According to a 1998 “Physics Today” report, the “estimated costs of U.S. nuclear weapons arms race, 1940-1996” (in ’96 dollars) was $5.8 trillion. A year later, in a letter to the editor of the NY Times, Stephen Schwartz, Publisher of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, put the figure at $5.5 trillion. We needn’t quibble; the costs were close to $6 trillion dollars and do not include other defense-related activities, which were a large multiple of this amount.

In August 1945, fueled by the earliest combustion of those dollars, the U.S. dropped two small (15 kiloton) atomic bombs on Japanese cities and their civilian populations, precipitating over 200,000 deaths by the year’s end and thousands more subsequently from cancer and other illness and debility. (Ground temperatures reached 4,000° C.) Thankfully, these two bombs were the first and last used to date.

During the U.S.-Soviet Union arms race, 125,000 nuclear weapons were built. At their height near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had amassed about 65,000 and the Soviet Union 40,000 (according to the Federation of American Scientists as reported in 17,000 remain today. Some people claim that all those trillions of dollars expended on tens of thousands of massive explosives bought peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, that without the threat of mutual annihilation we might have gone to war with each other, and that the obvious redundancy in the numbers was unavoidable owing to the tit-for-tat dynamics of the contest. As it happened, nuclear holocaust did not erupt, but there is considerable documentation that several potentially serious accidents occurred in which one or more of the weapons might have exploded; in other cases, only good judgment by lower level decision-makers and good luck in the midst of international tensions prevented intentional usage. We have survived by dent of good fortune but continue to be endangered by bad fortune, the reliance on human intelligence contaminated by fear, ambition, and small thinking applied to a big issue—as if there were no ability to take a less impaired perspective.

It was a wasteful and suspenseful time, especially for Americans and Russians, but no life and no nation were exempt since all would have been collateral casualties in a major nuclear exchange. Which raises a question of propriety, justice, good sense—should the decisions of a few be allowed to risk the existence of all the rest of us along with the health of Earth?

In the early post-WWII period, though, the Japanese faced the nuclear issue with more immediate concerns: John Hersey visited Hiroshima a year after the bombs fell and wrote about what happened.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk…had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk…

As Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbor, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house. Timbers fell around her as she landed, and a shower of tiles pommeled her; everything became dark, for she was buried. The debris did not cover her deeply. She rose up and freed herself. She heard a child cry, “Mother, help me!” and saw her youngest—Myeko, the five-year old—buried up to her breast and unable to move. As Mrs. Nakamura started frantically to claw her way toward the baby, she could see or hear nothing of her other children. (The New Yorker, 8-31-1946)

In 1969, Masuji Ibuse wrote Black Rain, a novel about the aftermath; one of his survivors committed shards of memory to his diary, recollections of walking away from the shattered city:

  The countless people who had blackish dried blood clinging to them where it had flowed from their faces onto their shoulders and down their backs, or over their chests and down their bellies. Some were still bleeding, but they seemed to have no energy to do anything about it.

  The people staggering along in whatever direction the crowd carried them, their arms dangling purposelessly by their sides.

  The people who walked with their eyes shut, swaying to and fro as they were pushed by the crowd.

  The woman leading a child by the hand who realized that the child was not hers, shook her hand free with a cry, and ran off. And the child—a boy of six or seven—running, crying plaintively, after her.

  The father leading his child by the hand who lost hold of him in the crush…

  A middle-aged man carrying an old man on his back.

  A man carrying a young girl—an invalid, I should say, and his daughter—on his back.

  (Kodansha USA, pp. 57-58)

Hours pass. He continues walking.

In this area, the bodies in the roadway were rather fewer. They lay in a hundred and one different poses, but most of them—more than eighty percent of them—were alike in lying face down…The bodies were completely naked and scorched black, and the buttocks of each rested in a great pool of feces. Nowhere else had I witnessed such a scene. The hair on their heads and elsewhere was burned away, and it was only by the contours—of the breasts, for example—that I could distinguish man and woman. How had they come to meet such a grotesque death? (p. 99)

Such are the consequences when newly discovered destructive capacity and its inherent momentum exceed moral restraint. Can Americans imagine what this would be like for Chicagoans or New Yorkers, the people of Des Moines or Tulsa? The closest we’ve come was 9/11 and our response was excessive and irrational, self-destructive and self-indulgent, violence without reason—also, by some in Washington, D.C., opportunistic.

The Cold War and the nuclear arms race that distinguished it—not by nuclear explosions and deaths for the primary contestants, but in proxy wars; death was mostly for proxies—has been officially over for close to thirty years.

The last two thirds of this post-Cold War period have been distinguished by the U.S. Terror War, which has already cost, and bills been incurred, for $5.9 trillion according to the Brown University Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project. Around a million have died and many more than this were injured, maimed, and sickened, with millions of people internally displaced or made refugees; also, inestimable property damage. Chaos, and seeds of new conflicts.

Between 1800 and 2017 the U.S. militarily intervened in other countries 392 times, an average of 1.8 interventions per year. Since the Cold War ended in 1991 the number has been 188, almost half of the total. Objective threats had diminished with the end of the Soviet Union while interventions mushroomed although little if any good came from them. What were they for? Apparently we are simultaneously averse to peace-making and incompetent at war-making but always ready to try, try again. (Monica Toft, “Why is America Addicted to Foreign Interventions?” National Interest, 12/10/2017)

Momentum builds for a new arms race. We have committed $1.7 trillion for nuclear weapon “modernization” over the next thirty years, and since Pentagon contract management is invariably inept, we can expect it to exceed $2 trillion before all the bills come due. There is also talk of expanding our European missile defense capacity. The Army is asking for $191 billion in the FY2020 budget for new weapons. Hypersonic weapons are on order for the Navy and Air Force. The latter also seeks new laser weapons, AI systems, networked cruise missiles, smart bombs, and cyberwar capabilities. A cornucopia of death and destruction, thanks to the military-industrial-politician complex and a quiescent citizenry.

To justify all this, American policy-makers speak of threats, endless threats. (Pay close attention to how often that word is used in news reports and federal government pronouncements to describe myriad nations and situations. One could easily imagine the U.S. as the 98-pound weakling on the beach surrounded by muscle-men.) Terrorists served well for twenty years, but they recede; Iran and North Korea remain but on back burners. Moving now into the fearful spotlight is China with Russia close behind. A defunct Cold War scare organization, The Committee on the Present Danger, has been revivified to lead the charge, to be certain that none of us fail to recognize and fully experience a new Red Scare.

American spending on what are called national and homeland defense operations, all totaled from all their shadowy budget corners, is now in the neighborhood of $1.25 trillion/year, a neighborhood so pricey it would take the next eight or nine most profligate nations combined to move in. (See William Hartung, the Arms and Security Project of the Center for International Policy.)

The 35 year old government department known as the United States Institute for Peace, which does not really exist incognito but might as well, had a FY2019 budget of about $38 million. The F-35A fighter aircraft costs upwards of $85 million each, and by many observers is considered a dud without a purpose.

Events etched in the annals of American history leading to now.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This