About a month before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of scientists led by Leo Szilard wrote President Harry Truman, urging him not to use the weapons to attack Japan. They warned that in launching such an attack the United States “may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”
In only a few short years, their fears seemed on the verge of being realized as the United States and the Soviet Union raced to develop ever more—and ever more dangerous—nuclear weapons. The Soviet-U.S. face-off is now long over, but the weapons remain, even in a world with several additional nuclear powers and growing worries that terrorists might get their hands on the bomb. Few leaders of countries with nuclear weapons have been willing to challenge their military and nuclear complexes on whether these arms serve current national and global security interests, nor have efforts to convince others not to join this group been entirely successful.
In this month’s cover story, we asked six global leaders to address what purpose, if any, such weapons serve today. The responses ranged widely: former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev argued that nuclear weapons must be abolished; former top Bush administration official Frank Miller said U.S. and British weapons serve a valuable role in safeguarding allies. Since the bombings in Japan, nuclear weapons have not been used in a military attack. Still, as Arjun Makhijani writes, they have nonetheless left a trail of devastation: cancer victims from the fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests, contaminated workers at nuclear weapons production plants, soldiers injured in nuclear exercises, and uranium miners suffering the ill effects of unventilated mines. Even unexploded, these weapons remain profoundly dangerous.
Perhaps no one better understood the power and the dangers of nuclear weapons than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peter Kuznick takes note of Oppenheimer’s experience in his review of several recent books about the physicist and the attacks on Japan.
Oppenheimer, unlike some of his fellow scientists, pressed for the president to use the weapons, believing they would bring a quick end to the war. Within months, however, he despaired at what he had made possible, saying that he had “blood on [his] hands.” Today, we have inherited the responsibility of ensuring that such deaths never recur and that the even greater destruction that Szilard and others warned about does indeed remain unimaginable.