Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Great 20th Century Nuclear War

You mean you didn't know about it?

If you are old enough to have lived through some portion of the last century, as I did, you might be saying to yourself, well, at least we never blew ourselves up. Indeed, after the decades-long threat of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, it does come as something of a relief to know that the conflict finally ended without ever reaching that final cataclysm. It is commonly said that we only ever fought the Soviet Union "by proxy," when smaller conventional wars were waged in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But conventional wisdom is wrong. A nuclear war did take place in those years, with thousands of nuclear detonations -- enough to have eradicated every major city in the world, along with most of the smaller ones. What's that? You say you didn't notice? Well, that's probably because it happened over such a long period of time. And instead of dropping them on enemy cities we mostly blew them up in our own back yards, or in the neutral territory of the Pacific Ocean where it was supposed that they would be relatively harmless.

I'm speaking of course about the testing programs that were carried out by every country that developed "the Bomb." The appalling scale of these tests (and I can't write the word without hearing in my mind the repetition by the Emergency Broadcast System, "this is only a test") is rendered abundantly clear in this short video by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto. 

On a map of the world, he has animated a time lapse of all the nuclear bombs exploded from 1945 in New Mexico, through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then everywhere else, up to 1998. The image is compelling, as are the statistics. 2,054 explosions conducted by seven countires. Over half of them by the United States, and a huge percentage of those on our own soil. (Hint: you might want to steer clear of Nevada for the next few thousand years.) Russia came in second, of course. Want to guess who's number three? If you said China, bzzt, you're wrong. The correct answer is France.

Be sure to stick with the video to the end. The true cumulative effect does not become clear until the last minute when a recap is done one country at a time and you can sense the scale of what happened. It startled me to note that the Soviet Union appears to have trashed itself from one end to the other.

At some point, treaties reigned in the madness somewhat by dictating that tests had to be done underground in order to contain the radiation and the spread of fallout. As imperfect as that may be (what about groundwater, for example?) it's a far cry from the early 1950s when open air tests were viewed from a distance like spectator sports, and the Today Show and the daily newspaper displayed maps projecting where all the strontium-90 was likely to land. It may have gone boom in the far West, but the cloud carried across the Midwest to New England and beyond, tainting the grass to be eaten by our dairy cows and milk to be fed to our children.

It didn't matter that people like Albert Einstein read statements on TV declaring that an untold number of future deaths and cancers would be the result, visited upon us for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Government spokespeople insisted the radiation levels were "safe" and that the test were necessary for the national defense. Anyone feel safe yet?

I watched the video with my grandson and explained about all that had happened back then. His jaw literally dropped in righteous indignation. And well it might. He's a millennial baby, born after the Great Nuclear War had ended. But that stuff is still in the air and the water and the earth where we grow our food. What were we thinking?

We know now that there is no safe level of exposure to radioactive materials. Even a microscopic speck of plutonium lodged in your lung continues to irradiate the tissue around it, producing a constant threat of genetic damage. Look how concerned we were about the nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukashima. Those things pale in comparison with what we deliberately did to our earth and air in the name of security.

And before we go, let's recall that thousands more of these weapons are still sleeping in their silos and submarines, ready to spring into action at a few minutes notice. Wasn't one nuclear war enough? Do we really have to prepare for another one?

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