By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
STANFORD, Calif.—“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” These were the words from the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad-Gita, that flashed through the mind of the man credited with creating the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, as the first nuclear explosion in history lit up the dark desert sky at the Trinity blast site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.
Weeks after that, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and thrust the world into the atomic age. Since then, humanity has lived with the terrible prospect of nuclear war and mass annihilation. Conventional wisdom holds that the likelihood that these unconventional weapons will be used has decreased since the end of the so-called Cold War. That perception has been challenged lately, especially since President Barack Obama announced a 30-year, $1 trillion program to modernize the U.S. nuclear-weapon arsenal.
Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on Monday, the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to visit the site. Kerry was in Japan for a meeting of the G-7 nations. In his public remarks at the memorial, Kerry offered no apology for the nuclear attacks. He did say, though, that the museum “was a reminder of the depth of obligation that every single one of us in public life carries—in fact, every person in position of responsibility carries—to work for peace … to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons.”
Despite the lofty rhetoric, President Obama has launched what the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability calls the “Trillion Dollar Trainwreck.” That is the title of a new report on Obama’s massive plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal, to be released next Monday. Marylia Kelley is one of the report’s authors. She serves as executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, or Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, a partner organization with the Alliance. Of Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima, Kelley said, on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, “Kerry went empty-handed. The United States needs to go with a concrete plan to roll back its own nuclear-weapons program. You cannot preach abstinence, in terms of nuclear weapons, from the biggest bar stool in the room.”
“The United States is initiating a new nuclear arms race, because the other nuclear-armed states, of course, when they look at our ‘modernization program,’ are now beginning their own,” she told us. “We need this to be rolled back.” Kelley lives in Livermore, California, home to one of the U.S. government’s national laboratories dedicated to developing and manufacturing nuclear bombs.
President Obama delivered his first address on the U.S. nuclear arsenal on April 5, 2009, in Prague: “Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black-market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound,” he said.
As with his pledge to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, his pledge to move the U.S. toward nuclear disarmament seems to have been abandoned. Grass-roots groups in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability would like to see Obama make an historic trip to Hiroshima, as the first sitting U.S. president to do so. “If Obama goes to Hiroshima,” Marylia Kelley said, “he needs to use that as an opportunity, not to speak empty promises and rhetoric about an eventual world free of nuclear weapons, but to make concrete proposals about how the United States is going to take steps in that direction and how we’re going to change course, because right now we’re taking giant steps in the opposite direction.”
The U.S. nuclear arsenal, and all the expense, nuclear waste and immense danger it continuously poses, has received almost no attention in the U.S. presidential debates. The day after he launched his campaign in late May 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about the trillion-dollar nuclear-arsenal upgrade at a town hall in New Hampshire. “What all of this is about is our national priorities,” he replied. “Who are we as a people? Does Congress listen to the military-industrial complex, who has never seen a war that they didn’t like? Or do we listen to the people of this country who are hurting?”
In 1946, the year after Trinity, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity gave birth to the atomic bomb, offered a warning to the world that remains starkly relevant today: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”