The Bell and The Bomb
By Alvin M. Weinberg
The Earth's history has been punctuated by catastrophes. Perhaps the greatest was the impact of a 10-kilometer diameter meteorite on Yucatan, Mexico some 65 million years ago. The energy released, the equivalent of about 100 million megatons of TNT, resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs as well as 75% of all other living creatures. Another catastrophe which, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, wiped out almost all living creatures was the "Flood." That a catastrophic Flood actually happened is suggested by traditions on every continent that speak of a Flood. A meteorite impact in an ocean with the energy of 1000 megatons could well have created a tidal wave over a 100 feet high that would have devastated coastal areas.
Both of the above catastrophes had natural causes. By contrast, the Holocaust, a man-made event, resulted in the deaths of some 6 million people, probably many more than were supposedly killed in the Flood. The Flood, assuming it actually occurred, and the Holocaust constitute turning points in human history. The Flood story, though it can never be proven, has persisted for thousands of year by virtue of its incorporation in religious traditions. The Holocaust is but 50 years old, but it too will certainly persist in Jewish religious tradition essentially forever.
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima also represents a major turning point in human history. To help prevent the extinction of humans by a nuclear holocaust, Hiroshima, no less than the Flood and the Holocaust, should be incorporated in that most permanent of human institutions, religious tradition. I call this the "sanctification of Hiroshima."
When I joined the Manhattan Project at Chicago in December 1941, our group was terrified lest Nazi Germany develop the bomb before we did. By the time the first atomic bomb was tested four years later, Germany had been defeated and Japan was tottering. Many scientists at Chicago and Oak Ridge debated how, or whether, to use the bomb against Japan. I signed petitions urging that the bomb be demonstrated first, but this advice was not heeded. The Hiroshima bomb was dropped from the B-29 Enola Gay, at 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945, and exploded with an energy release equivalent to about 15,000 tons of TNT.
After the Hiroshima bombing, my original doubts practically vanished. After all, the bomb had helped greatly in ending the war. And I have come to realize that a demonstration in which no one was killed simply would not have had the extraordinary social and political impact that the use of the bomb on humans achieved. Hiroshima will stand for all time as a terrifying symbol that man now has the capacity to destroy himself!
With 70,000 nuclear bombs in the world's inventory at the height of the Cold War, the conceivable nuclear devastation could exceed that of a vast natural catastrophe. Since nuclear bombs are an unprecedented threat to humanity, the most important event of the 50 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been a non-event-the non-use of nuclear weapons. Most policy-makers and military people have recoiled from ordering a nuclear strike. As Professor Tom Schelling, of the University of Maryland, says, a "tradition of non-use" of nuclear weapons is being established. If we concede that the hydrogen bomb represents an unprecedented threat to humanity, then it is imperative that the "tradition of non-use" be preserved forever.
My preoccupation with the longevity of the tradition of non-use began in 1993 with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the U-235 in the Hiroshima bomb was produced. As a symbol of this anniversary, a four-ton bronze bonshoo Bell was cast in Kyoto by the famous Japanese bell-maker Iwazawa and presented to the city. On the Bell are inscribed four dates that defined Oak Ridge: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945; and VJ Day, September 2, 1945. In addition, the words PEACE and INTERNATIONAL FRIENDSHIP as well as bas-reliefs of scenes from Japan and Appalachia are embossed on the Bell.
Bronze bells can last for centuries. The Oak Ridge International Friendship Bell will probably still be rung well past the year 2945, the 1000th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Even if all nuclear bombs were to be destroyed the knowledge of how to make them will still be available in 2945. The nuclear genie, once having been released, can never be stuffed back into the bottle. Hydrogen bombs cannot be "uninvented." As the Bell's longevity will serve to remind future generations of the bomb's immortality, it also will remind them that the "tradition of non-use" must last forever.
Although the bomb has not been used since 1945, there have been several near-misses: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and possibly Iraq and Israel at the time of the Gulf War. Of these, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis may have been the closest shave. What was not known-until it was divulged in 1989 at meetings between U.S. and Soviet crisis management teams-was that the Soviets had placed tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. A U.S. invasion might have been countered by tactical nukes and the tradition of non-use would have been broken thirty-odd years ago.
Despite such close shaves, the tradition of non-use has been maintained. Policymakers have recoiled from the ultimate step: the doctrine of nuclear deterrence has worked for 50 years. Will it work forever?
One approach to reducing the likelihood of use of nuclear weapons are sanctions backed by extraordinary power and strength. We can consign nuclear weapons to Freeman Dyson's "Dustbin of History" if the use of nuclear bombs becomes a crime against humanity which would be punished by overwhelming force.
The Gulf War illustrates the possibility. Saddam Hussein was punished for threatening to take control of Middle East oil, but he was also punished for trying to develop nuclear arms. The world knew that Iraq was attempting to make nuclear weapons. The Gulf War aborted the project. Though no world tribunal justified the allied attack on the grounds that a nuclear-armed Iraq posed an unacceptable danger, in retrospect this was perhaps the most important justification for the war. For sanctions to work, we must maintain a world-wide regime that has the moral authority as well as the military power to dissuade any rogue state's use of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear deterrence-i.e., mutually assured destruction-is the only proven mechanism for preventing the use of nuclear weapons. Although a first U.S. strike could have obliterated the Soviet Union, a retaliatory strike, ragged though it might have been, would have destroyed at least Washington, D.C., and New York City. This awful knowledge has always been in the mind of every president since Eisenhower; and as the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated, it was also in the mind of Nikita Khrushchev. The sheer enormity of such weapons seems to insure that they can never be used.
Would encumbering use of nuclear weapons with somewhat vague moral sanctions reduce the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent? Had such sanctions been in place at the time of the Gulf War, and had Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, would its leaders have used them and counted on its opponents to abstain from retaliations because of the sanction? I doubt it. More likely, no matter the strength or character of moral sanctions, nuclear deterrence would always operate at some level.
But against the possible erosion of the nuclear deterrent because of moral taboos, one must place the morally sanctioned regime that would be empowered to intervene militarily were nuclear war threatened. As I contemplate the distant future, I visualize such a morally sanctioned international regime gradually acquiring the strength to prevent nuclear war-in effect, supplementing deterrence in maintaining the tradition of non-use. But this lies in some very distant future whose political structure and whose attitude toward war we cannot now fathom.
Let us assume that investing nuclear weapons with moral sanctions and taboos is desirable. How can we, the generation that first used the nuclear weapon, and then abstained from its use for 50 years, devise moral sanctions of sufficient strength to prevent nuclear war?
We can hope that the Peace Bell, by virtue of its existence for 1000 years, will remind future generations of what happened on August 6 and 9, 1945, and how these cataclysmic events were followed by 50 years of non-use. But remembrance is hardly enough: the Bell, a physical object, has no moral authority.
The ultimate source of moral authority is religion. The three great monotheistic religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-are basically historical in content. Events such as the Crucifixion, the Hegira and possibly even the Flood were given religious significance and became fixed in humanity's memory. They will never be forgotten as long as there are Jews, Christians or Muslims. Thus, if the full significance of the bomb is to be appreciated over the millennia, ought not the tradition of non-use acquire religious significance? Should not Hiroshima and Nagasaki somehow be incorporated in the world's religious traditions? Just as the Holocaust and protection of the state of Israel has become part of the liturgy in certain Jewish synagogues, should not Hiroshima and Nagasaki become incorporated in various liturgies? If the nuclear turning-points become part of religious tradition, they would remain forever in human memory even after the Bell has disappeared.
We are witnessing an immortalization of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki events that may well presage their ultimate "sanctification." This process seems to be proceeding in three directions: First, through the erection of monuments that keep alive the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; second, through the many ceremonies of a quasi-religious nature on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and third, through pleas for rejection of nuclear war by religious leaders.
At Hiroshima and at Nagasaki there are Peace Parks located at the ground zeros of the explosions. Central features of the parks are bonshoo bells which can be struck by the many visitors to the parks. Thousands of paper birds, similar to those in Japanese shrines, dot the parks which have become shrines to peace. The Oak Ridge International Friendship Bell and its pavilion should acquire the same transcendent significance as the Japanese Peace Parks.
At Wendover, Utah, there is a monument to the 509th Composite Air Group which included the two B-29's, Enola Gay and Bok's Car, that delivered the bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chiseled in the monument are the words of Harry Truman: "The atomic bomb is too dangerous to be loose in a lawless world ...we pray that God may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes."
Two Japanese bonshoo bells dedicated to world peace hang in Honolulu, donated by its sister city, Hiroshima, and by the city of Nagasaki.
In Chicago, at the site of the first man-made release of nuclear energy by Enrico Fermi on December 2, 1942, a large bronze Henry Moore sculpture commemorates the release of nuclear energy. It seems to portray a modernistic mushroom cloud.
As for ceremonies, on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima tens of thousands of people attended memorial services there and dignitaries from Japan and elsewhere spoke about the need for world peace. Though not explicitly religious-there were no Shinto or Buddhist priests in attendance-a religious atmosphere prevailed.
The Pugwash Conference, held first in 1955 at Pugwash, Nova Scotia, has provided a valuable anti-nuclear war forum. It has conducted innumerable conferences devoted to furthering peace, particularly to avoiding nuclear war. Pugwash, and its leader Joseph Rotblat received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, enhancing its prestige and effectiveness. Although Pugwash itself is non-religious, its stand on most issues seems to be supported by the various church-sponsored studies on peace and nuclear war.
In the past decade there have been many studies on nuclear war sponsored by various churches. (These studies have been summarized in Ethics, Nuclear Deterrence, and War, edited by Jack Barkenbaus, Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and published by Paragon House.) The most elaborate statement was that of the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. Ten other Bishops' statements from all over the world appeared about the same time. Papers on the same topic were issued by many Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Council of Bishops' In Defense of Creation and the Presbyterian General Assembly's Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age.
While these studies do not constitute a sanctification of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many congregations will draw on them in their prayers and sermons. Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become part of the standard Protestant or Catholic liturgy, we need not worry about their being "forgotten" after the Bell has eroded. One could even imagine an Eleventh Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Use Nuclear Weapons" being added to the Decalogue. This would provide the religious basis and, therefore, the moral sanction for the world-wide imposition of powerful and condign temporal sanctions against violating the tradition of non-use.
To see how a mix of deterrent and moral sanctions might work, let us return again to the case of Iraq. In 1981 when Israel destroyed Iraq's OSIRAK reactor, I could not understand this action since OSIRAK merely converted enriched uranium into a lesser amount of plutonium. If Iraq intended to make a nuclear bomb, why not simply use the French enriched uranium supplied for the OSIRAK reactor? I did not realize what Israel presumably knew: that Iraq planned to manufacture its own enriched uranium and use OSIRAK to produce several plutonium bombs each year. Though Israel was justified in its attack, at the time it was strongly criticized.
Now, suppose the use of nuclear weapons were forbidden both by generally accepted religious and moral sanctions and by economic and military sanctions. Iraq might not have dared secretly to develop nuclear capability. Since it did-and was known to be doing so-the Israeli attack, as well as the 1991 Gulf War, would have received full worldwide support from the outset. As it was, only President Bush's determination in the face of domestic opposition enabled the allies to launch the war and, after winning, stopped Iraq's development of a nuclear force.
Are there precedents for planning on a millennial scale. Three instances come to mind: Hitler's 1000-Year Reich; environmental attempts to prevent global warming; and plans for defense against meteorite impacts on earth.
Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of production, tells in his autobiography that Hitler ordered that buildings and monuments constructed by the Third Reich must last for 1000 years, the minimum time he expected Nazi tyranny to last. To fulfill this requirement, experiments were conducted to measure the corrosion rate of the concrete to be used in construction.
Carbon dioxide injected into the atmosphere remains there for a century or more. Thus, the problems we are creating now that seem to lead to global warming will be with us long after we are dead.
The possibility of an earth-meteorite collision-an event that a few years ago would have been regarded as too far-fetched to consider-is now receiving serious attention. Recently, the Air Force and NASA have received $22 million to study the problem. The first step is to catalogue the threatening objects. Then, presumably, a plan for deflecting or destroying them will be developed-perhaps utilizing a nuclear device in space.
Plutonium 239 waste has a half-life of about 24,000 years and therefore can be dangerous for many millennia if the waste containers and the surrounding geologic burial grounds leak. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that integrity of wastes be maintained for 10,000 years. Leaving aside whether such a requirement makes any sense, it is an almost unique example of an action taken today with a time horizon of 10,000 years. Thus, my concern with preserving the tradition of non-use into the far distant future does have precedent.
As for political attempts to control nuclear bombs, a comprehensive test ban has been accepted by all nuclear powers except India. This treaty presumably will be followed by ratification of START II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which in turn would be followed by future bilateral and multilateral reductions in nuclear weapons. The recent suggestions by the former head of the Strategic Air Corps, retired Air Force General George Lee Butler and by 60 general officers from many countries to reduce drastically the number of nuclear weapons and to stand down first-strike weapons merit strong support.
Will the world ever reach "zero" weapons, as General Butler has suggested? In my view, probably not; the risk of cheating is too great, at least as we now see the world. The number of nuclear weapons that remain even after major disarmament would still be sufficient to retaliate against what we call the "cheating threshold" of weapons-that is, the number of weapons that could plausibly be sequestered clandestinely. This number would be much below the 3500-weapon level of START II.
As Admiral Stansfield Turner, former director of the CIA, has argued, even one retaliatory H-bomb is too heavy a price for a nuclear aggressor to pay. A worldwide defensive system that can assure the survival of even a few H-bombs may be a central element of a world in which nuclear weapons play no role except to dissuade cheaters of the futility of nuclear aggression. Whatever technical measures evolve, the strengthening of moral sanctions against nuclear war seems to me to be essential. And these moral and religious sanctions would, one hopes, be backed by temporal sanctions of a strength sufficient to guarantee punishment against adventurous entities that threaten nuclear war.
Can the Bell toll not only for an end to nuclear war but for peace itself? Is Immanuel Kant's Comity of Peaceful Liberal Democracies, first visualized in 1795, still a mirage? The end of the Cold War is both reassuring and disappointing in this regard. How can we speak of peace while ethnic wars remain unresolved? Yet the ascendance of liberal democracy, the perfection of smart weapons and smart surveillance and, eventually, a powerful, morally sanctioned regime that in the future would abort Bosnias and Chechnyas offer hope. Our generation has agreed, thus far, that nuclear war is too dangerous to fight, too abhorrent to contemplate. Let us hope these realities about nuclear war-incorporated in the tradition of non-use-will lead to the peaceful world symbolized by the Oak Ridge International Friendship Bell.