Oppenheimer and Me

Humans continue to live with the same fear that has haunted us since we initially split the atom. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant and heroic man, was just the first scientist to accomplish the inevitable. There tends to be little moral calculus to science.

Oppenheimer and Me
Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test

“What a curious picture it is to find man, homo sapiens, of divine origin, we are told, seriously considering going underground to escape the consequences of his own folly. With a little wisdom and foresight, surely it is not yet necessary to forsake life in the fresh air and in the warmth of the sunlight. What a paradox if our own cleverness in science should force us to live underground with the moles.” - J. William Fulbright, former U.S. Senator

The nuclear bomb lived in my childhood. Nothing about it was thought of as an artifact of war or an abstraction. Instead, those of us born after the great global conflict had been taught to view the device as a kind of living monster, which was always at risk of being used by a madman. We did not understand the idea that a solitary person might be able to destroy the entire planet, maybe because we had not yet been present when the first nuclear explosion obliterated Hiroshima. Publishers, confronted by an almost incomprehensible moment in human history, were still struggling to find the right language and moral tone for purposes of teaching our generation. There was, however, more than enough evidence in our daily lives to proliferate fear among children who were supposed to be riding bicycles, sledding, playing baseball, and beginning to look in wonder at the opposite sex.

My father, neither politician nor intellect, seemed to express fear, which did not fit with his persona. A large man of outsized musculature, he had walked across Europe shooting German resistors as a sharpshooter after the Allied front passed through villages and towns. Nuclear talk, though, had gotten his attention even prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had moved up from the South for Daddy to get a job in the factory and get out of the cotton fields. We lived, therefore, in one of the manufacturing centers, which were considered prime targets for the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Entrepreneurs and capitalists, undaunted by visions of mass death and destruction, had begun cashing in on the nuclear phobia.

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Daddy took my brother and me up to a new shopping plaza to look at backyard bomb shelters being sold in the parking lot. Barely able to make a monthly mortgage payment of $62 dollars, he had to be responding to his curiosity, and nothing more, but, yes, manufacturers were peddling fallout shelters by putting them on display as if they were new Chevys on a car lot. No tires were available for kicking, but there was a row of maybe 30 people lined up to climb inside one of the models. We got out of my father’s rattly Studebaker and walked across the pavement toward the shelters.

“I don’t wanna go inside, Daddy,” I said.

“Ain’t nothin’ to be afraid of, buddy boy.”

“I’m scared we might have to live in one.”

“At least we’d be livin’,” he said.

“But you can’t go outside. A man on the TV said it would be a million years. We’d have to be in that underground the rest of our lives.”

“I don’t reckon it’ll be all that bad.”

“I’m afraid, Daddy. I don’t want to see it.”

Everyone else, though, appeared enthusiastic, as if the steel, subterranean, and modified water tank’s existence made the bomb irrelevant. There must be some kind of psychological trauma we Baby Boomers carry with us from being frequently confronted with the horrors of the bomb. A subconscious darkness arises even now as I try to write about this with disaffection. More than six decades later I can feel the cold sweat on my hands and the way I shuffled my feet to slow down my father’s approach to the shelter.

When we reached the front of the line, though, Daddy insisted I be first down the ladder. I do not remember crying but I recall feeling as though I might be trapped and forever imprisoned in a small space with no sky or real light or wind. I wonder if the experience contributed to the claustrophobia I confront as an adult. I never feel safe unless I am outdoors and under a big sky and can see the horizon, which is the worst place to be should a nuclear warhead ever reach American soil.

The model we were touring appeared to have been built from an underground water or gasoline storage tank. A steel plate had been welded across the bottom to provide a flat floor and there were cots on either side that folded down from the curved walls. Water came from a tank with a push lever, which reminded me of the hand pump on my uncle’s farm in Mississippi. There were two bare bulbs hanging in cages from the ceiling at either end and a small space for sitting and eating. A few shelves made of steel were used for any storage of food. There was no refrigerator, but there was a crank that apparently was used to cycle in fresh air, which probably would not exist above ground. A toilet with no privacy was off to one side, which prompted unanswered questions about where human waste was stored.

I picked up a device that looked a bit like an electric eggbeater.

“That’s the Geiger counter.” The salesman was standing halfway down the ladder. Daddy turned around and acted surprised.

“What’s a Geiger counter for?” he asked.

“Counts Geigers,” the man said, smiling awkwardly.

“What the hell is….”

“Sorry, just trying to lighten things up a bit. I thought you’d know. It measures radiation.”

“Why do I need to know that?”

“Well, so you can know when it’s safe to go back above ground.”

“You said two weeks of food and water was all this place could hold,” Daddy said. “I reckon that’s when we go back up.”

“The TV said a million years, mister,” I told him. “That’s how long before the nuclear stuff goes away.”

“Well, we are throwing in the Geiger counter, no charge, to our buyers. And remember, our shelters keep you safe from more than just radiation. You’ll never need to worry about a tornado ever again.”

I was pleased to be back outside when my father lowered me to the ground from the top of the shelter door. The sky was bright blue and the air cool as autumn came early to Michigan. Not much has ever looked quite so beautiful to me. I was unable, however, to ignore the bomb, even in school.

Our little elementary school was new and had begun teaching lessons unique to history. We were the first generation to confront Armageddon in our childhoods. What war had unleashed on the world was suddenly, and consistently, being inserted into our psyches, and more than three quarters of a century later, we are still living with a nameless, shapeless dread we try to not acknowledge. The fact the bomb has not been used since Nagasaki somehow gives us comfort that it will never be deployed as an instrument of war, which is borderline delusional.

McGrath Elementary was set back in a grove of trees between expanding housing developments in the suburbs of the automotive industrial centers. I can still smell the fresh paint and see the shining metal trim on the windows and how it seemed to almost glow even on the innumerable gray Michigan days. While we were just grade schoolers, we felt the great sense of optimism and growth potential in our communities. We were surrounded by construction crews putting up bungalows and ranch-style homes built with mortgages guaranteed through a program created by the federal government to help veterans of the war begin their lives.

In our classrooms, the desks we had been provided had attached chairs and glassy Formica tops and our books bore stiff bindings with rich paper and ink smells. I loved school as a boy, and I was especially happy when there were deviations from daily lessons. Consequently, I was excited when a teaching assistant rolled a film projector into the back of the room. A screen was pulled up and hooked on a three-legged stand and Mrs. Hagemeister began to act very serious. After the projector had been plugged in and the screen scooted to the front of the classroom, our teacher spoke to us in a tone of voice I had not heard all year.

"Class, you are about to watch a short film from the government,” she said. “But you should think of this as a learning opportunity to understand a bit about the world and it might be more important than anything I can teach you."

Immediately, she had our attention. We also got a sense that we were to be a part of something important. My teacher’s words excited my imagination and I thought we were on the verge of opening a magical door that was a privileged entrance offered only to schoolchildren. My eagerness, though, ultimately, was denuded by a generational darkness, which still hovers over every human aspiration.

"Children, you all know already about war. Many of your fathers haven't been back from the war for much more than a decade. There are always people who start wars, and we must be prepared. That's what you should be thinking about when you watch this movie. How to be ready if you face the unimaginable."

I remember her words as clearly as if she were across the room today speaking. Mrs. Hagemeister, matronly and tall with her hair born up in a net, walked silently to the wall switch in the back of the room and turned off the lights. The administrative assistant from the principal’s office clicked the toggle on the projector to cast a cone of light toward the screen. We listened to the whirring of the un-spooling film on spinning sprockets and watched the leader count down. There was a title on the screen that I don't remember exactly, but I think it referenced school safety in the nuclear era. A formal male baritone made vague references to politics and government disagreements and powerful new weapons in the world.

I lost track of what the narrator was saying and was drawn into the strangest scenes a child might have ever encountered. A classroom of students just like ours was shown taking instructions from their teacher, who told them to do something like "drop, roll, and curl" under their desks. A siren wailed in the background and then there was a mushroom cloud rising darkly from the earth. Children scurried away from windows, tipped their desks on the side, and assumed a fetal pose as a tumbling wave of destruction raced across the landscape. I did not sleep much for many days, and a half-century later, many nights, I still do not. Nuclear weapons are more destructive today and facile little films and videos will make no one safe.

In a few weeks, we had our first nuclear safety drill. Students had been told that if the fire alarm blared without interruption, instead of pulsing, it was a bomb warning and we were to “assume our safety positions.” Over the course of the next few months, we scrambled to overturn desks and get into our fetal poses, and always during class time. No one had ever considered the mushroom cloud might arise as we were walking between classes and how that might cause chaos and panic. Of course, none of our new ritual was likely to make any difference or save a single life. We would have been doomed before any alarm sounded.

Humans continue to live with the same fear that has haunted us since we initially split the atom. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant and heroic man, was just the first scientist to accomplish the inevitable. There tends to be little moral calculus to science. Facts must be discovered; how they are used involves morality. Arguments persist more than 75 years later about whether the bombing of Japan was a necessary evil to end the war. The nation was defeated but their Emperor Hirohito, perceived as a god on Earth, was likely to have ordered the fight to continue. Invading Americans would have died by the thousands. Was the second bomb over Nagasaki required to achieve peace? That argument is harder to make.

Modern governments have taken comfort in the textbook notion of deterrence through a concept analysts dubbed “Mutually Assured Destruction,” the idea that there is no desirable outcome in a nuclear conflict because both parties will be destroyed. When one nation fires off a nuclear weapon, the other reacts with an equal response, and the devastation continues to elevate. In the unlikely event anyone survives the initial explosions, radioactive fallout drifting across the globe will kill them with cancer and the destruction of cell tissues while a nuclear winter destroys all sources of food. What point would there be to live in such a landscape? To start humanity anew, and repeat the process? What evidence is there we have learned to avoid war? We started clubbing each other on the head in disputes over animal carcasses when we came out of caves and later began dying to defend our imaginary gods, and then to acquire power and control over resources and huge populations. In motives for war and killing, humans are ingenious.

Non-proliferation is not a solution to nuclear danger, either. Only the destruction of arsenals can save us. Deployment implies use, and manufacture is a political statement. There is no possible need for nuclear weaponry. Their global elimination is essential if humans are to continue evolving, even existing. The entire planet needs to sign an irrevocable treaty mandating the disassembling and disposal of nuclear bombs and missiles. No other solution is even remotely hopeful.

There are no backyard bomb shelters for sale in 2023. The megatons of destructive power that exist in hydrogen and nuclear explosives delivered in minutes by hypersonic missiles will make underground survival an even more absurd endeavor than it was in the fifties and sixties. The world’s three great economic and political powers have enough weaponry to turn every square foot of the planet into a parking lot that glows in the dark. Our mutually assured destruction, and fail-safe launch systems, have prevented a human disaster that would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings appear like sticks of dynamite dropped from the sky. The notion of a power-drunk and demented warrior king with such armaments, though, has always seemed an improbability as cultures evolved. But maybe that’s an incorrect perception.

There are no emotional or logical tools for managing these fears in a Baby Boomer’s life almost six-plus decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were the force multiplier that was supposed to improve the planet but we keep moving it closer to the eve of destruction. The world seems always at war; the only variable is the size of the conflict. In 1962, the culture was already taking notice of the nuclear standoff between great powers. Just five months before JFK confronted the U.S.S.R., Hollywood released a film to give us our first glimpse of a post-apocalyptic life. “Panic in the Year Zero” was about a nuclear bomb destroying Los Angeles and a family trying to survive the unfolding dystopian nightmare. Not even “The Exorcist” would strike me as more frightening.

I admit I am still afraid and continue to vividly recall lying in bed as a boy, trying to fall asleep while straining to hear missiles or airplanes carrying nuclear bombs. Our house was right in the flight path for final approach to the regional airport and every aircraft that passed over our rooftop filled me with a great, trembling dread. I always turned my back to the window to avoid the bright flash like my teacher had instructed and I listened closely for an explosion that might end the world.

I listen still.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a jim@bigbendstrategies.com.