My previous article was about the Iranian nuclear deal, and the dangers it poses if it goes into effect. In line with the subject of nuclear weapons, I decided to go further back in history, and help us understand the genesis of the atomic bomb.
As a post-graduate student studying for a master’s degree in Diplomacy and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, I had the privilege, together with my classmates, of being tutored by some of Africa’s best minds in the field of Strategic Studies. One of them was Professor Charles Dokubo. It was he, who gave me some of my fondest postgraduate memories- I will never forget the one million and one questions I had to answer in all of his classes- and it was he who first mentioned to me, one of the most defining occurrences in history i.e., “the Manhattan Project”. In my master’s class, we learned about “brinkmanship” and how John Foster Dulles added that term to the vocabulary of diplomatic language. But those were the days when rationality prevailed…at least somewhat. In today’s world where leaders seem to be increasingly eager to outdo one another in political and military showmanship, the threat of danger and of a doomsday scenario is increasingly heightened. When leaders make inflammatory statements that raise red flags to the trained ear, one begins to wonder, “How did we get to this point?” This brings me back to the issue of the Manhattan Project.
When Professor Dokubo first mentioned it in class, my first thought was that it was a Steven Spielberg movie, or maybe a John Grisham novel. But in the next few moments, I and my classmates were to discover that it was the origin of the creation of the most devastating weapon the world has ever seen- the atomic bomb! The Manhattan Project was started as a result of the “Einstein letter” in which the renowned physicist had warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the potential creation of a deadly bomb by the Nazis. As WW2 raged on, it seemed inevitable that warring powers would seek the creation of the ultimate weapon against their adversaries. After sitting on the sidelines of “isolation” since the 1930’s, President Roosevelt with the gift of foresight, had begun to take necessary steps to engage Americans in the international discourse , and to make them see that isolationism was not exactly feasible as the scourge of war raged on. And if there was any further reluctance on the part of the American public, all that was about to change in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This brought the USA into the theatre of combat, and it was within this atmosphere of increased tension that the green light for the Manhattan Project was given. The Manhattan Project kicked off fully in 1943, drawing the best and brightest minds from America’s top universities…physicists, chemists, engineers…young men with their hopes and dreams in front of them. These young minds, most of them in their early 20’s got drafted and made their way to what would become the epic center and defining moments of their lives…the middle of nowhere…the New Mexican desert…Los Alamos…the Manhattan Project. They assembled under the leadership of one man- J. Robert Opppenheimer, who would become known as the father of the atomic bomb. Research turned into more research, and time flew by. And as trials and theories proved wrong and despair loomed, finally, there was a breakthrough in the ‘implosion’ theory…in 1945. You see, these young men were not soldiers…they were scientists…but they were concerned about the rise of Hitler and his third Reich, and saw their contribution to the creation of the bomb as a way to put an end to not just WW2, but to any future global war. As Oppenheimer had calculated, the devastating effects of the created atomic bomb would be so tremendous, that it would serve as an effective deterrent against any future global wars. Was he correct? Only the future will tell.
In any case, Roosevelt passed on unexpectedly, and Harry S. Truman became President. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and America now faced a new enemy…Japan. The critical center of the war had shifted to the pacific, and Truman gave the order for the completed ultimate weapon to be used. And the rest they say is history. When the dust of the nuclear cloud settled over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than 250,000 people were dead, and many more were forever scarred by the radioactive fall-out. It would take 30days for people to venture into those cities in the aftermath. Some historians have argued that the bomb did not have to be used…that Japan would have ultimately surrendered…that Truman just wanted to make a showing of America’s capabilities. I would not attempt to venture into further explanation of their argument because I do not have all the facts. But what I do know is that from a political and military standpoint, the bomb achieved what it was supposed to- the unconditional surrender of Japan, and the end of the war. From a moral point of view though, that is a much different story, and my conscience has thoughts of its own.
After the use of the atomic bomb and the end of the war, it was thought that everlasting global peace had been purchased. But alas, it was not to be so. Instead of peace, Pandora’s Box had been opened, as world powers rushed to gain the necessary technology to acquire the bomb for themselves. At the moment, there are about 9 nuclear states in the world, and this includes all the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. And a few more (including Iran) are standing in line to join this elite club. This bring me to my plea…the bomb MUST not be used again! During the Cuban missile crises, the world came very close to witnessing another nuclear catastrophe; but thanks be to God that rationality prevailed, and JFK and Khrushchev were able to sheath their swords, and preserve humanity as it were. Can the same level of rationality be ascribed to world leaders today? I’m not so sure. When Russia annexes the territory of another sovereign state, when the North Korean dictator (whose name I refuse to dignify by mentioning) carries out tests in the de-militarized zone (DMZ), and when the mullahs in Iran decree that their nuclear programme will not be stopped, while also calling for the total annihilation of other sovereign states, my faith in humanity and my hope for the prevalence of reason, further weakens. I believe in diplomacy, but I also know that power- tough power- is the currency of international politics, and that states would do everything in their means, to acquire and retain power.
So what can stop a nation with the financial means and technical know-how from getting a nuclear bomb? Virtually little, as Iran and North Korea have shown. What would happen if rogue states with irrational leaders, acquire this weapon of mass destruction? Well, some day, in the event of escalated conflict with perceived enemy states, we will not be wrong in projecting the deployment of these weapons. What would be the outcome? Collateral damage on a scale the world has never seen before. In the words of a prominent American long deceased, “the living would envy the dead!” But is the world listening? It doesn’t seem so.
We Africans have a saying that when two Elephants fight, it is the ground that suffers. While leaders make contingency plans for war, they are far removed from its epic center in the event of its occurrence; and they also have special facilities (underground nuclear-proof bunkers and the likes) fitted for their survival. It is you and I, the common-man that suffers! It has been estimated that there are more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, hundreds of which are more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Can you now begin to imagine the destruction, death and carnage a nuclear war will cause in the 21st century? So while nations fan the flames of war, let us also do the math and ask ourselves these important questions- “does the end justify the means, and are we willing to trade humanity as we know it, for the sake of grievance, ego and prestige?” Think about it.
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