Over the last several months, organizations concerned about the threat of nuclear war have been buzzing in anticipation of the new Universal Pictures film Oppenheimer. For those of us who’d like to see the risk of apocalypse reduced, the movie seems a major popular culture godsend. Its director, Christopher Nolan, has a proven talent for playing large on the public screen (via Tenet, Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception, and the Dark Knight trilogy, among others). And though I have yet to see the entire film, which has been kept largely under wraps until its July 21 opening, after talking with Nolan in May, I have every expectation it will be smart, serious, and engaging.
The race during World War II to build an American atomic bomb before Nazi Germany acquired one is high-order drama. And J. Robert Oppenheimer—the enigmatic director of the Los Alamos laboratory that birthed the Bomb—lived an accomplished and vivid life, rising to the heights of scientific celebrity before being cast into disrepute, accused, wrongly, of disloyalty during the Red Scare of the 1950s. His story is a tragedy of Shakespearean heft; it’s hard to imagine a historical narrative more fit for the big screen.
But even great art cannot be expected to solve global political problems on its own. And this particular historical narrative cannot provide anything like a road map for confronting the nuclear threat of the 21st century, because when it comes to the responsible handling of nuclear weapons, history is mostly full of bad examples. Yes, after World War II—and the incineration of tens of thousands of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Oppenheimer and others from the Manhattan Project worked to rein in the atomic monster they’d helped create. But their efforts largely failed; the atomic hawks in the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) largely won; and now every single person on Earth must live every single day with a probability of all-but-instantaneous global nuclear apocalypse that’s higher than it’s ever been.
Even if Oppenheimer won’t provide a lasting impetus for solving our nuclear quandary, it could be the “news hook” that quality publications, serious pundits, concerned public officials, and ordinary people around the world use to amplify a bizarre reality that is too often accepted as normal: The world’s major nuclear powers are now involved in precisely the kind of self-driving arms race that Oppenheimer warned against in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when he advocated (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for the United States to give up its nuclear monopoly and put nuclear technology under international control.
This new, 21st-century arms race is labeled, euphemistically, “nuclear modernization.” In the United States, the 30-year cost of the programs falling under the nuclear modernization umbrella—including new nuclear-capable bombers, land-based nuclear missiles, and nuclear submarines—has been estimated at $1.2–1.7 trillion. (Given the history of US military budget overruns, that is probably a wild underestimate.) Russia and China are also in the midst of ridiculously expensive upgrades to nuclear weapons platforms and systems that can and will never be used, unless some madman decides to light a thousand or so of the world’s largest cities on fire and end civilization.
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Yes, the overarching truth of the matter is that countries around the world are spending vast sums on nuclear weapons and paraphernalia that are the equivalent of the lawn-care junk that you bought at Costco but sits in your garage, unused. The leaders of these countries—the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—have spent all those billions of dollars on useless nuclear junk in hopes of deterring the leaders of the other countries from even thinking about using the useless nuclear junk they have wasted their countries’ money on. So goes the insanity of an arms race.
The world’s nuclear weapons countries have some 9,500 nuclear warheads in military stockpiles, with 3,800 deployed with operational forces, ready for use on a remarkably expensive array of delivery platforms. According to the experts at the Federation of American Scientists, about 2,000 of those warheads are on high alert, ready for essentially immediate use. If exploded over major cities, any significant proportion of these weapons would probably kill hundreds of millions of people fairly quickly and condemn another several billion to starvation.
There are many ways to reduce the threat these piles of nuclear junk pose to humanity’s future. Countries could agree, individually or in concert, to get rid of some of the warheads and/or some of the delivery vehicles on which they are mounted. Countries could agree to take their nuclear weapons off high alert, greatly reducing the possibility of a nuclear war sparked by an errant computer or sensor warning. (And yes, those type of false warnings have almost started Armageddon several times in past decades.) Countries could enter new negotiations to restore important arms control agreements that were abolished or allowed to lapse in the last decade.
But the leaders of the world’s nuclear weapons countries are unlikely to do any of those things unless large numbers of ordinary people (and the quality news media and civil society organizations that can rouse them) demand action, not during one summer movie season, but over a period of months and years, and not in response to an inspiring emotional experience, but out of concern for the future of the human experiment.
At a time when Russia, the United States, NATO, and Ukraine are engaged in a struggle that might, at any time, escalate toward global catastrophe, I don’t mean to suggest that reducing the danger of nuclear war is a simple task. As Nolan told me, when I spoke with him about his movie in May, “[W]e’ve got generations of people giving intellectual context to the idea of Armageddon, which disguises it and makes it all feel a bit more acceptable as part of the life that we’ve grown up with under the shadow of the bomb. And other than the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock, [that’s all we have] to remind people of the terrible situation we’re in. My goal when making the film—I don’t make films to send a message, I made it because it’s a fascinating story. But part of that storytelling is getting back to basics about the bomb, stripping away policy statements, philosophy, the geopolitical situation and just looking at raw power that’s about to be unleashed and what that means for the people involved, and means for all of us.”
Enjoy the film. Then think a bit about what it means and what you might do, now, to help all of us, and our kids, and their kids, survive for at least a few enturies to come.