On Aug. 6 and 9 in 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no idea atomic explosions were imminent. Now, 70 years later, Homo sapiens has known its fate for a long time, but as Albert Einstein observed, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
Most Americans know almost nothing of the devastating blast, heat, radiation and electro-magnetic effects of nuclear devices. Most don't know how many there are, or where. Most have little concept of how even a limited, regional war could end civilization. And most don't know how close that terrible end has come. As recently as 1995, a Russian military radar mistook a Norwegian-U.S. scientific rocket for a possible attack on Moscow. It was a very close call, only barely avoided because there was no international tension at the time. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis is a faded memory. There have been several near-death events, and hundreds of weapons accidents and malfunctions, mostly covered up. Moreover, serious threats to use nuclear weapons have been made time and again. They are always "on the table."
At one time, mankind was acutely aware that we are conducting an experiment to see how long the nuclear weapons it created will allow humans to exist. True, a few feeble avoidance measures were adopted: Explosions have been banned in the atmosphere, under the seas and in outer space; in 1996, the World Court declared nuclear weapons' threat or use a violation of international law; in the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, nations promised to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. In fact, though, design and manufacture of new ones goes on and on, with the U.S. alone planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Non-nuclear countries have not forgotten. In December 2014, at the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW), this statement from the chair's summary captures our plight: ""The impact of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of the cause, would not be constrained by national borders and could have regional and even global consequences, causing destruction, death and displacement as well as profound and long-term damage to the environment, climate, human health and well-being, socioeconomic development, social order and could even threaten the survival of humankind."
Out of that conference, Austria formulated the Austrian Pledge, "to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, international organizations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks." Now called the Humanitarian Pledge, this has been endorsed by 113 states as of July 14.
There are still nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, some 1,800 on Cold War-era hair-trigger alert on land, in the air and under the seas, ready to destroy all human past and future achievements in a few minutes. We've been on the brink of self-annihilation for 70 years. Our children and their descendants may get healthy food and exercise, our scientists publish papers, people chart family histories and plan for the future — but all that is at risk. Everything — Mozart, Rembrandt, Super Bowls, ukuleles, the Beatles — could be gone forever.
Few would dispute that good medical care can only come from fully informed decision and consent. Good politics is the same. In both arenas, luck and hope can never be foundations for planning of life and death matters.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki call out for Americans — all humans — to have informed consent, including the knowledge that they have every right and power to remove the artificial, man-made, expensive demons whose existence can lead to human species extinction.
Dr. Arthur Milholland is on the steering committee of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility; his email is email@example.com.