Six Decades of Living With Nuclear War

always at 30 minutes to Doomsday: the reason we're crazy

H.G. Wells first predicted atomic bombs in his 1913 novel "The World Set Free," which described an atomic world war followed by a period of world peace and international law accompanied by peaceful applications of nuclear energy. When James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932, physicist Leo Szilard conceived that a chain reaction involving neutrons from splitting atoms might be possible. Szilard hypothesized that a fissioning atom that released two neutrons that then split two more atoms, which each split two more atoms, in a geometric increase, could release an enormous amount of energy, meaning that an atomic bomb might be more than fiction.
see Richard L. Miller, “Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing," pp. 16-17; "Nuclear Barons," pp. 3-5


Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since the prehistoric discovery of fire. This basic power of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms. For there is no secret and there is no defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.
We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and its implications for society. In this lies our only security and our only hope--we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not death.
-- Albert Einstein, January 22, 1947

The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.
-- Albert Einstein, 1946


Chris was also getting to know better the CIA residents at the plant and some of the agency's employees who worked in the West Coast Office. With few exceptions, he was frightened of them. "When they talked about nuclear war," he would recall years later, "they didn't think in terms of if there will be a war, but when there will be a war." Their casualness about a nuclear holocaust horrified him. ....

How insane the world had become, he reflected; he thought of ancient Greece and Rome, about the great cities man had built, his great works of art, and then he thought of the cities smoldering in the darkness of a civilization that had snuffed itself out in atomic warfare. What madness man had created!

His mind focused on the silos that pocked Siberia and the base of the Urals and other areas of the Soviet Union; he thought of identical silos dug into the plains of Wyoming, North Dakota and Arizona and other stretches of the prairie, where, less than a century before, American Indians had fought for survival with bows and arrows. Each silo on both sides of the world had a missile with enough energy to destroy several cities. These were not abstract illusions, he thought, but reality. They were there. In each silo was a missile with a nuclear warhead; each missile was alive, with the gyrocompass in its guidance system spinning relentlessly twenty-four hours a day, awaiting a signal to carry the warhead to a target that had already been chosen by men and their computers.

How had man come to this brink? Civilization was so close to annihilation. Why weren't other people as panicked as he was? The missiles were in the silos, ready to be launched at an instant, ready to extinguish in minutes what man had taken thousands of years to build. Didn't people know that?

Robert Lindsey, "The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage," Simon and Schuster (1979), pp. 113, 210-211


The thinking of all members of society must be entirely recast in a new mold--workers, scientists, whoever they may be. After all, accidents are never accidental. Everyone must now understand that life in the nuclear age demands the same kind of painstaking attention to detail as one finds in the calculation of a missile trajectory. The nuclear age cannot be nuclear in one area only, and nonnuclear everywhere else. It is vitally important to realize that everyone must know, for example, what a chromosome is. They must know this just as they know what a four-cylinder internal combustion engine is. It is impossible to live without this knowledge. Anyone who wants to live in the nuclear era has got to create a new culture, a whole new mindset.
-- Andrei Ivanovich Vorobyov, member, Soviet Academy of Medical Science, quoted in Grigori Medvedev, "The Truth About Chernobyl," (American edition, Basic Books, 1991, originally published 1989), p. 267


The actual use of the weapons on the two Japanese cities gave substance to the image [of extinction] and disseminated it everywhere, making it the dubious psychic property of the common man and woman. Moreover, other events have contributed to imagery of extinction … [including] Nazi genocide during World War II; various nuclear accidents involving weapons or energy; the idea of destroying the environment or its outer supports (the ozone layer); or of the depletion of the world's resources. Nuclear weapons are simply the destructive edge of our technology gone wild in its distorted blend with science--or what [sociologist] Lewis Mumford calls the final apotheosis of the contemporary megamachine. But the weapons remain at the heart of our fear as the most extreme expression of that aberration.
-- Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, “Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism," New York: Basic Books, Inc. (1982), pp. 60-61