End Nuclear Weapons Before They End Us | Opinion

In 1992, as a young captain in the Air Force, I co-taught a course on the making and use of the atomic bomb at the Air Force Academy. Before that, I'd served in Cheyenne Mountain, America's ultimate command post and bomb shelter in case of a nuclear war. There I once watched a military simulation tape that culminated in a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. by the Soviet Union. We all grew quiet as the missile tracks terminated at various American cities. We knew it was fake, but we also knew that millions of Americans would have been vaporized in a matter of minutes if the attack had been real.

I learned a lot from teaching cadets about the atomic bomb. I'm haunted by the confession of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," that he'd become death, the destroyer of worlds, after the first test of the "gadget" at the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, N.M. in July 1945. Next summer, Oppenheimer will be receiving the Hollywood treatment in a star-studded biopic directed by Christopher Nolan. Let's hope it does credit to a complex man who was haunted by his tragic role in creating such a destructive weapon.

In 1992, I walked around the test site where the first atomic device had been suspended in a steel tower above the desert sands and scrub brush. It's an eerie landscape; the tower, of course, is gone, obliterated in the atomic blast. You can still find sand that's been fused solid by the blast and, yes, it's still radioactive.

What we didn't know clearly during most of the Cold War is that any "major" nuclear war involving just a fraction of the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia would likely generate a nuclear winter, leading to widespread famine across the globe. It will not be millions of people being killed in two countries—but billions across the globe. A nuclear war could end us as a civilization and perhaps as a species as well. Why then do we persist in building yet more missiles and bombs?

Sanity dictates that the world should work toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. When J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked in an interview in 1965 about proposals to hold talks with the Soviet Union on reducing nuclear weapons, he replied, simply: "It's twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity."

He was right, but it's never too late to stop the madness. Nuclear weapons are death, and they can literally destroy our world. Let's put a stop to them before we have more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.

In the outstanding documentary, "The Day After Trinity," which first aired in 1981, the physicist Hans Bethe, who worked on the Manhattan Project that built the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reflected on his reaction to the news of the attacks in August 1945. At first, he confessed, he'd felt a sense of fulfillment. The crash wartime effort to build an A-bomb had worked. But that was quickly overridden by a sense of "shock and awe" about what he and the other scientists had done. And then his final thought: "It shouldn't be done again."

Nuclear explosion and atomic mushroom cloud
Nuclear explosion and atomic mushroom cloud. Kipa/Sygma via Getty Images

As another scientist reflected, nuclear weapons treat human beings as matter. In the terrible blast furnace face of them, we humans are nothing but fuel to their fire.

An art exhibit by Japanese A-bomb survivors that tried to capture the ghastly horrors of those attacks was known as "The Unforgettable Fire." The Irish band U2 named an album after it. As horrifyingly deadly as those nuclear fires were in 1945, it will be unimaginably worse if the U.S. and Russia unleash even a fraction of the missiles and other thermonuclear weapons they have in their respective arsenals.

We must not wait until it's too late. We must work to end nuclear weapons now and forever, before they end us.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history. He is an Eisenhower Media Fellow. Find more of his work at BracingViews.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.