The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years
ago were stunning and sobering events. They brought World War II to an end,
and everyone was thankful for that. Not too many of us stopped to think about
the full implications of those bombs for our future. We were too busy celebrating
the end of that terrible war.
One of the people who had it absolutely right at the very beginning about the
meaning of Hiroshima was the great French writer Albert Camus. He wrote in a
French resistance newspaper: "Our technological civilization has just reached
its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less
near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific
conquests." We are still facing that choice.
Both the US and the USSR tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere until the
early 1960s, while they continued to create more efficient weapons. It didn't
take either country long to get those weapons on intercontinental ballistic
missiles and then submarine-launched ballistic missiles. They created a situation
in which the world could be destroyed in a matter of minutes. This threat of
a massive nuclear exchange was thought to provide an ad hoc policy to prevent
nuclear war. It was called the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, for which
the acronym was MAD. Never was an acronym more accurately descriptive.
We came very close to a nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow in 1962
with the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a very frightening time, and we can all
be thankful that sanity managed to prevail. There were high-ranking US officials
at the time who were pressing for bombing Cuba, which would have meant a nuclear
war with the Soviet Union. That was one of many close calls during the Cold
With the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be a real chance again to put
nuclear dangers behind us, and once again the opportunity was largely missed.
Today, in the 60th year of the Nuclear Age, we still have some 30,000 nuclear
weapons in the world, and some 4,000 of these are on hair-trigger alert. You
have to wonder about a species that seems so incapable of eliminating the greatest
danger to its own survival. Not so incidentally, the United States has more
nuclear weapons in its arsenal than any other nation.
There has been much emphasis in the news about the dangers of nuclear proliferation
in such countries as North Korea. All countries should abide by the Non-Proliferation
Treaty. Few Americans are aware, however, that the treaty also provides that
the US and other nuclear-weapons states must reduce their numbers of nuclear
weapons. Unfortunately, disarmament by nuclear-weapons states receives limited
attention in news reporting, at least within the United States. I think this
might be because the continuing existence of our own vast arsenal doesn't
seem to Americans, even if they are aware of it, to be nearly as dangerous as
the threat of new nations acquiring the ghastly weapons.
The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the hibakusha have continually
warned, "Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot coexist." In the
end, I believe this is the most important lesson of Hiroshima. We must eliminate
nuclear weapons before they eliminate us.
The best security, perhaps the only security, against nuclear weapons being
used again, or getting into the hands of terrorists, is to eliminate them. Most
of the people of the world already know this. Now it is up to the world's
people to impress the urgency of this situation upon their governments. We must
act now. The future depends upon us.
Anything less would be to abandon our responsibility to future generations.
© 2005 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate