The Day the World Should Have Changed

The Trinity explosion, 16 ms after detonation. The viewed hemisphere’s highest point in this image is about 200 metres (660 ft) high – Public Domain

There was a day when humanity was invited to reinvent its relation with power, when we should have realized that competition among nations as we knew it was obsolete, as well as pretty well all our relations based on power and domination.

The day was July 16, 1945, the day of the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the first nuclear weapon was exploded, proving that humanity had pierced the secrets of the atom and could now build weapons staggeringly larger than the 25-kiloton bomb exploded that day. The hydrogen bomb was already envisioned. It would use fission devices such as the Trinity bomb to create a fusion reaction that would unleash energies hundreds of times greater. Even the name of the test indicated that scientists understood humanity had obtained a godlike power.

It was a moment when we should have begun to create far more cooperative relations between nations, to avoid a war many times more destructive than the Second World War, then in its last days. There actually was an effort to internationalize nuclear power in all its forms, originating with a committee appointed by President Harry Truman and headed by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson. David Lilienthal, who had run the Tennessee Valley Authority, led a panel of consultants that in 1946 produced the Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, generally known as the Acheson-Lilienthal report.

Under its recommendations, the U.S. would have placed its nuclear weapons under an international agency that would also control the entire military and civilian nuclear fuel cycle. The report was the basis for a proposal by Bernard Baruch, an influential financier appointed by Secretary of State James Byrnes to the new United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Baruch added a poison pill for the Soviets, that no violator could use their U.N. Security Council veto to protect themselves if they were found in violation. The Soviets also insisted quite reasonably that the U.S. give up control of its nuclear weapons at the start of the process, rather than after a number of stages proposed by Baruch.

The superpowers were unable to achieve agreement, and the plan died stillborn. Instead, both would proceed to development of the H-bomb and nuclear arsenals containing tens of thousands of weapons able to end complex life on Earth. That proposals for international control were considered demonstrates that leaders realized the emergence of nuclear weapons was a watershed moment in human history. That they failed to carry through, even though they knew this, underscores their failure. We remain under the shadow of the mushroom cloud today as a consequence.

Indeed, the leaders of today’s great powers seem intent on playing nuclear chicken with each other. The U.S., Russia and China are all modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. is building a new triad of nuclear bombers, submarines and ballistic missiles at a cost of around $2 trillion. China is expanding its deployed nuclear arsenal to approximately the U.S. and Russian level and putting it on similar hair trigger alert. All three nations are developing hypersonic weapons to evade missile defenses, while improving accuracy in ways that make them believe they can potentially carry out a first strike and avoid a crippling response.

Flashpoints multiply around the world. The active war front in Ukraine, tensions between the U.S. and China around Taiwan and the South China Sea, missile firings and military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, drone strikes in Iran. Meanwhile, because of the Ukraine War, negotiations to renew the START agreement after it ends in 2026 are suspended. There seem to be only limited chances talks will be resumed anytime soon. The treaty limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployable weapons each. But thousands more are held in storage bunkers, ready to fill submarine tubes, missile nose cones and bomber bays currently left empty under treaty arrangements. It is not inconceivable that deployed weapons would quickly double if START ends.

Putting that whole picture together, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on January 24 moved their Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds before midnight, the narrowest margin in the clock’s history.

“We’re closer to nuclear war than we’ve ever been,” said Australian peace activist Helen Caldicott. “And that’s what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists indicated by moving the clock to 90 seconds to midnight”

The world has seen peace movements come and go, millions of people in the street in the 1960s against the Vietnam War, in the 1980s against the threat of nuclear destruction, in 2003 against the Iraq War. Yet the military juggernaut seems to roll on stronger than ever. The U.S. military budget of $858 billion is one of the highest in history. World military spending reached a record $2.1 trillion in 2021. It is hard to see us building a decent nation, or a world that has grappled with the towering challenges of climate and poverty, with this level of arms expenditures.

That the world has not grappled with humanity’s fundamentally altered position in the nearly 8 decades since we unleashed the atom, that peace movements have not made enduring change, and that we now seem to be sleepwalking into a final catastrophe, says it is time to ask fundamental questions about relations built around power. Not just between nations, but about how the roots of war grow from within our own societies. The reliance of so many local economies on military spending is only the most blatant example. The fact of militarized domestic situations, with police acting as occupying forces in many neighborhoods, is another key example.

The world is rich with bright, caring folks working to build relations among people and nations not built on power and domination, but on empathy and mutual understanding. Each is working to make a peaceful world from their own angle, whether it be race, gender, human relations with nature, class and economic equity, political democratization or any number of others. The climate movement is certainly working on the challenge by seeking to replace fossil fuels, tools of global geopolitical domination as we see all too well today.

Over the years, we have cast our movements in the general frame – another world is possible. Now I believe we need to refine the message to say: A peaceful world is possible. To call out, regarding whatever issue on which we are working, how solutions promote a peaceful world, and how our common survival depends on building such a world.  This is about far more than a peace movement, but about how all our movements can focus on furthering the goal of a peaceful world, how each can make its individual contribution to building peaceful societies. We need to rise above the conflicts of the moment, and our own disagreements, to ask the basic questions about how we arrived at this precipice, and how we can pull back.

It will come down to moving beyond relations based on power and domination, between people and nations, to relations built on empathy and compassion. That’s a tall order, but the fact our world finally must change to reflect the powers our species has possessed since Trinity or face annihilation demands that we settle for nothing less.

This first appeared on The Raven.