The nuclear age dawned 75 years ago Thursday with the first U.S. atomic explosion over the New Mexico desert. Literally and figuratively, splitting the atom was the earth-shaking event that ended World War II, launched the Cold War, provoked an international arms race that continues today, and sparked the quest by more and more countries to gain entry to the club of nuclear superpowers. St. Louisans need look no further than the Manhattan Project radioactive waste buried at the West Lake Landfill to understand the modern repercussions of long-past history.
As nice as it would be to envision a world without the threat of thermonuclear catastrophe, the simple reality is that the genie escaped from the bottle on July 16, 1945, and it isn't going back. The big remaining question is whether it can be contained before the specter of Armageddon rises anew.
Americans must never lose sight of the awesome destructive power at the fingertips of a tiny number of leaders around the world. This nation's choice of leaders matters now, more than ever, because of a single president's ability to destroy the world based on a perceived insult or decision to act on an ego-driven whim.
Nuclear weaponry has been around so long that it has largely faded from the national conversation except when it involves Iran's efforts to acquire the bomb. But other flashpoints loom: Nuclear-armed China is now in a military standoff against nuclear-armed India over disputed border territory. India and nuclear-armed Pakistan continue to have deadly exchanges over Kashmir. Nuclear-armed Israel remains engaged in near-constant confrontation with its Arab neighbors and Iran.
Russia's quest to develop a technological edge over the United States has led to numerous, chilling accidents, including a deadly suspected nuclear-capable missile explosion last August near the village of Nyonoksa.
In the 75 years since the first atomic explosion, millions of people and countless species have been exposed to life-threatening doses of radiation from test blasts. Dozens of nuclear bombs have been lost at sea or destroyed in air accidents. Computer malfunctions have placed U.S. forces on red alert over what mistakenly were believed to be incoming Soviet missiles.
An entire generation grew up in daily, abject fear, training for disaster and learning to duck and cover beneath school desks. The release of classified documents in 1998 revealed that, in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower actually delegated independent authority for military leaders to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes absent his approval.
Who knows what nightmarish nuclear scenarios are being kept secret from the nation today? The fact that Americans have largely tuned out of the discussion is perhaps the most nightmarish scenario of all — especially when the world can no longer rely on sane, cautious restraint, grounded in a fear of "mutually assured destruction," to guide all leaders' thinking.
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