The Mark 17 bomb, the “scariest of all” (Sandia Laboratories Photographic Labs/Courtesy of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

In June 1945, Commonweal associate editor C. G. Paulding denounced an essay by Major George Fielding Eliot, then a military analyst for the New York Herald Tribune, that proposed a large-scale gas attack against Japan to end World War II. “There is no use arguing whether poison gas is a little worse or not than the flame thrower, the Japanese houses in flames, the millions of Japanese civilians killed,” Paulding wrote. “Worse or not, it is one thing more. The time has come when nothing more can be added to the horror if we wish to keep our coming victory something we can use—or that humanity can use.”


Two months later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a horrific attack on Japan’s civilian population and, as the magazine’s editors wrote in an August 1945 editorial, an indelible mark of horror and shame for America. 


Perhaps no other issue more acutely defined the twentieth century than global conflict, from the opening shots of the First World War to the uncertainties following the end of the Cold War. Throughout this era, militaries amassed enough weapons of mass destruction not only to destroy their enemies but to annihilate the human race.


The specter of a nuclear holocaust hovered over the second half of the century. As the United States and the Soviet Union competed in an unwinnable arms race—and continued to wage proxy wars in Asia and Central America—calls for nuclear disarmament increased. Following the failure of bilateral Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative by the Reagan Administration, these calls grew louder in the 1980s. Among the most vocal supporters of nuclear disarmament was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Responding to the Second Vatican Council’s challenge to undertake a “completely fresh appraisal of war,” American bishops condemned U.S. nuclear policy in a series of public statements and pastoral letters, most notably “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” released in May 1983. 


Commonweal’s editors welcomed the bishops’ condemnation—“a religious and political development of momentous consequence”—and shared their belief that the abolition of nuclear weapons was a necessary condition for peace. However, editors rejected the campaign for unilateral disarmament championed by some pacifist, religious, and progressive groups. Unilateral action by the United States, they argued in a May 1987 editorial, would make war more likely, not less. Deterrence, they reasoned, was the morally prudent approach, but they also acknowledged that the logic of deterrence—“an immediate readiness to commit the horrendous acts that effectively deter”—presented a troubling moral problem.


Thomas Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner and columnist for Commonweal from 1975 to 1983, saw in the apocalyptic machinery of war a disquieting knowledge of death. “It comes and goes, a kind of mood,” he writes. “A story in the paper, or a siren late at night, can bring it heaving up out of the unconscious part of the mind. But then it sinks back, like other things we know but can’t bear to think about.” Here, on the occasion of our centennial, we present Powers’s 1982 essay “On Nuclear Disbelief,” a haunting reminder of the horror mankind released on the world and the shameful incredulity that we would ever consider doing so again. 

I have never seen a nuclear weapon. But last spring I visited the Atomic Museum at Kirtland Air Force Base on the edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and saw a great many bomb casings. When you look at them your eye says “bomb!” but your mind says they are just hollow shells. The bomb guts are missing. Still, you get the idea. Some match your idea of what a bomb ought to look like—Fat Boy, for example, the 9,000-pound bulbous monster which destroyed Hiroshima. The one in the Kirtland Atomic Museum is painted olive drab. The one at the Bradbury museum at Los Alamos is painted white. Both are grossly fat and thoroughly lethal in aspect. 

But scariest of all is the Mark 17 bomb casing. According to the sign this was the first hydrogen or fusion or thermonuclear bomb which could actually be dropped from an aircraft, but it’s hard to credit. It’s hard to imagine anything could get it off the ground, short of a derrick. It is twenty-one feet long and five in diameter and it weighs twenty-four tons. But the numbers don’t suggest the impression. The designer of the Atomic Museum had talent and a flair for the dramatic. The displays are in a great cavern-like hall, dramatically lit from below, and the Mark 17 looms up in the gloom like a…well, quite a lot like the great blue whale which hangs from the ceiling in the American Museum of Natural History. The thing is so huge, the casing is so massive, you simply can’t believe it could get off the ground. But like all the others it’s hollow. It’s not really a bomb at all, just a suggestion of the bomb, nothing more than a teaching aid. 

For us the bomb is a purely mental thing, an abstract concept, a kind of pocket of anxiety in the mind.

At Vandenberg Air Force Base a year ago, I saw a Mark 12-A re-entry vehicle, a black cone-shaped object, perhaps three feet high, with a carbon-carbon skin and a polished nose cone of specially heat-resistant alloys which erode away in the terrible heat and wind of re-entry at ten thousand miles an hour. It was sitting in a classroom where Air Force officers take an introductory course in ballistic missiles. One of the instructors began to rattle off statistics and then stopped abruptly. “Sir,” he said, “what is your clearance?” I said I was a journalist and didn’t have any sort of clearance. That was the end of the lecture. But I marveled at the RV all the same. It was so small, light and sleek. Is there any limit to human genius? Somehow the guts of the Mark 17 leviathan had been refined and reduced and squeezed into this neat package a couple of men might cart off in a wheelbarrow. 

So I’ve never really seen a bomb—just drawings, photographs, and the outer skins of bombs. Most people haven’t seen the skins. For us the bomb is a purely mental thing, an abstract concept, a kind of pocket of anxiety in the mind. I know the New York City subway system is going through hard times because I ride it every day. I know the price of gasoline is up. The sting in my eyes tells me Los Angeles has an air pollution problem. No one has to tell me that blacks and Puerto Ricans live in a different world because I brush their alien shoulders on the city’s streets. Things physically present announce themselves unmistakably, but the bomb is like the knowledge of death. It comes and goes, a kind of mood. A story in the paper, or a siren late at night, can bring it heaving up out of the unconscious part of the mind. But then it sinks back, like other things we know but can’t bear to think about. In the last two years I’ve talked to a lot of military people about nuclear weapons, strategic policy, what the Russians are up to, and the like. For the most part, they have been an impressive group of men—sober, intelligent, knowledgeable, and orderly in their habits of mind. They did not seem at all warlike. Nothing they said suggests that the defense of the United States is in careless or reckless hands. The motto of the Strategic Air Command, which has authority over bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, is “Peace is our Profession.” As I remember, it’s carved on the lintel over the main entrance to SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. This is the sort of thing to invite a bitter smile, everything considered, but so far as I could tell, SAC people take it seriously. I asked a colonel at Offutt if he thought the ICBMs would ever be launched, and he said no—they all say no—and added, “If that happened we would have failed in our job.” It’s tempting to poke ironic fun at such earnest remarks, but it wouldn’t be fair. The officer wasn’t being smarmy. He really meant it. His job was preventing wars, not winning them. 

The military men involved in nuclear weapons policy—and their civilian colleagues, too, for that matter—don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. For them, I suspect, no belief is deeper and stronger. Their assurances on this point have none of the tinny quality of budget officials, say, telling you the federal deficit will disappear in 1984, when they know full well this barely qualifies as even an honest hope. 

When you think about it, the equanimity of military people makes perfect sense. They know the United States and the Soviet Union have got fifteen thousand strategic nuclear weapons between them. They’ve been trying to figure out a way to fight a genuinely limited nuclear war for thirty years, and haven’t come up with anything convincing yet. They know the Pentagon periodically tries to plan for the post-attack world but always throws up its hands in despair because there is simply no way of projecting how bad it would be. The destruction would be too general. The normal means of recovery and reconstruction would be threatened in too many ways to calculate. 

Citing the litany of the weapons' horrors is an argument against their possession or use, not an argument we won’t use them—given we have them.

Take transportation. Airfields, ports, railway marshaling yards, and major highway intersections would be destroyed. Aircraft, ships, rolling stock, and large numbers of buses, trucks, and cars would be destroyed. Many of the factories which might build more would be destroyed. If factories remained, the workers might be dead or too sick to work. The breakdown in transportation would make it hard to feed or care for them. Power lines would be out. Most petroleum refineries would have been destroyed, fuel would be in short supply, and the little remaining would be hard to distribute. And so on and so forth. How can you predict how long it would take to get things moving again when so many factors are involved, which overlap in so many ways? The answer is you can’t. The government goes on churning out civil defense and reconstruction plans, but the Pentagon has never made a serious official guess at how well they would work—or even if they would work at all—because the computers can’t factor in all the variables. 

This is the sort of thing military men know, generally in great detail, and none of it is encouraging where the subject of nuclear war is concerned. On top of that, they know we shall never get rid of nuclear weapons. Arms agreements may—even that is in doubt—limit their number and type, but disarmament is not on the horizon. It is not over the horizon. When you put these two things together—knowledge of what nuclear weapons can do, and a conviction we shall always have them—you can see why military men tell themselves, and everybody else, the bombs will never be used. They are flesh and blood, after all. Their wives and children all live in target areas. They can’t bear to think anything else. 

It’s difficult to remember how I thought about things a couple of years ago, when I first started to read seriously about nuclear weapons. A lot of things came as a shock then which seem familiar now. I made lots of errors in writing about the subject. Once, for example, I wrote that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was the last one in the American inventory. In late August 1945, I thought, there were no bombs in the world at all. But later the man who assembled the core for the fourth bomb told me I was wrong. 

After two or three months of reading I went through a period of intense sadness. At first I didn’t know what it was. I thought the source might be worry about my father, who is eighty-nine, or a friend whose marriage was breaking up, or chronic financial anxiety, or something else of the kind. Then I told myself I was an idiot. Of course I was sad. I had finally schooled myself in the numbers and knew for the first time that we really had built weapons enough to break the back of our civilization. I’d gotten the details straight about radiation sickness, theories of war-fighting which all imply any nuclear war will go to the limit, the steady march of technical improvement in weapons design which makes military people so jumpy, and so on and so forth. I had read or been told nothing which suggested we were going to learn to get along without these weapons. It was quite clear, in fact, that we were going to go on pointing them at enemies until we used them or the world came to an end. Since the news on the geological front is all good, and the planet can expect to survive another couple of billion years, that meant, as a practical matter, we would go on as we were until we used them. In short, it seemed to me as clear as night follows day that it is going to happen. 

But everybody I talked to took the contrary view. Everybody, that is, professionally involved in defense matters. Ordinary citizens often entertain foreboding of the darkest sort. In a quite matter of fact way they will say, “What else were they built for?” Defense community people never say that. What they say is, “It doesn’t make sense. There is nothing to be gained. No rational man would ever use nuclear weapons. They can serve no useful purpose in war.” 

That, of course, is true enough. But does that mean they won’t be used? You might have said all those things about the great armies of Europe in 1914. Indeed, people did say them. Reasons for not using nuclear weapons are also reasons for not having them. Citing the litany of their horrors is an argument against their possession or use, not an argument we won’t use them—given we have them. Such arguments are really an expression of hope, and we depend on hope because there is nothing else. I have heard dozens of defense people explain why nuclear weapons will never be used. I have never heard a note of fear or despair. Their confidence is sunny and unshakable. If we just stick to our guns and make sure we’ve got a weapon for every weapon they’ve got, then there’s nothing to worry about. There is a soothing quality to these reassurances, as if we were being told that airplanes really do work, and it’s safe to fly. 

But now comes the curious thing. After a year or two of seeing things in this light, for the first time I feel the tug the other way. I find myself wondering if perhaps the military men aren’t right after all. They say it would be crazy, and are absolutely right. We worry about so many things that fail to come to pass. Two hundred years ago Malthus was worrying that the world’s population had already stretched the planet’s resources to the groaning limit. Maybe fear of nuclear weapons is enough to keep everyone sober and cautious. Maybe the only danger is falling behind, just as the Pentagon says. Maybe all those people in Washington are right, and I’m wrong. I devoutly hope they are right. Maybe it just won’t happen. 

This is a mood I’m describing, not really an argument. I don’t believe it for a minute. 

The problem is disbelief. An argument is the ephemeral stuff of the mind. It has no solidity. It surrenders to the world, over time, and the world tells us tomorrow will be much like today. It is a considerable undertaking to go out and see the Air Force bases and atomic laboratories and missile-launching centers. But even there the note of the lethal is missing. The bomb casings are all hollow. The missiles are all mock-ups used as teaching aids. The military men work eight to four and go home to their families. Nobody shows any sign of fear. Everything suggests tomorrow will be much like today. 

We know we are mortal but we don’t feel mortal and we live, generally, as if there were plenty of time for everything. The moments of recognition are few and they fade. We know that nothing lasts, nations die, the continents move, atmosphere whirls off into space, suns burn out—but not here, now, to us. These things we can’t believe. It is the same with the missiles in their silos. We know what they will do. Most people don’t even have to be told. They know. But knowing and believing are very different things. The world has its disconcerting way of going on from day to day, just as if nothing were ever to change. Belief is frail and fades away. 

The people in the defense community have all had their ghastly moments, from the president on down to the missile-launch control officers reading paperback novels in their steel cubicles suspended on springs forty feet beneath the Great Plains. Every last one of them, I am convinced, has looked it in the eye at one time or another. Even Nikita Khrushchev had his dark moment. He once told the Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Heikal, “When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts about nuclear power I couldn’t sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again.” Thus we all go on, sustained by disbelief. 

Thomas Powers is a former Commonweal columnist and author of ten books.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.