The working life of Little Boy was 43 seconds – the time it took to fall from the B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay which had transported it from Tinian Island to Hiroshima on 06 August 1945 – to the altitude of 1,800 feet. At 1,800 feet, it changed the world in ways that continue to haunt us to this day. In those 43 seconds and four or five that it took for the resulting explosion to devastate the city and kill 100,000 people instantly, the world was ushered into an era when entire cities could be obliterated in seconds. A multi-faceted quantum leap had occurred.
Quite depressingly, not a lot. Hiroshima is a by word for nuclear armageddon, in much the same way Auschwitz is a by word for the Holocaust.
The geopolitical quantum leap that occurred on 06 August 1945 was about a device whose proliferation nearly caused World War 3, but at the same time was the reason it did not happen. It was one in which the world was made to confront a weapon so terrible that the most despotic dictators dreamed of having them. This was a weapon which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and later on France, Britain and China would begin to – and still do – spend exorbitant amounts of money and resources on. It was a weapon though, that thus far has proven to be so dangerous, that no one has – YET – been stupid enough to use it in anger since 1945.
The societal view of nuclear weapons started off in the post-World War 2 era viewing them as somehow a weapon of peace that would ensure no more big wars. Papers triumphantly announced the successful testing of prototype thermo-nuclear weapons. But with the Cuban Missile Crisis and perhaps even before then questions began to arise about what the real effects would be. Social movements against them began to form. The Rainbow Warrior bombing demonstrated how heated tensions could become and New Zealand became a leading nation of the disarmament movement.
Yes people will say that perhaps nuclear weapons prevented World War 3. And perhaps they are right. In the 70 years since World War 2 ended, no more urban areas have been subject to their wrath. No global conflagration has occurred, though we have come dreadfully close on at least two separate occasions, and there are several more near mishaps where missile tests of nuclear armed devices threatened to become live firing sequences.
But the environmental, social and economic toll has been awful. The geopolitics of nuclear disarmament are as fascinating as they are murky, hypocritical and – at the moment – slowly unravelling all that painstaking, grey hairing, progress towards a safer more just world. How can people say the world is becoming more peaceful when the very sort of Middle East conflict that features in the B.B.C. nuclear holocaust docu-drama Threads is currently playing out now? How can things be getting better when the Russians have restarted production of the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber, one of their most ambitious Cold War weapons systems?
The actual necessity of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is debatable. Japan was was surrounded by Allied naval forces who had total control of the sea. U.S. bombers and fighter aircraft roamed over Japan with impunity, bombing and shooting up whatever they wanted. Starved of oil, its cities slowly being burnt to the ground by relentless incendiary raids would Japan have simply decided enough was enough? Perhaps. But as fate had it, a few hours before Nagasaki was bombed, the Union of Soviet Social Republics kept a promise made at Yalta in February 1945 to declare war on Japan within 90 days of Germany surrendering. Suddenly a military front was opened much closer to Japan than the Americans in Okinawa some 500 kilometres away. To be defeated in war according to the Shinto religion was the most awful shame a nation could wish upon itself. The Mongol fleet that tried to invade Japan in 1282 was smashed by a typhoon giving rise to the pilots of the Divine Wind (Kamikazes). Not for another several hundred years was Japan threatened. But with the U.S.S.R. invading Manchuria and northern Korea, it was a very real possibility. Perhaps surrendering whilst the islands were not yet being invaded was not such a bad idea after all.
But, a debate that has raged – and probably will for sometime yet – remains to be settled. Can the world be rid of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s creation, one he came to heartily despise himself? Or shall the world have to live under the spectre of further blinding flashes, brighter than a thousand suns in the future?