they could discover “the appropriate path for healing.” He was even essentially forgiven in the President’s name by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow (perhaps in the name of all Jews everywhere, since this President feels free to speak in the name of almost anyone). The exchange went:

“And my question: Does the President forgive Mel Gibson or not? (Laughter.)

“MR. SNOW: The President believes in the forgiveness of sins for all who seek forgiveness.”

George Bush himself later ducked the forgiveness question in a curious way — by calling ABC’s Sam Donaldson a “has-been,” a good offense being perhaps the best defense. None of this would, however, have surprised long-time Tomdispatch readers, given the piece the ever-prescient Mike Davis wrote back in March 2004 on Gibson’s Aramaic action movie, The Passion of the Christ, which he called “one of the most manipulative films ever made,” and placed in a “tradition” we all might prefer to forget — “the anti-Semitic conventions of Hitlerian cinema.” It’s well worth a re-read today. Tom]

First, there was one, Little Boy, which the United States dropped on Hiroshima as a bitter war was nearing its end sixty-one years ago today; then came Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Both cities were essentially obliterated.

By the time the Russians got theirs — Joe (for Joe Stalin)-1 in 1949, the U.S. had 235 in its arsenal. By the time Britain got its first (“Hurricane”) in 1953, the U.S. had 1,436 and the Soviets, 120; by the time France had its first 4 and China its first in 1964, the U.S. had 31,056; the Russians, 5,221; and the British, 310.

And those were the big five, the atomic Big Boys, who, for years, made up the “nuclear club.” By the time, in 1967, the Israelis reportedly got the first nuclear weapon in their never admitted arsenal of, by now, perhaps 200, the U.S. had 31,233; the Russians, 8,339; Britain, 270; France, 36; and China, 25. By the time, India got its first (“Smiling Buddha”) in 1974, the U.S. had 28,965; the Russians, 17,385; the British, 325; the French, 145; the Chinese, 170. By the time Pakistan got its own in 1998, the U.S. had 10,871; the Russians, 23,000; the British, 260; the French, 450; and the Chinese, 400. (South Africa produced six nuclear weapons, but dismantled them as the apartheid era was ending in the early 1990s.)

That was essentially the situation as the Bush administration came into office. Though it has long been said that, since Hiroshima, atomic weapons have never been used, this was less than accurate. The U.S., the Soviet Union, and the other members of the nuclear club all tested their weapons, above ground and then underground for decades, spreading radioactive fallout around the world. A recent study, for instance, shows a rise in thyroid cancers among islanders living within one thousand miles of the French nuclear test site in the Pacific. The U.S. conducted hundreds of such tests, some on islands in the Pacific, but most at its testing grounds in Nevada, especially affecting the health of “downwinders” in the American West. The Bush administration is again eager to take up such testing.

The nuclear club plus three had, by the year 2000, enough nuclear power on hand to scour this planet, and at least several others, of life. The U.S. and Russia, in particular, had long been capable of single-handedly or together creating nuclear spring, summer, fall, and winter — and the spread of nuclear weaponry to other nations as well as the bolstering of already existing arsenals and the creation of ever more sophisticated new versions of the same was barely held in check by international agreement via the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has not fared well in the Bush era.

On coming to power, the Bush administration claimed that one of its central purposes was to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In this endeavor, it concentrated all of its energies on three “nuclear” states: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, had not had an actual nuclear program for years; Iran, whose “bomb” — the focus of almost all-absorbing administration and media attention these last years — according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate (and all reasonable observers) is perhaps a decade away, should the present Iranian regime really opt to build it; and North Korea, which had no nuclear weapons in 2000, but may now have several, though whether with appropriate delivery systems or not is unclear. (Were that country actually to use such a weapon, however, its leadership, intensely concerned with its own survival, would essentially be committing national suicide.)

The focus of almost all administration anti-proliferation activities, those three countries, collectively dubbed the “axis of evil” by George Bush in his 2002 State of the Union Address, are on the face of it nuclear paper tigers. On the other hand, when it comes to the most likely nuclear flashpoints on the planet, especially India and Pakistan, it’s been a different matter entirely.

For those two nuclear powers, which have faced off across a shared border in several wars and countless crises, the administration has either encouraged further NPT-busting developments — in the case of India — or simply looked the other way — in the case of unstable “ally” Pakistan and its shaky military autocrat Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is also the only nuclear country whose government might conceivably someday end up in the hands of jihadist-supporting groups and it’s certainly the foremost candidate for having one of its nuclear weapons fall into those same hands. (For a powerful sense of that country today, check out Pervez Hoodbhoy’s recent piece, Waiting for Enlightenment.)

Our present nuclear conundrum was well summed up just recently when we endured screaming, fear-inducing headlines for nearly a week about a failed North Korean test of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile (and other lesser missiles), while India’s new Agnii III, capable someday of carrying a 200-300 kiloton nuclear weapon and sailing 1,900 miles across the Middle East or, more important, into the reaches of China, fell into the Bay of Bengal almost without notice. It was a test to which, by the way, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on a visit to India, reportedly gave the green light.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow then defended the Indian test this way:

“There is a significant difference and a noteworthy difference between India and North Korea. India has pursued its program in such a way as not to be a threat of provocation to its neighbors. In that regard, it informed the United States in advance, and as it has by agreement, also notified the Pakistanis. It did it in a transparent and non-threatening way.”

Skipping over that test’s arms-race level prodding of China, it was revealed soon after that Pakistan was building a new nuclear facility, next to its only plutonium reactor, which might be capable of producing enough plutonium for forty to fifty new nuclear weapons a year, a twenty-fold increase in its production capacity. “South Asia may be heading for a nuclear arms race that could lead to arsenals growing into the hundreds of nuclear weapons, or at minimum, vastly expanded stockpiles of military fissile material,” concluded David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security. The official U.S. response to this report was not to deny that an expansion of Pakistani nuclear facilities was going on, no less consider what might be done about it, but simply to argue over its size.

Of course, in this era, the most obvious nuclear “flashpoint” remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons — us. While several American presidents have, in the years since 1945, considered the “nuclear option,” they were always held back by the “nuclear taboo.” This administration has seemed particularly eager to figure out how to overcome that taboo and turn such weaponry into a usable part of the American arsenal. Its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review was already threatening nuclear use against axis of evil states (among others) as well as suggesting that such weapons might somehow be employed in a “future Arab-Israeli crisis.” The administration also developed elaborate plans for building up American nuclear forces, investing in new generations of “mini-nukes” and “bunker-busting” nukes, and planning more generally for the distant nuclear future.

As nuclear analyst Tad Daley wrote recently at the Truthdig website,

“It envisions new ICBMs — our long-range, land-based nuclear missiles that can incinerate entire cities, anywhere in the world, within the hour — coming on line in 2020. It foresees deploying both new nuclear submarines and new submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2030. It plans to unveil a new intercontinental strategic bomber in 2040. Oh — and freshly designed nuclear warheads for all of them. Just in time for the centennial of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

In fact, in the name of stopping proliferation, top administration officials, including the President, continually remind us that all options remain “on the table.” Thanks to New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, we learned recently what this really meant in the context of a possible future American assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In a piece on Pentagon resistance to the administration’s desire to attack Iran, he reported:

“In late April, the military leadership, headed by [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General [Peter] Pace, achieved a major victory when the White House dropped its insistence that the plan for a bombing campaign include the possible use of a nuclear device to destroy Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran.”

Nuclear weapons as anti-nuclear-proliferation devices; anti-proliferation wars as a way to end the “nuclear taboo” and open the door to the “ordinary” use of such weaponry — talk about diabolical. As can now be seen in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, so in its nuclear policy, the only thing the Bush administration seems actually capable of doing is exporting ruins to the rest of the world. In this sense, it has offered the world a model drawn directly from the charnel house of nuclear policy which began on a clear day over Hiroshima sixty-one years ago and has never ended.

Let me then, on this Hiroshima day, move from the global and strategic to the personal and near microscopic by offering a little tale (one I wrote years ago and have only slightly updated) of three lives in the nuclear age. Tom

Hiroshima Story
By Tom Engelhardt

Even though we promptly dubbed the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York City “Ground Zero” — once a term reserved for an atomic blast — Americans have never really come to grips either with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the nuclear age they ushered in.

There can be no question that, as the big bang that might end it all, the atomic bomb haunted Cold War America. In those years, while the young watched endless versions of nuclear disaster transmuted into B-horror films, the grown-ups who ran our world went on a vast shopping spree for world-ending weaponry, building nuclear arsenals that grew into the tens of thousands of weapons.

When the Cold War finally ended with the Soviet Union’s quite peaceful collapse, however, a nuclear “peace dividend” never arrived. The arsenals of the former superpower adversaries remained quietly in place, drawn down but strangely untouched, awaiting a new mission, while just beyond sight, the knowledge of the making of such weapons spread to other countries ready to launch their own threatening mini-cold wars.

In 1995, fifty years after that first bomb went off over the Aioi Bridge in Hiroshima, it still proved impossible in the U.S. to agree upon a nuclear creation tale. Was August 6, 1945, the heroic ending to a global war or the horrific beginning of a new age? The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb, and a shattered school child’s lunchbox from Hiroshima could not yet, it turned out, inhabit the same exhibit space at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Today, while the Bush administration promotes a new generation of nuclear “bunker-busters” as the best means to fight future anti-proliferation wars, such once uniquely world-threatening weapons have had to join a jostling queue of world-ending possibilities in the dreams of our planet’s young. Still, for people of a certain age like me, Hiroshima is where it all began. So on this August 6th, I would like to try, once again, to lay out the pieces of a nuclear story that, even after all these years, none of us, it seems, can yet quite tell.

In my story, there are three characters and no dialogue. There is my father, who volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age thirty-five, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent on his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. Then there’s me, growing up in a world in which my father’s war was glorified everywhere, in which my play fantasies in any park included mowing down Japanese soldiers, but my dreams were of nuclear destruction. Finally, there is a Japanese boy whose name and fate are unknown to me.

This is a story of multiple silences. The first of those, the silence of my father, was once no barrier to the stories I told myself. If anything, his silence enhanced them, since in the 1950s, male silence seemed a heroic attribute (and perhaps it was, though hardly in the way I imagined at the time). In those years, sitting in the dark with him at any World War II movie was enough for me.

As it turned out though, the only part of his war I actually possessed was its final act, and around this too, there grew up a puzzling silence. The very idea of nuclear destruction seemed not to touch him. Like other school children, I went through nuclear-attack drills with sirens howling outside, while — I had no doubt — he continued to work unfazed in his office. It was I who watched the irradiated ants and nuclearized monsters of our teen-screen life stomp the Earth. It was I who went to the French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, where I was shocked by my first sight of the human casualties of the A-bombing, and to On the Beach to catch a glimpse of how the world might actually end. It was I who saw the mushroom cloud rise in my dreams, felt its heat sear my arm before I awoke. Of all this I said not a word to him, nor he to me.

On his erstwhile enemies, however, my father was not silent. He hated the Japanese with a war-bred passion. They had, he told me, “done things” that could not be discussed to “boys” he had known. Subsequent history — the amicable American occupation of Japan or the emergence of that defeated land as an ally — did not seem to touch him.

His hatred of all things Japanese was not a ruling passion of my childhood only because Japan was so absent from our lives. There was nothing Japanese in our house (one did not buy their products); we avoided the only Japanese restaurant in our part of town; and no Japanese ever came to visit. Even the evil Japanese I saw in war movies, who might sneeringly hiss, “I was educated in your University of Southern California” before they met their suicidal fates were, I now know, regularly played by non-Japanese actors.

In the end, however, I followed my own path to Hiroshima, drawn perhaps to the world my father so vehemently rejected. In 1979, as an editor, I published Unforgettable Fire, the drawings of Hiroshima residents who had lived through that day. It was, I suspect, the first time any sizable number of images of the human damage there made it into mainstream American culture. I visited Japan in 1982, thanks to the book’s Japanese editor who took me to Hiroshima — an experience I found myself unable to talk about on return. This, too, became part of the silences my father and I shared.

To make a story thus far, would seem relatively simple. Two generations face each other across the chasm of a war and an act that divided them. It is the story we all know. And yet, there is my third character and third silence — the Japanese boy who drifted into my consciousness after an absence of almost four decades only a few years ago. I no longer remember — I can’t even imagine — how he and I were put in contact sometime in the mid-1950s. Like me, my Japanese pen-pal must have been eleven or twelve years old. If we exchanged photos, I have no memory of his face, nor does a name come to mind. If I can remember half-jokingly writing my own address at that age (“New York City, New York, USA, Planet Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, the Universe”), I can’t remember writing his. I already knew by then that a place called Albany was the capital of New York State, but New York City still seemed to me the center of the world. In many ways, I wasn’t wrong.

Even if he lived in Tokyo, my Japanese pen-pal could have had no such illusions. Like me, he had undoubtedly been born during World War II. Perhaps in his first year of life he had been evacuated from one of Japan’s charred cities. For him, that disastrous war would not have been a memory. If he had gone to the movies with his father in the 1950s, he might have seen Godzilla (not the U.S. Air Force) dismantle Tokyo and he might have hardly remembered those economically difficult first years of American occupation. But he could not at that time have imagined himself at the center of the universe.

I have a faint memory of the feel of his letters; a crinkly thinness undoubtedly meant to save infinitesimal amounts of weight (and so, money). We wrote, of course, in English, for much of the planet, if not the solar-system-galaxy-universe, was beginning to operate in that universal language which seemed to radiate from my home city to the world like the rays of the sun. But what I most remember are the exotic-looking stamps that arrived on (or in) his letters. For I was, with my father, an avid stamp collector. On Sunday afternoons, my father and I prepared and mounted our stamps, consulted our Scott’s Catalog, and pasted them in. In this way, the Japanese section of our album was filled with that boy’s offerings; without comment, but also without protest from my father.

We exchanged letters — none of which remain — for a year or two and then who knows what interest of mine (or his) overcame us; perhaps only the resistance boys can have to writing letters. In any case, he, too, entered a realm of silence. Only now, remembering those quiet moments of closeness when my father and I worked on our albums, do I note that he existed briefly and without discussion in our lives. He existed for both of us, perhaps, in the ambiguous space that silence can create. And now I wonder sometimes what kinds of nuclear dreams my father may have had.

For all of us in a sense, the Earth was knocked off its axis on August 6, 1945. In that one moment, my father’s war ended and my war — the Cold War — began. But in my terms, it seems so much messier than that. For we, and that boy, continued to live in the same world together for a long time, accepting and embroidering each other’s silences.

The bomb still runs like a fissure, but also like an attracting current — a secret unity — through our lives. The rent it tore in history was deep and the generational divide, given the experiences of those growing up on either side of it, profound. But any story would also have to hold the ways, even deeper and harder to fathom, in which we lived through it all together in pain, hatred, love, and most of all silence.

In this sixty-first year after Hiroshima, a year charged with no special anniversary meaning at all, perhaps we will think a little about the stories we can’t tell, and about the subterranean stream of emotional horror that unites us, that won’t go away whether, as in 1995, we try to exhibit the Enola Gay as a glorious icon or bury it deep in the Earth with a stake through its metallic heart. For my particular story, the one I’ve never quite been able to tell, there is a Japanese boy who should not have been, but briefly was, with us; who perhaps lives today with his own memories of very different silences. When I think of him now, when I realize that he, my father, and I still can’t inhabit the same story except in silence, a strange kind of emotion rushes up in me, which is hard to explain.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The Last Days of Publishing, a novel, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt