When President Truman approved the use of the world’s first atomic bomb, the weapon first had to be transported to the island of Tinian. Stowed in the hold of the USS Indianapolis in July 1945, the journey from San Francisco took 10 days. Flying time from the airfield to the city of Hiroshima clocked in at about six hours, and the bomb itself fell for 43 seconds before exploding.
These hours, minutes, and seconds of history will be front and center this Friday, when Barack Obama becomes the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima. Yet aside from anniversaries, Americans don’t think much about nuclear weapons today. Perhaps it is the cultural hangover from the Cold War, which often seemed to test the limits of how much fear societies could endure. Perhaps with the bombing of Hiroshima passing from living memory, we’ve simply lost the vocabulary for talking about the mechanics of midnight, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists famously christened the end of the world.
Instead, what is left is the absurdist shorthand: “the finger on the button.” What that cliched phrase means today is this: The US president could order a nuclear strike on, say Moscow, and the 12 million inhabitants there would be incinerated about 15 minutes later.
The apparatus of calamity constructed over the past seven decades is more lethal now than it was in the summer of 1945, and it is far easier to use. Its future is worth considering, especially by those seeking the White House. Today, the United States has more than 7,000 nuclear weapons. Of those, 2,000 are deployed, which means they can be launched on a 15-minute alert on the authority of one human being.
Nine months after Obama’s finger was first placed on the button, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his stated goals of nuclear nonproliferation. The administration’s deal with Iran and its efforts to get more than a dozen nations to surrender bomb-grade material are important steps toward checking the spread of cataclysmic weapons.
At the same time, however, the Obama administration oversaw the development of the B61 model 12, a new nuclear weapon that is small, accurate, and adaptable. In truth, this is what might be called a contradiction bomb: It is the most expensive nuclear weapon project in history, yet it is intentionally designed to get the least bang for the buck. It is a nuclear weapon that looks and feels and can be used like a conventional smart bomb. This ease — even plausibility — of use is what makes this weapon so dangerous.
The Pentagon is also in the process of taking advantage of the already extreme accuracy of missile warheads by changing their fusing mechanisms so as to increase their ability to successfully destroy the hardest targets by a factor of three. This program will vastly increase the killing power of the entire missile arsenal and, in so doing, create the appearance that the United States is preparing to fight and win a nuclear war against Russia.
Americans today have lots of pressing concerns — paying their bills, paying their debts, deciding whom to vote for. The Atomic Scientists even changed their clock in 2007 to reflect the threat posed by climate change rather than just nuclear annihilation.
The country meanwhile spent its Cold War peace dividend on decades of forgetting the stakes, on trivializing the power of the presidency. After all, what really is an affair with an intern, a torture program, a terrorist attack on a remote embassy, when there’s an immediate and existential threat one push away?
Which brings us to Peak Triviality — Donald Trump’s pursuit of the White House.
Not only did Trump not know the basics of the US nuclear triad (the Pentagon’s land, sea, and air contingent of nuclear forces), he also rejects nonproliferation, a strategy fundamental to Western military thinking since Hiroshima. Conservative military thinker Max Boot calls Trump the country’s top national security threat, though surprisingly few Republicans publicly share that view.
Lest drawing attention to this topic be perceived as fear-mongering, consider this interview Trump sat for in March with Chris Matthews:
TRUMP: Look, nuclear should be off the table. But would there be a time when it could be used, possibly, possibly?
MATTHEWS: OK. The trouble is, when you said that, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in ’45, heard it. They’re hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.
TRUMP: Then why are we making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?
Just because one political party feels that Trump is the most suitable soul to command the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal doesn’t mean the wider electorate should lose sight of the stakes.
President Richard Nixon was famous for his “madman” theory of foreign policy, whereby his administration tried to convince leaders of enemy nations that he was mentally unstable and thus not to be antagonized. Should he win in November, Trump will have to go to extraordinary lengths to persuade friend and foe alike that he is both predictable and worthy of trust. The fate of nations may depend on it.