If a nuclear winter is unthinkable, then an enquiring 12-year-old might wonder why thinking adults have triggers which can set in motion something unthinkable. On four occasions during the Cold War, false alarms brought either the USSR or the USA close to retaliating against the other.
For about 40 years, the Cold War forced every human on Earth to stand on the edge of an abyss. We may have survived that threat, but only after atmospheric nuclear testing has contaminated earth, air and water with radioactive substances.
Of what use are such weapons? They are ineffective against military personel who can disperse and even shelter underground or under the sea. The target must be very large and immobile and on the surface. Only a city qualifies. The inhabitants of a city are those who wish nothing more than to be left in peace.
No defence is possible against multiple-entry warheads (as possessed by Russia). The chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina announced to a stunned American people that their government were not up to managing the similar devastation caused by a blow from a single Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon.
It is as if the human species is driven by a death wish coded into human DNA - a fusion-type weapon 50 times as powerful as the fission-type Hiroshima bomb has been produced.
How did we ever get into this insane situation?
It all began in 1905 when it was proven mathematically that matter had the potential to be converted into pure energy. It was academic as no one had any idea as to how this could be achieved.
Later it was discovered that in nature certain atomic nuclei were being converted into pure energy to a very limited degree. The technical job was to build on that natural mechanism to get usable amounts of energy through a process called a chain reaction. In 1941 a nuclear reactor in which there was a controlled chain reaction was built in the USA. But, developing a source of energy to replace fossil fuels was not what it was all about.
Adolph Hitler had made it clear that he would like his people to enslave the rest of the world. If he could deliver uncontrolled chain reactions to a few of the major cities of the potential slaves, then he could possibly achieve his aim. The American reactor was simply a stepping stone to the building of such a weapon before Hitler had one.
So far the work had been honourable but by late 1944 it became obvious that Germany, which was under night and day bombing, could not possibly build an atomic bomb. The project was enormous and only the USA was capable of carrying it out. That year of 1944 was the time to stop - but the project was directed by generals and politicians, and not by scientists.
There was even more reason to call a halt to the project in May 1945 as Germany had surrendered and Japan with 58 cities burned out by fire bombing and with no industry or shipping, could be starved into submission by a blockade. That was not the thinking: “Once it was proved that the atomic bomb worked, men discovered reasons to use it” - (Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb.)
Out of the war emerged two superpowers leaving France and Britain as has-beens. Now that the USA had shown how to build a bomb at a small fraction of what it had cost that country, the has-beens just had to get the bomb for no other reason than that they hated being has-beens.
Later, when the fusion-type weapons (hydrogen bombs) appeared, it became horribly obvious what we had gotten ourselves into. However, in the early days the fission-type atomic bomb was the ultimate glamour accessory.
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