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Forgetting the apocalypse: why our nuclear fears faded – and why that’s dangerous

The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the whole world afraid of the atomic bomb – even those who might launch one. Today that fear has mostly passed out of living memory, and with it we may have lost a crucial safeguard, 

Guardian, by Daniel Immerwahr 13 May, 22”………………….   what had happened in Hiroshima, and three days later in Nagasaki, could happen anywhere.

The thought proved impossible to shake, especially as, within the year, on-the-ground accounts emerged. Reports came of flesh bubbling, of melted eyes, of a terrifying sickness afflicting even those who’d avoided the blast. “All the scientists are frightened – frightened for their lives,” a Nobel-winning chemist confessed in 1946. Despite scientists’ hopes that the weapons would be retired, in the coming decades they proliferated, with nuclear states testing ever-more-powerful devices on Pacific atolls, the Algerian desert and the Kazakh steppe.

The fear – the pervasive, enduring fear – that characterised the cold war is hard to appreciate today. It wasn’t only powerless city-dwellers who were terrified (“select and fortify a room in which to shelter”, the UK government grimly advised). Leaders themselves were shaken. It was “insane”, US president John F Kennedy felt, that “two men, sitting on the opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilisation”. Yet everyone knowingly lived with that insanity for decades…………..

……….  The memory of nuclear war, once vivid, is quietly vanishing. ……..

Except that the threat of nuclear war, as Vladimir Putin is reminding the world, has not gone away. 

……….. Yet many of Putin’s adversaries seem either unconvinced or, worse, unbothered by his threats. Boris Johnson has flatly dismissed the idea that Russia may use a nuclear weapon. Three former Nato supreme allied commanders have proposed a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This would almost certainly entail direct military conflict between Nato and Russia, and possibly trigger the world’s first all-out war between nuclear states. Still, social media boils over with calls to action, and a poll found that more than a third of US respondents wanted their military to intervene “even if it risks a nuclear conflict”.

Nuclear norms are fraying elsewhere, too. Nine countries collectively hold some 10,000 warheads, and six of those countries are increasing their inventories. Current and recent leaders such as Kim Jong-un, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have, like Putin, spoken brazenly of firing their weapons……………..

Leaders have talked tough before. But now their talk seems less tethered to reality. This is the first decade when not a single head of a nuclear state can remember Hiroshima.

Does that matter? We’ve seen in other contexts what happens when our experience of a risk attenuates. In rich countries, the waning memory of preventable diseases has fed the anti-vaccination movement. “People have become complacent,” notes epidemiologist Peter Salk, whose father, Jonas Salk, invented the polio vaccine. Not having lived through a polio epidemic, parents are rejecting vaccines to the point where measles and whooping cough are coming back and many have needlessly died of Covid-19.

That is the danger with nuclear war. Using declassified documents, historians now understand how close we came, multiple times, to seeing the missiles fired. In those heartstopping moments, a visceral understanding of what nuclear war entailed helped keep the launch keys from turning. It’s precisely that visceral understanding that’s missing today. We’re entering an age with nuclear weapons but no nuclear memory. Without fanfare, without even noticing, we may have lost a guardrail keeping us from catastrophe.

……………….The US occupation authorities in Japan had censored details of the bomb’s aftermath. But, without consulting the censors, the American writer John Hersey published in the New Yorker one of the most important long-form works of journalism ever written, a graphic account of the bombing. Born to missionaries in China, Hersey was unusually sympathetic to Asian perspectives. His Hiroshima article rejected the bomber’s-eye view and instead told the stories of six survivors.

For many readers, this was the first time they registered that Hiroshima wasn’t a “Japanese army base”, as US president Harry Truman had described it when announcing the bombing, but a city of civilians – doctors, seamstresses, factory workers – who had watched loved ones die. Nor did they die cleanly, vaporised in the puff of a mushroom cloud. Hersey profiled a Methodist pastor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who raced to the aid of his ailing but very much still-living neighbours. As Tanimoto grasped one woman, “her skin slipped off in huge, glove-pieces”. Tanimoto “was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a minute”, wrote Hersey. “He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, ‘These are human beings.’”

Hersey’s contemporaries understood the significance of these accounts. The New Yorker dedicated its full issue to Hersey’s article, and within an hour sold out its entire newsstand print run of 300,000 (plus another 200,000 copies to subscribers). Knopf published it as a book, which eventually sold millions. The text was reprinted in newspapers from France to China, the Netherlands to Bolivia. The massive ABC radio network broadcast Hersey’s text – with no commercials, music or sound effects – over four consecutive evenings. “No other publication in the American 20th century,” the journalism historian Kathy Roberts Forde has written, “was so widely circulated, republished, discussed, and venerated.”

Tanimoto, boosted to celebrity by Hersey’s reporting, made speaking tours of the US. By the end of 1949, he had visited 256 cities. Like Einstein, he pleaded for world government.

Rising tensions between Washington and Moscow erased the possibility of global government. Still, they didn’t change the fact: across the west, leading thinkers felt nuclear weapons to be so dangerous that they required, in Churchill’s words, remoulding “the relationships of all men of all nations” so that “international bodies by supreme authority may give peace on earth and justice among men”.

………………………………………   Maybe one could dismiss the fallout shelters as theatre and the films as fiction. But then there were the bomb tests – great belches of radioactivity that previewed the otherworldly dangers of nuclear weapons. By 1980, the nuclear powers had run 528 atmospheric tests, raising mushroom clouds everywhere from the Pacific atoll of Kiritimati to the Chinese desert. A widely publicised 1961 study of 61,000 baby teeth collected in St Louis showed that children born after the first hydrogen bombs were tested had markedly higher levels of the carcinogen strontium-90, a byproduct of the tests, despite being some 1,500km away from the closest test site.

Unsurprisingly, nuclear tests stoked resistance. In 1954, a detonation by the US at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific got out of hand, irradiating the inhabited atoll of Rongelap and an unfortunate Japanese tuna fishing boat. When the boat’s sickened crew returned to Japan, pandemonium erupted. Petitions describing Japan as “thrice victimised by nuclear bombs” and calling for a ban collected tens of millions of signatures. Ishiro Honda, a film director who’d seen the Hiroshima damage firsthand, made a wildly popular film about a monster, Gojira, awakened by the nuclear testing. Emitting “high levels of H-bomb radiation”, Gojira attacks a fishing boat and then breathes fire on a Japanese city.

…………………..  Hiroshima occupied a similar place in public memory to Auschwitz, the other avatar of the unspeakable. The resemblance ran deep. Both terms identified specific events within the broader violence of the second world war – highlighting the Jews among Hitler’s victims, and the atomic bomb victims among the many Japanese who were bombed – and marked them as morally distinct. Both Hiroshima and Auschwitz had been the site of “holocausts” (indeed, early writers more often used that term to describe atomic war than European genocide). And both Hiroshima and Auschwitz sent forth a new type of personage: the “survivor”, a hallowed individual who had borne witness to a historically unique horror. What Elie Wiesel did to raise the stature of Europe’s survivors, Tanimoto did for Japan’s. In their hands, Hiroshima and Auschwitz shared a message: never forgetnever again

.…………The whole idea is to kill the bastards,” said US general Thomas Power, when presented in 1960 with a nuclear plan designed to minimise casualties. “Look. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.” This is the man who led the US Strategic Air Command – responsible for its nuclear bombs and missiles – during the Cuban missile crisis.

Generals like Power, tasked with winning wars, pressed often for pre-emptive strikes……………………..

Today, knowledge of the Holocaust is kept alive by more than 100 museums and memorials, including in such unexpected countries as Cuba, Indonesia and Taiwan. But there is no comparable memory industry outside of Japan to remind people of nuclear war.

The result is a profound generational split, evident in nearly every family in a nuclear state……………

 the dispelling of dread has made it hard for many to take nuclear war seriously…………

With nuclear threats far from mind, voters seem more tolerant of reckless politicians. ……..

Nor is it only Trump. The nine nuclear states have had an impressive string of norm-breakers among their recent leaders, including Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Kim Jong-un and Benjamin Netanyahu. With such erratic men talking wildly and tearing up rulebooks, it’s plausible that one of them might be provoked to break the ultimate norm: don’t start a nuclear war.

………… how guided are leaders by such fears? In the past 20 years, the US has pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and two of the three main treaties restraining its arms race with Russia (the third is in bad shape). Meanwhile, China has been developing aggressive new weapons……… India’s its prime minister, Modi, declared. India has the “mother of nuclear bombs” ……

The cost of the shredded norms and torn-up treaties may be paid in Ukraine. Russia invested heavily in its nuclear arsenal after the cold war; it now has the world’s largest. The worse the war in Ukraine goes, the more Putin might be tempted to reach for a tactical nuclear weapon to signal his resolve.

………………  we can’t drive nuclear war to extinction by ignoring it. Instead, we must dismantle arsenals, strengthen treaties and reinforce antinuclear norms. Right now, we’re doing the opposite. And we’re doing it just at the time when those who have most effectively testified to nuclear war’s horrors – the survivors – are entering their 90s. Our nuclear consciousness is badly atrophied. We’re left with a world full of nuclear weapons but emptying of people who understand their consequences.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/12/forgetting-the-apocalypse-why-our-nuclear-fears-faded-and-why-thats-dangerous

May 14, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, culture and arts, psychology - mental health, weapons and war

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