The nuclear age turns 75 years old this summer. Over seven decades have now passed since the first test of a nuclear weapon in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and since the first use of nuclear weapons in wartime, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (on August 6) and Nagasaki (on August 9). Multiple generations have lived their lives in the knowledge that because of nuclear weapons humans can now kill each other on a massive scale, or even wipe out humanity, in a matter of minutes.
The nuclear threat’s severity has waxed and waned since 1945. In the 1960s and 1980s, during the tensest periods of the Cold War and nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, global nuclear war seemed all too likely. The danger lessened in the 1990s after the Cold War’s end. Yet in recent years, escalating conflicts among nuclear powers such as the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have again made nuclear weapons’ use plausible.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began 2020 by warning that “Civilization-ending nuclear war—whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication—is a genuine possibility.”
Recognizing the Threat
Ending nuclear weapons’ threat to humanity is imperative. Among the many obstacles to reaching this goal, however, is that while nuclear war may be close to us politically, it remains all-too-distant psychologically.
Only two nuclear weapons (relatively small ones, by contemporary standards) have been deliberately used against human beings, and those attacks are now 75 years in the past. Humanity has never experienced an actual nuclear war—if we had, I would not be writing this post and you would not be reading it.
Peace activists’ work against nuclear weapons is of necessity work against an evil that must never be experienced but only anticipated beforehand. As a result, the nuclear threat can seem shadowy and unreal and can end up pushed to the side compared to more immediate evils. This problem of truly comprehending what nuclear war would mean is a major theme of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), a great book that remains all-too-relevant today.
One way to appreciate the danger of nuclear war is to learn about those two occasions when nuclear weapons were used against cities. Remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a way of not only recalling injustices committed many years ago but reminding ourselves of what the future may hold if the nuclear danger is not checked. The testimonies of atomic bombing survivors (hibakusha) serve as warnings for all of us.
Current events have also provided a lesson in our own vulnerability that is very much applicable to the nuclear threat. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of how dependent we are on a complex and fragile network of people—doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers; farmers and other food producers; those who transport goods around the world—that is easily disrupted by a crisis. We have learned of hospitals being overwhelmed by sick people and struggling to care for everyone. We have read about people losing jobs, income, or supplies necessary to grow food because of the pandemic’s effect on the global economy.
These disruptions would be immeasurably multiplied in a nuclear war. Hospitals would be stretched much further past the breaking point, if they even still existed. Economies would collapse altogether, not least because of the terrible environmental consequences of the bomb. The pandemic’s effects give us just a glimpse of the social breakdown that nuclear weapons can cause.
The nuclear bombings of Japan provide an even more direct example of such breakdown. Drawing on survivor testimonies and post-war studies, the writer William Craig described the situation in Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped:
Much of the city was in flames. Lines of refugees streamed out of the inferno. Many were walking dead, soon to collapse to the ground and expire. Not only had heat charred and destroyed their skin, but the invisible gamma radiation from the split atoms had invaded their bloodstreams and marked them for sure death. They croaked continually for water.
Almost one half of the medical personnel in Nagasaki had died in the first minutes, and, as a result, casualties received little or no relief from their wounds. The burned continued to scream, the torn bled to death, and those dosed with radiation never received the transfusions which might have saved them. Over everyone hung a wall of crackling fire which rained down sparks and consumed the slow of foot…
Some of the doctors and nurses were so shocked by the enormity of the catastrophe that they turned their backs on the helpless survivors and scurried away to the safety of the high ground. By the time their consciences functioned, it was too late.
As evocative as they are as warnings, however, Covid-19, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and indeed all prior disasters differ from nuclear war in a crucial respect. In prior disasters, fresh aid or supplies could at least hypothetically be brought in from elsewhere to help those suffering. For example, one doctor struggling with the current pandemic recently expressed a wish for the US government to send a naval hospital ship: “That gives us 1,000 beds with all the personnel attached to it,” he commented.
By contrast, the extent of destruction in nuclear war would be such that any humanitarian aid for survivors would be very limited, if it existed at all. As Schell commented in The Fate of the Earth:
Normally, a locality devastated by a catastrophe, whether natural or man-made, will sooner or later receive help from untouched outside areas, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki did after they were bombed; but a nuclear holocaust would devastate the “outside areas” as well, leaving the victims to fend for themselves in a shattered society and natural environment. And what is true for each city is also true for the earth as a whole: a devastated earth can hardly expect “outside” help.
Looking to the Future
Disturbing though it may be, contemplating the consequences of nuclear war is necessary if we are to recognize the danger that faces us all. The history of other disasters, past and present; the experiences of hibakusha; and books such as Schell’s can make us more sensitive to the nuclear threat. The short video “What If We Nuke a City?” also explains the threat in a concise, forceful way.
Merely appreciating the danger is not enough, of course. We also need to act to end this threat to humanity. Such positive work is being done. The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted in 2017 and has been ratified to date by 40 nations. Once 50 nations ratify it, the Treaty will become international law and serve as a powerful sign of global opposition to these weapons. A crucial group involved in the campaign against nuclear weapons is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (icanw.org).
Within the United States, the Back from the Brink campaign (preventnuclearwar.org) works to build support for policies that will make nuclear war less likely. These policies include taking nuclear weapons off high alert, so they can no longer be used at a moment’s notice, and cancelling plans to invest vast sums in new nuclear weapons. Many organizations, including the Consistent Life Network, have endorsed Back from the Brink, and additional groups—peace, environmental, faith, or other—are invited to add their endorsement.
Whatever the group one might work with, however, what is vital is to recognize the nuclear threat and to work to end it. If we join together in that effort, we can ensure that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries are no longer a reminder of a catastrophic danger looming over humanity but a remembrance of a terrible evil we have overcome.
A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.
 Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Closer Than Ever: It Is 100 Seconds to Midnight,” 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement, January 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/32NY31b.
 Such testimonies are available for reading at “Testimony of Hibakusha (Atomic Bomb Survivors),” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, accessed September 20, 2020, https://bit.ly/33OLMsE.
 See, for example, “Brazil Hospitals Overwhelmed as Coronavirus Cases Cross 2 Million,” Al Jazeera, July 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/33I6drn; Ashley Killough, Ed Lavandera, and Kay Jones, “Texas Covid-19 Hot Spot Is Facing a ‘Tsunami’ of Patients, Overwhelming Hospitals,” CNN, July 22, 2020, https://cnn.it/3hIFYG8.
 I discuss the economic effects of the pandemic in my essay “‘Millions Who Are Already Hanging by a Thread’: The Global Repercussions of Covid-19.”
 For just one scenario of how environmental devastation could result from nuclear weapons’ use, see Aria Bendix, “If India and Pakistan Have a Nuclear War, Scientists Say It Could Trigger Ice-Age Temperatures, Cause Global Famine, and Kill 125 Million People,” Business Insider, October 3, 2019, https://bit.ly/3kCkA7w.
 William Craig, The Fall of Japan (Green Farms, CT: Wildcat Publishing, 1997 ), 99-100.
 Killough, Lavandera, and Jones, “Texas Covid-19 Hot Spot Is Facing a ‘Tsunami’ of Patients, Overwhelming Hospitals.”
 Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition, Stanford Nuclear Age Series (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 23.
 Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell [YouTube channel], “What If We Nuke a City?” October 13, 2019, https://bit.ly/3coChVa.
 “The Treaty,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, accessed July 2020, https://www.icanw.org/the_treaty, provides an overview of the treaty and its ratification status.
 “Our Five Policy Solutions,” Back from the Brink Campaign, accessed July 2020, https://bit.ly/3ciIG4g.
© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.