Nuclear Fears

Sep 8, 2017

When I was in elementary school a national magazine did an article on what would happen if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Detroit. I don’t remember all the details, except that windows would have been broken in Lansing, and where I lived would have been melted glass. This was back in the early 1960s, when we were still tucking ourselves under our desks in that famous “duck and cover” air raid drill.

I wasn’t terribly sophisticated, but I was smart enough to figure out that squatting under a Formica desk wasn’t likely to save anyone. After the Cuban missile crisis, I read portions of a book I was probably too young for, Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War.

From that, I concluded that the best thing I could do if there ever was a nuclear war was to stand in the middle of the playground. Many years later, I wrote about arms control issues, and once spent a night in a hotel near to Ground Zero of the Hiroshima blast. If I had my way, both President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un would each spend an afternoon in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

I won’t say much about what I saw, except that one exhibit consisted of a bank teller who was melted into the money he was counting. When I spent some time in the Soviet Union as a graduate student, I learned very quickly that of all people, the Russians were least likely to want any kind of major war. Losing 27 million people, as they did in World War II, has a powerful effect on a nation’s national psyche.

The Cold War created its last flutters of flight in the early 1980s, when we deployed more than five hundred intermediate range missiles in Europe, and there were fears that the Soviets, worried about being rendered defenseless by a future so-called “Star Wars” missile defense shield, might launch a surprise first strike. This spawned a final raft of post-nuclear apocalyptic novels and films, most notably one called The Day After. I wasn’t much worried.

I knew that neither Moscow nor Washington were up for a scenario where everybody dies. I really was never worried about nuclear war until the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, there would no longer be two big, sober, essentially sane superpowers to restrain their less rational allies from doing something crazy. I worried most then about India and Pakistan. It didn’t seem possible that North Korean would develop a nuclear weapon, but it did.

And so now it seems such weapons are in the hands of a mysterious leader too young to remember the Cold War, and who is behaving in a manner that seems anything but reasonable. Nor does it help that our nation has a president for whom classic diplomacy seems an alien concept. There is no real fear Michigan is ever going to be hit by a North Korean bomb.

But there seems to be a considerable chance that something could get out of control. During the Cold War, people talked and thought incessantly about what a nuclear war might mean, and students debated the morality of what we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t sense people do much of that anymore.

I think maybe they should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.