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Hiroshima, 65 Years On: “Countdown to Zero”

08/6/10

Today, August 6, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Nagasaki was nuked on Aug. 9. The bombs killed some 90,000 to 160,000 in Hiroshima and some 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki, with half the deaths occurring in the first day, even the first millisecond, of the blast. Over the following months and years, thousands died from burns and radiation sickness.

Read Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s compelling op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Hiroshima and the Art of Outrage.” A friend of Oe’s mother was an eyewitness to the blast; she only survived because she was protected behind a large brick wall:

Moments before the atomic bomb was dropped, my mother’s friend happened to seek shelter from the bright summer sunlight in the shadow of a sturdy brick wall, and she watched from there as two children who had been playing out in the open were vaporized in the blink of an eye.

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Last night we went to see Countdown to Zero, a powerful new documentary written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by the folks who brought us An Inconvenient Truth. Despite the film’s serious subject, it’s not a downer: it’s actually positive, affirmative, and you walk out feeling more hopeful. (You may have read about Countdown to Zero a few weeks ago in our tribute to Greenpeace co-founder and anti–nuke-testing activist Jim Bohlen.) Click here for a photo gallery of the film.

Enlivened by the commentary of such experts and officials as Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert McNamara, Valerie Plame Wilson, Joseph Cirincione, and others, including a U.S. army officer who literally worked down in a nuclear silo with his finger on the button, the film gives a concise overview of the history of the atomic bomb and the reasons why it’s outlived its usefulness and should be eliminated from all arsenals.

The narrative shows how the bomb was developed in ultra top secret Manhattan Project in the early 1940s (even Vice President Harry Truman didn’t know about it until he became president upon the death of FDR in April 1945), and following the detonations over Japan, the bomb prompted misgivings and remorse, evoked most eloquently by nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who recalled the Trinity test in New Mexico (pictured above) in July 1945, just weeks before Hiroshima:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Even more than the errors, SNAFUs, and near misses that the nuclear nations have brought us, the dangers on which the film concentrates are those posed by non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Valerie Plame Wilson, whose CIA job was nuclear nonproliferation, explains the hair-raising dangers of theft, illicit sales, and secret transportation of fissile materials in Central Asia and elsewhere around the globe. The “loose nukes” floating around the former Soviet Union will chill you—a tennis-ball-size amount of uranium could destroy a large city—and will make you thankful we have a president who has made it a priority to reduce the nuclear stockpiles through a signed arms reduction agreement with Russian president Dmitri A. Medvedev. (Barack Obama was working and speaking on nonproliferation as a U.S. senator.) The New Start treaty, signed with Medvedev in April, needs a two-thirds vote and will likely have to wait until after the 2010 midterm elections; Obama and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry need at least 8 Republican votes. Then Obama and Biden will push for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was adopted by the U.N. in 1996, has been ratified by 153 countries, but was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999. It remains to be ratified by China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, which are not expected to sign until the U.S. does.

A poignant passage concerns the 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the leaders, who genuinely liked and trusted each other, almost came to an agreement on abolishing by 50 percent or even 100 percent their nations’ nuclear stockpiles. This was the closest the world has ever come to complete nuclear disarmament, but Reagan’s insistence on the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), along with undercutting concerns raised by advisers Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, helped scuttle the possible agreement. (There were other concerns, as well, including the security of U.S. allies in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe. For more on the Reykjavik Summit, click here for an account by Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov, and see Frances FitzGerald’s Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War and Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary by Sidney D. Drell and former secretary of state George P. Shultz, who was there.)

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Aerial shots of New York, London, and other cities are shown overlaid with concentric-ring blast circles like bull’s-eyes depicting the zones of damage as experts’ voices explain how immediately civilians and buildings would be incinerated . . . The film draws to a close with a scene of New York City’s Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve—the gold standard of “terrorist target” for a sensational mass murder—with everyone looking happy and festive (and muted) as Radiohead’s “Reckoner” plays hauntingly.

One observation: There is a complete and remarkable absence of anyone from the George W. Bush administration—unless you count Ms. Wilson, whose “nonofficial cover” (NOC) was blown by I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, in retaliation for her husband Joseph Wilson’s incendiary NYT op-ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” (July 6, 2003), which disputed Bush Inc.’s claims that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium for weapons of mass destruction. Is the Bush people’s absence because they were not invited to speak (we doubt this) or because they simply did not wish to participate in a film advocating a disarmament they sought to subvert and avoid? (In 2001 Bush pulled the U.S. out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.) Or maybe it’s because the former president always pronounced “nuclear” as “nucular.”

(Speaking of Valerie Plame: Never before has nuclear nonproliferation looked like such an attractive career option! We once had an opportunity to talk with her and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, at a party in Washington, and they are as nice and down-to-earth—and as handsome a couple—as you could want. We hope to meet them again some day. We recommend their books (which we’ve read): his The Politics of Truth: A Diplomat’s Memoir: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity [2004], and her Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House [2007]. Warning: about one-third of her book was redacted—blacked out—by the CIA’s refusal to allow her to say where she was, what she was doing, even when she took care not to disclose security-related secrets. Mrs. Wilson told us the CIA was just giving her a hard time to be spiteful [our words, not hers]; there was no security-protection reason for the delays and forced redactions.)

Countdown to Zero is excellent but not perfect. We had questions about some important practical issues that were raised but not dealt with. The film advocates bringing all world nuclear stockpiles down to zero. (Agreed.) But the film also explains that nuclear power plants produce fissile material (as in the case of Iran). So, does the film also advocate elimination of nuclear power? How is the danger posed by production of fissile materials through ordinary operation of nuclear power plants to be managed? Unless we missed something, the film said nothing about what should be done about nuclear power plants. Presumably terrorists or their would-be suppliers could also get their hands on fissile material—or is that somehow not possible? There is still the question of what to do about Iran, or what threat may be posed by Iran or other possibly hostile or unstable nations possessing nuclear power plants, or the fissile material produced by them. Would France, for example, have to shut down its nuclear power plants, the source of most of its electricity?

We have sent queries to the film company and to a few of the participants, and have received some initial replies. We will report as soon as we get some answers. Stay tuned.

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See Countdown to Zero’s spread-the-word action page.

Also check out The Ploughshares Fund, a grantmaking foundation “dedicated exclusively to security and peace funding” worldwide for more than 25 years whose board of directors includes Joseph Cirincione, president; former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, and Iranian-born author Reza Aslan. One of its policy experts, Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute, also appears in Countdown to Zero.

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