J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.

Post-Election Re-Post: The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!

I believe this is a good time to re-post a much earlier piece I wrote for this blog concerning the greatest threat to this country, the United States of America. Aside from the potential world-wide proliferation of nuclear weapons, the greatest concern comes from within. The problem of money in government is manifest across both sides of the political spectrum. Both President-Elect Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders warned of the danger during the recent campaigns. It is my contention that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should be concerned. Dealing with this problem represents a great opportunity for the incoming administration. My earlier post (which is repeated here in its entirety) can be reached by clicking on the following link:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/the-best-government-money-can-buy-follow-the-money/

The Best Government Money Can Buy? Follow the Money!

For a very long time now, I have asked myself, “What is the biggest threat to the United States of America and our way of life?” From the beginning the answer seemed very clear, at least to my way of thinking, and the answer remains the same throughout the years that have passed since I first posed the question.

The Money

We already have the best government that money can buy, and the situation grows worse, particularly in Washington.

This has been the case under numerous administrations, and the situation knows no political party lines. Rather, it seems that such a dilemma is inevitable, somewhat akin to a perpetual law of nature – human nature. History has shown that while technology continues its explosive, exponential growth, human nature changes little as generations come and go; the problems inherent in a people attempting to wisely govern themselves stem from the biologically hard-wired nature of our mental make-ups. Self-preservation, self-interest, and just plain greed are always obvious and abundant in any society. Acting in one’s self-interest can be excused to a certain degree, but what is the proper label for a situation where wealthy and powerful factions “legally” influence (or control?) a society’s government along the lines of their best interests, often to the disadvantage of the middle classes and to the detriment of the society as a whole? Let’s face it, such a situation transcends the label of “political influence”; it is more properly called “corruption.”

 From the middle-class vantage point here in the trenches, it seems that Wall Street and corporate interests, along with labor unions have had a significant effect on the legislation which affects us all – often to our overall detriment. This happens when highly-paid lobbyists representing those interests bestow “legal” favors and political campaign contributions to candidates running for political office, candidates who are desperate to be elected or who face a tough re-election campaign. Why do lobbyists do this? The best answer to that comes from the well-worn advice which is so often relevant, “Follow the money!”

The U.S. Tax Code

Take the U.S. tax code, for instance – please! We are reminded every April how ridiculously complex it is, yet it should not be. Why not simplify it then? It will never happen under current conditions, because moneyed interests will always be on the backs of legislative committees to insure loopholes and myriad exemptions favorable to their particular business or interest. It is precisely the ongoing tinkering – no, make that meddling – by influence-peddlers acting through Congress which results in a ridiculously complex tax code. In fact, many of the bills which emerge from Congress are unduly long and unwieldy for precisely the same reason. Why are so many corporations “incorporated” in obscure places like the Cayman Islands even though their businesses operate primarily within the U.S., Europe and Asia? Follow the money – a more favorable tax base, of course.

Unsustainable Pension Obligations

Have you been hearing about the huge pension-obligation problems in bankrupt Detroit, in Stockton, California, and in many small communities across the country? We see only the tip of the iceberg on this one. The culprits: Labor unions and the politicians friendly to labor’s often excessive demands regarding benefits for their rank and file. Unions clearly have political and financial clout in political campaigns, and that is not without its long-term financial consequences – as we now understand. And then there are those political incumbents facing no imminent election challenges who just do not wish to deal with labor unrest during their tenure, so they readily cave to excessive union demands, “kicking the can down the road” and into the next person’s term of office. And the beat goes on.

A Second, Related Concern: Public Complacency

Nature has endowed humans not only with certain inalienable rights, but also with certain biological “defense mechanisms” – one of which is the tendency to put problems away for another day as long as a crisis is not imminent. This helps prevent ulcers, I suppose! We Americans it seems, have been “kicking the can down the road” for some time, now, while lobbyists have increasingly diverted governments, especially our Congress, away from truly representing “the people.” Politicians are too often focused on satisfying the wealthy and powerful who grant numerous “legal” favors to them and their office.

 And, by the way, did you know that currently something like 42% of legislators who leave Congress become paid lobbyists in Washington? I wonder why they do that? Again, follow the money! I believe that percentage was less than 12% just a few decades ago. Why did the Roman Empire collapse after centuries of world dominance? The experts tell us that corruption and public complacency were the primary causes. Does anything ever really change?

But It’s All Legal!

Some would claim that the lobbying industry operates perfectly legally, within legitimate guidelines regulating such things as political campaign contributions, etc. The rest of us would point to the fact that many of the laws and regulation guidelines as established by Congress and interpreted by the courts have long been unduly influenced by powerful interests. This calls to mind the old adage of “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

At what point do laws which clearly benefit the wealthy and powerful to the detriment of the common citizen and the overall good of the country become recognized as symbols and agents of corruption? I believe “bribery” is another way of expressing the current situation.

Abraham Lincoln’s “Take” on America

Lincoln_1

I recall many, many years ago, the moving, talking automaton (robot) of Lincoln at Anaheim’s Disneyland. At that time, such computer-controlled realism was quite a new thing. The convincing figure of Lincoln recited a number of his prescient thoughts and memorable utterances. I recall vividly the central idea that struck me the most, but I must paraphrase very liberally here: “This country, with all its resources and potential, will never be conquered by outside forces. Rather, it has more to fear from decay and forces within, than from foreign foes.” Amen.

 Was it not Lincoln who said “something” to the effect that we should resolve that…..“government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth?”

Fact-Checking, Truth, and Moral Certainty

In the climate of recent presidential campaigns, including the present one, a new imperative has, of necessity, emerged: That of independent “fact-checking” the statements and pronouncements of candidates. It is both fascinating and disturbing how often bald-faced lies and distortions of the truth are put before the voting public – from both major party candidates – even though the perpetrator is often caught on tape saying the very thing later denied. Is there no shame?

truth-pic_2

Have you ever been inconvenienced by illegitimate charges to your credit card which required a replacement card? It is actually becoming difficult to find anyone who has not. Inconvenient? Yes. Getting worse in this internet age? Yes. The cost to government, financial institutions, and to each and every one of us who must deal with the upsurge of fraud and identity theft is monumental. We pay dearly with our time, energy, and money for credit-bureau monitoring, anti-virus software, and fraud recovery efforts. I maintain that the prosecution and punishment of such fraud is woefully inadequate to serve as a creditable deterrence to anyone tempted to steal and defraud.

Have Truth and Honesty in All Things Become Old-Fashioned Notions?

It troubles me greatly that truthfulness and a personal sense of honor are ever scarcer commodities in America, not just in the political arena, but in our everyday encounters. Survival in America demands constant fact-checking because mis-representation from advertisers, politicians, bankers, and outright con-artists is on the upsurge in this society as is outright fraud.

The latest Wells Fargo Bank scandal is but a recent example. As I understand it, bank employees, with the allegedly tacit knowledge if not encouragement of upper management, opened unauthorized and unwanted new accounts at the bank in the name of current account holders. This, presumably for the sake of garnering money bonuses paid for generating “new business.” Seriously? Dozens of lower-level folks have been fired, and the CEO forced to resign, but the real question, here, is “Who will go to jail” for the significant fraud perpetrated? The answer? Probably no one, despite the seriousness of the allegations.

This is the path commerce in America has increasingly followed: The wealthy accused hire the best, high-priced lawyers to wrest unwarranted perpetrator leniency from our system of justice which should instead be serving notice that unscrupulous behavior will not be tolerated.

 As is almost always the case, those responsible in upper management at Wells who escape jail will, undoubtedly, become comfortably “retired” with pre-negotiated, guaranteed millions in their pocket despite “stiff” fines from the government for their naughtiness. The ordinary workers at Wells who were allegedly coerced by management to implement such a scheme have been fired and will fare much worse. No wonder folks are growing wary of “the system” and the lack of any real deterrence emanating from enforcement to discourage those tempted to take advantage of the public. Expect more of the same until the America demands and exacts justice in such cases.

Monitoring congressional hearings, such as that recently held to question the CEO of Wells Fargo, is usually an exercise in viewer frustration as often hapless members of Congress meander through poorly thought-out questions for those called before them to testify. Also in play is the public’s awareness that, lurking in the shadows, is the strong possibility that the congressional folks have, in the past, been bought and paid for by lobbyists representing the very entities and people being investigated by them. At best, it often seems as if our congressional “watchdogs” doing the interrogating are more interested in a beneficial television photo-op than really insuring justice.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was the glaring exception, recently, as she tore into the Wells Fargo CEO for his evasive responses to her pointed questions. At one point, she asked him for a yes or no answer to her very specific question. When he went into evasive/deflection mode for the second time, she promptly cut him off and declared, “I take that as a NO!” and forged ahead with her no-nonsense questioning. Hooray for Ms. Warren and her refusal to be deterred from her fact-finding! If a straight answer to pointed questions is not forthcoming, the person under oath should be made to “twist in the wind” until the question is addressed.

America has many complex challenges and problems. Truth and honesty in all things are necessary if we are to make any progress in addressing our country’s issues. We do not have the luxury, time, or money in this society to stop and fact-check everything, all the time.

 While these virtues should certainly start at the top with our elected officials, such attitudes must be embraced as well by us, the public at large, in our everyday dealings with one another – all the while demanding it of our government and corporate leaders.

truth-pic_1

It seems that the Gordon Gecko greed creed which declares “Greed is Good” has become the rallying cry of the new ethics in American business and government along with “Do Whatever It Takes to Get Yours.”

 If you have any doubt about current trends, you had best take the time to step back, take a good look around, and do some honest reflecting. What will it take for we the people to judge our fellow humans not by their position, their material trappings, their “engaging” personalities, or the color of their skin, but by the demonstrated content of their character…and their honesty in all things. We must not tolerate anyone who flagrantly behaves poorly in that regard.

Bernie Sanders for President? Tackling America’s Big Problem

The Money

These are fascinating times in this United States of America! Who will be elected president in 2016 to lead this country across the troubled waters which lie ahead? The story of this election campaign is materializing as I write these very words. Chapter two of the narrative begins after the election results from New Hampshire’s primaries this week which saw Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerge as clear winners.

There is much to be said about this election campaign and the amazing, atypical roster of candidates who have emerged, but I focus on three salient points:

Point one: That the current front-runners (yes, it is early), Trump and Sanders are most improbable/unusual candidates. On the one hand, Donald Trump is an outspoken, high-profile, multi-billionaire capitalist with a show-biz flair but no political experience, whatsoever. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders characterizes himself as a Democratic Socialist – hardly the historical caricature of your viable presidential candidate!

Point two: The American electorate is desperately disgusted with Washington politics and politicians who perpetuate the “art” of procrastination and indecisiveness. It is clear that Trump and Sanders are where they are because they present voters with radical departures from the status-quo.

Point three: Both of these candidates have taken the plunge into the deep, treacherous waters of America’s most serious problem – especially Sanders.

What is the greatest threat to the United States of America?

Answer: The fact that Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has been hijacked by wealthy, special interests from industry and Wall Street. I have long been convinced that the situation poses a dangerous threat to the viability of our American democracy. It would seem that Senator Sanders has reached a similar conclusion along with many of our citizens who look askance at the gross wealth inequality which reigns supreme in America.

I recall a trip to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland when I was a young man: My family was listening to a speech by Abraham Lincoln realistically delivered by Disney’s “Lincoln automaton” (programmed robot). In the speech, Lincoln declared that, should the United States ever fail, its demise will come from forces within, not from outside the country. It was abundantly clear to me that Lincoln was warning about both citizen apathy/polarization, and the corrosiveness of internal corruption.

Donald Trump’s willingness to “damn the torpedoes” and say whatever is really on his mind was on full display in the first Republican debate when he wagged his finger disapprovingly at the influence special interests have on the decisions and functioning of our government. He insisted that he should know as well as anyone how the system works for the wealthy, because he, as a developer/capitalist, has taken advantage of the opportunities that the law allows! How refreshing was that honest admission and his subsequent stand that special interests have too much sway on our government by way of campaign contributions?

The Bernie Sanders Solution: Rein-in the Special Interests

 For anyone like me who is well aware of Wall Street’s recklessness, Sanders’ contention that our government is being steered by special interests is a resonating bell-tone. Few serious people will forget the near collapse of this country’s entire financial system back in 2007/2008 (yes, it almost happened!) and the role played by the greed and influence of Wall Street banks and investment houses. Hundreds of billions of dollars were lost, much of that by middle-class Americans, during the recovery process and the bail-out of Wall Street. Countless lives were changed forever thanks to the reckless, greedy actions of Wall Street and the banks as they parlayed their securitized and scrubbed, sub-prime home mortgage con game into huge profits…and, yet, not one of the well-documented protagonists ever spent a day in jail for it.

For anyone who needs to be convinced just how close this country came to financial/global Armageddon, I recommend the Frontline documentary, Inside the Meltdown. Michael Lewis, in his book (and the current popular movie) titled The Big Short reveals just how corrupt and/or ignorant were the people in both government and the private sector who allowed all this to happen. And make no mistake: Nothing has changed enough since that narrow escape to prevent a worse, future financial calamity from happening again.

When asked how he intends to change the ways of Congress and Wall Street should he gain the White House, Sanders cites his “popular revolution” as the vehicle. Indeed, he has touched a sensitive nerve in the populace as evidenced by the response received by his message about wealth inequality and the people’s government being increasingly controlled by wealthy special interests. Is Sanders a head-in-the-clouds liberal who does not know what he is tackling? After listening carefully to him, I think not!

 Just How Will This Work, Senator Sanders?

 A media political pundit (there are a lot of them) asked Sanders just the other day, “How will you possibly get an often self-serving Congress to wean themselves from the campaign contributions which fuel their constant drive for re-election? Who, in a position to matter, would shun the money? Do you think YOU can change their minds and enact laws which eliminate campaign contributions?”

At that point, Sanders proved to me his mettle with his quiet but firm answer (paraphrased): “No, the public will change their minds.” He reiterated and emphasized that his strategy involves a “popular revolution.” He did not have the opportunity to elaborate further, but I can imagine what his strategy might be. I envision a successful attempt to ban outside money and influence from our government process proceeding in two steps:

Step 1: Establish a generous election campaign fund (including network time) paid for by taxpayers and equally divided among all “qualified” candidates for major office. I am certain that an acceptable winnowing process can be established to narrow the field, initially.

Step 2: The executive branch (the president) drafts a written oath of office whereby major Washington office-holders and seekers can choose to swear to abstain from all moneys collected from special interests – under penalty of perjury. Any incumbent or candidate who does not sign the oath will be listed in the “nay” column of a listing which is readily available for all the public to see. Given the current mood of the electorate, I would hope that those who resisted signing the pledge to forego private campaign finance would see future voter support at the polls seriously dinged. That approach would, indeed, represent the public changing the minds of Congress – as Sanders intimated! Sanders must surely have something similar in mind in order to give his popular revolution some teeth!.

 Have You Ever Wondered Why Our Tax Code Is So Complicated?

 Here is the answer to the question. The intricate loop-holes and deductions in today’s huge tax code are symbolic footprints left behind by special-interest lobbyists and their lawyers who have, over many decades, chiseled away at tax code simplicity, creating special exceptions (loop-holes) in order to benefit their wealthy clients. Such clients are heavily represented in the top 0.1% of the population who now owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? By the way, I am in favor of raising marginal tax brackets up to at least 50% (with no loop-holes) for those making over ten million dollars a year, rising to 80% for incomes over fifty million – not to exact revenge on successful people, but to discourage the rampant greed and speculation which today’s 39% bracket (complete with loop-holes) encourages. I wonder how the rich ever got the marginal rate reduced from the 90% level it had reached during the Eisenhower administration….I wonder.

One of the worst Decisions Washington Ever Made!

 I agree with Bernie Sanders that the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was a terrible move. Glass-Steagall was enacted in 1932/33 to separate savings and loan banks from Wall Street investment banks. The great depression made clear the need for such legislation. Most people with their precious savings held by a bank do not want that bank making risky Wall Street investments with their hard-earned money – never mind what the FDIC says it guarantees. Greed-induced gambling with the money of America nearly resulted in Washington’s inability to contain the financial chain-reaction which began in 2007. Back in 2008, other than Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers which did go under, it was clear that without a taxpayer bail-out, systemic failure of the system could destroy this country’s entire economy. Call it “taking one” by the taxpayer for the greedy and incompetent.

Why was Glass-Steagall repealed in 1999 during the Clinton administration? I do not know the answer to that one, but I would wager that lobbyist’s footprints were prevalent along the paths leading to Congressional offices – wouldn’t you?

 Where Does Hillary Clinton Stand?

 Hillary Clinton insists that she is serious about the lobbyist problem, yet I have not heard her call for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. I wonder specifically what her plan would be (beyond invoking the reactionary legislation of Dodd-Frank) to proactively restore the full attention of Congress to the business of the people?

At one point in last night’s democratic debate between Sanders and Clinton, she took personal umbrage at Sanders’ insinuation that her $600,000 speaker’s fee received from Goldman Sachs over the past year is unacceptable. Clinton said she would never be swayed in her vote by campaign favors. Sanders missed his chance by not retorting that not everyone in government might possess such high personal standards – a safe bet, I will wager.

Sanders did groan, “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people” (my paraphrase) – a remark surely made not to refute her personal integrity in the matter, but to demonstrate the absurdity of blithely dismissing the corrosive power of lobbying on our over-all system of governance. In many crumbling parts of the world, they call it bribery – the need to pay money for a favor…or even for a fair shake. Sanders sarcastically asked (paraphrased), “Why would the wealthy do that with their money? Do they enjoy throwing their money around?”

Lincoln_1I hardly believe that Abraham Lincoln, politically savvy as he was, could countenance the form of bribery present in America today. At the time, Lincoln was correct when he ventured that America had more to fear from within than from without. In all fairness, he could little imagine that other immense threat to us all that has since materialized – an unstable nuclear world. May divine providence provide “we the people” with the leadership we so desperately need along with the popular will and good sense to vigilantly guard our democracy and our freedoms.

The Most Important (and Challenging) Job of All?

If you said President of these United States or CEO of the most iconic and “valuable” company in the world, Apple Computer, you would be very wrong. “Most powerful” or “most influential” might apply, but not “most important.”

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The most important job in the world, by far, is birthing, educating, and responsibly raising children to grow into accountable, productive citizens of this planet. Parenting/mentoring is the most important job of all!

Most people pondering the question just posed would likely agree with the above answer. We are accustomed to the expression, “grass-roots movement,” a phrase prevalent in today’s news, particularly when applied to forms of social protest. Having spent seventy-four years plus as a member and active observer of the SHB, the Society of Human Beings, I conclude that the majority of mankind’s domestic and global ills can only be cured by administering a strong dose of self-help…at the grass-roots level.

With society and government so immersed in top-down solutions to our economic, social, and personal problems, it is refreshing to encounter people who feel that, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” My message has nothing to do with tea-party politics or any other kind of party affiliation. I am speaking to the need for a more enlightened, educated, and responsible citizenry as THE long-term solution to so many of the problems which, today, we attempt to legislate, regulate, and subsidize away.

Just as I believe that education in America will best be served by “better students” arriving in our classrooms as opposed to “better schools” and “better teachers,” I propose that society will best be served by nurturing “better citizens” for the ranks of society and not by “better jobs” and “better opportunities” from our industries and government.

And just how is such a grass-roots effort of that magnitude going to occur? The unavoidable, but correct answer is: One very young person at a time….and it will take time, a lot of time. The key to it all is responsible parenting/mentoring of our very young.

The two-adult, intact family unit – a household in which children are raised by two mature, responsible adults is the best vehicle for achieving the stated goal. For you successful single parents, note that I stress the word, best. Obviously, there is a CATCH 22 involved, here: Before mature, responsible children happen, there must be mature, responsible adults to enable them, and those adults in charge were once malleable young children themselves, also vulnerable and in need of wise adult guidance. Yes, this represents a stiff challenge, but a way must be found to break into the endless circle of poor mentoring and poverty which, today, seem to be driving our society into a downward spiral.

An Interesting Experience at the Front Door

The other day, my doorbell rang. I put down my book and opened the door to find a middle-aged black man, nicely dressed in casual clothes and with magazine subscriptions to sell which could help his personal cause. He had quite a line of patter which hinted that he had come up the hard way and was now making a better life for himself – very laudable. As part of his pitch, he asked me if I ever had to go door-to-door like he was doing. I thought for a moment and truthfully replied, “Yes, when my company had been “downsized” and I was out looking for a job!” Once or twice over the years, my knocking-on-doors job search was accompanied by a palpable sense of desperation when the economy was really tight, no one was hiring, and our savings account was rapidly being depleted.

The man asked if I were aware of poverty areas in the greater San Francisco Bay Area – places like Oakland, CA., and I assured him that I was quite aware. He commented on the lack of youthful opportunity in those areas, and asked, “What do you think is required to remedy the situation?” My initial reply: “The situation IS complicated.” I thought for a few moments and then added: “Since you have asked for my opinion: I believe that one of the major problems faced in some regions of Oakland and other major cities with poverty/crime problems is the predominance of one-adult households raising multiple children – usually a mother with no father.” I suggested that, “The positive influence of the intact family unit is THE ultimate gateway to youthful opportunity – for any youngster, anywhere.” I was giving my honest reply to this man’s direct question – a reply which reflects my long-held belief that the combination of poverty and insufficient adult supervision and mentoring is an untenable combination, especially where that is the norm in any neighborhood.

I told him that, being retired, I could not afford a magazine subscription that I do not want, but that I would donate five dollars to help him out. It was an interesting and clarifying moment for me and well worth the donation.

It (the Situation) IS Complicated! Some Statistics

The circumstances surrounding high poverty/crime areas are varied and complex, but statistics shine a glaring spotlight on the positive influence that an intact, loving family has on the future prospects of the children. 8% of children raised by married couples live in poverty compared with 40% raised by single mothers. Within those statistics exist plenty of single moms (and dads) who are doing an exemplary job raising kids under difficult conditions: Statistics deal with trends, not with individual cases, but the trends are quite clear.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial observed the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial report issued while he served as an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department. Moynihan’s study which focused on the black family and the increasing number of fatherless homes determined that, “The fundamental problem is that of family structure. The evidence – not final but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Moynihan was vilified by many liberals of the day for his report. The response of the Great Society in Washington was to penalize marriage and subsidize single parenting, and that is a typically top-down Washington “solution” which so often actually makes the problem worse.

The Journal article goes on to cite these more recent statistics: At the time of Moynihan’s report, 25% of black children and 5% of white children came from a fatherless household. Today the numbers are 70% and 35% , a startling increase, particularly within white families.

Raising responsible, accountable, and productive children is very difficult in today’s demanding society, both in black communities and white enclaves – even in two-parent families. When only one parent is present to shoulder all of the attendant responsibilities, the task becomes overwhelming with the additional burdens imposed by widespread poverty in the environment. Such conditions make breaking the vicious circle of poverty doubly difficult.

Although I believe in marriage as the best alternative, that, for me, is not the heart of the argument, here. The real issue has more to do with two adults entering into a long-term compact of mutual commitment and responsibility with a strong focus on the welfare of their children. Ideally, such a mutual commitment is accompanied by an honorable and sincere desire to provide a better opportunity for their kids than they themselves experienced – even though considerable self-sacrifice is required.

When these attitudes begin to take hold in our society, we are on the right track. I believe that WAS the way it was, and not that long ago in this country. It would take a few generations for such a grass-roots effort to show positive results, but don’t count on government solutions alone to solve the problems we experience any time soon.

Recently, the great astrophysicist, Steven Hawking, was asked what human trait he would like to see modified or eliminated: He replied, “Aggression.” While I agree with him, I would add, “I wish to see restored the once prevalent notions of personal honor and integrity… and parental accountability.” I continue to hope.

Rain at Last in California! The Bleaker Picture?

Finally, the rains have come to central and southern California! We have been in severe drought, now, for many months, and anxieties run high as reservoirs run low and even go dry.

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Although the three to four inches over the last few days is quite literally “just a drop in the bucket” in terms of alleviating our drought conditions, the coming of such significant rainfall raises hopes that more is to come this season: It must!

Linda Was Right About “Water”

I recall my wife voicing concern many years ago about California’s rapid growth outrunning its resources – particularly water. At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought; today, I think a lot about the possibility – fast becoming a likelihood!

There has been a huge influx of people in California and, specifically, in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last several years. The primary reason aside from the region’s wonderful climate is the booming economy and the tech job magnet which is Silicon Valley. Every vacant space (and there are not many!) is giving way to developers and the apartment/condominiums they love to build. The housing demand is fierce which begets sky-high home prices and rents. However, it seems our city fathers and the state politicians in Sacramento have given little thought to water and the skyrocketing population/resource imbalance. Now, California’s long-term drought has finally spotlighted the seriousness of the situation.

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Locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents have been asked to cut water usage by 10 to 20%. Lawns have been going brown and showers have gotten shorter among the citizenry. The central valley of California, long known as “the salad bowl” of the world for its bountiful produce, continues to farm although there are sections of the valley that lie fallow for lack of water. In other locations, even such water-intensive crops as almonds are still grown in abundance.

Where Do the Farmers Get Their Water?

More and more, California’s farmers are going far below ground for their water, drilling deeper and deeper wells. Some of these wells are so deep that they cost a farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill. Most of the shallow, easy-to-reach aquifers have been depleted over decades of easy drilling. Small farmers who cannot afford the drilling costs of deep wells see the handwriting on the wall.

I was surprised to learn – and not that long ago – about land subsidence. Here is how it works: Over a period of continual pumping of well water from the aquifers, a significant lowering of land elevation occurs. The nearby large city of San Jose, California, experienced some thirteen feet of subsidence in its early days when water came exclusively from wells. That degree of land recession can cause all kinds of problems today: New flood-zones (not a problem at the moment!) and infrastructure damage, for example. Imagine the potential stresses and strains on underground utilities like water and gas pipes as the land settles in a slightly uneven fashion.

The “60 Minutes” Program on California’s Water Problems

Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” recently devoted an entire program segment to California and its growing water problems. The program highlighted data which shows serious depletion of the state’s aquifers – mainly by big agriculture. The implications are clear: Any long-term climate change in California which results in less rainfall each year for an extended period will, in the not too-distant future, take a severe toll on the state’s agricultural output as aquifers are pumped dry faster than they can replenish – precisely the present situation. The resulting damage to California’s agriculture will have huge economic consequences on the state in years to come.

The de-salinization of salt water is seriously being considered right now in some regions of the state. Down south, Orange County and San Diego have already implemented sewage treatment plants which reclaim waste water (even sewage) back into drinkable water. At the end of the “60 Minutes” segment, Ms. Stahl finally gave in to urging from her host at one of these re-processing plants and drank a glass of water which had been reclaimed from sewage/waste: She apparently remains in good health and even admitted that it “tasted OK” – to paraphrase.

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Barely visible at the base of the Japanese Maple in the above picture is a little sign my wife has in our garden. It reads, “For all things, there is a season.” How true for the annual seasonal changes which we expect. I fear that little sign may portend a darker cycle – one with a period of hundreds of years – a cycle of severe drought in California. I hope not.

For more on the subject of unbridled growth here in Silicon Valley and cities and towns, in general, click on the following link for my post “Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life” (archives, May 31, 2014).

See “Our Cities and Towns…”

Nuclear Weapons: Is Civilization Going “Critical?”

While traveling through New England just two months ago, Linda and I made it a point to drop into any bookshop that looked interesting – our usual mode of operation. In the back room of a rustic little shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, I found a small, unassuming little volume titled simply, “Hiroshima.” Because of my interest in the science and history of nuclear weapons, I recognized the title as a possibly important one. It was published by John Hersey in 1946, the year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a bookplate on the inside cover, and the book’s fine condition suggests it had been cared for over the years. Hersey’s piece, an expose of the horrors of nuclear weaponry, was first published in the “New Yorker” magazine. My little book is an obvious first book edition.

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Today’s “Wall Street Journal” Bookshelf (Aug. 6, 2014) under its byline, “A Decision and It’s Fallout,” reviews a new book by Paul Ham titled, “Hiroshima Nagasaki.” The book review mentions Hersey’s book as the best representative of the first wave of moral revulsion over the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Indeed, Hersey’s accounts of specific bombing victims and the general aftermath in Hiroshima paint a stark and gloomy picture.

With the specter of nuclear weapons ever-lurking in the shadows, the warfare currently raging on several world stages along with these specific recent reminders of Hiroshima prompted me to write this blog-post.

I cannot think of a more important question for us, the denizens of this planet, to ask ourselves than the one posed in the title of this post: “Is Civilization Going Critical?”

What does that mean? In nuclear weapons parlance, “going critical” refers to the condition whereby enough radioactive material is effectively combined to enable a nuclear “chain reaction.” A chain reaction occurs during the “fission” process whereby atoms are split apart releasing both energy and enough free neutrons which act as new “bullets” to split yet other neighboring atoms in a rapidly cascading scenario.

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When the state of criticality is met, runaway fission occurs, accompanied by a tremendous, almost instantaneous release of nuclear energy in accordance with Einstein’s most famous prediction that e = mc2. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled and sustained in a lab environment without catastrophic results as demonstrated by Enrico Fermi and his team of physicists. They were an advanced “arm” of the Manhattan Project, the government’s crash program in World War Two to build the first atomic bomb. Fermi and his team demonstrated the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction on Dec.2, 1942 while working under the old football bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. In contrast with Fermi’s ability to moderate his chain reaction, in a nuclear weapon once criticality is reached in the bomb’s radioactive core, the reaction is unstoppable and virtually instantaneous.

There is no going back. It is that statement which frightens me about the state of world affairs, today. Are we, the societies which comprise our earthly civilization, approaching a point of criticality in our global relationships, and, given our powers of mutual mass destruction, risking a point of no return? Is a flash-point possible which triggers a chain reaction of events from which there is no turning back? I fear that is so.

Here are several questions which deserve serious consideration:

-When any country announces that it will do whatever it needs to do to protect its people, that is precisely what its citizens expect. But how far does that policy extend, and at what point are a country’s citizens deemed to be in mortal danger to the point where all options should be on the table?

-What would happen to any state or region of the globe deemed “responsible” if even a crude nuclear device were detonated in or over the financial center of New York City? While at this time, only Russia and China have nuclear arsenals large enough to truly destroy the United States in a physical sense, the damage inflicted by a single, small nuclear strike on New York City to this country’s economy and our way of life, would constitute a “virtual destruction” of the country as we know it. The retaliatory price to be paid would, almost certainly, be massive for the actual or perhaps even for a “perceived” perpetrator. And then what follows?

-What about an unintentional or unwarranted nuclear first-strike? Never say “impossible” – extremely unlikely, yes, but once nuclear-tipped missiles are launched, they cannot be called back – a necessary “precaution,” if you will. One thing is certain: The brilliance of the scientific/engineering community in decoding the laws of physics and fabricating such powerful weapons will never be matched by a similar competence and capability of the bureaucrats who control them. Perhaps you have heard the news of our recent missile silo problems in that regard.

-And finally: At what point will the common framework of “humanity” supersede the more secondary distinctions which so prevail today – nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, tribal allegiances, etc.?

Are Humans Capable of Managing
the Technologies They Create?

Increasingly, the evidence says no. Look at the recent reports of massive cyber-theft. Do you recall the live smallpox virus recently found in a cardboard box at some abandoned health facility? By long-standing international agreement, there are only two designated sites on the planet which are authorized to possess live smallpox… under lock-and-key: Russia and here, in the United States. These two examples illustrate the overriding fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – a truism that will always haunt our efforts to manage technology. There will always be weak links and vulnerabilities! On a more benign level, many of today’s roads cannot handle the ridiculous commute traffic we have created, a legacy of that truly wonderful engineering triumph, the automobile. Say, wasn’t the automobile supposed to free us from our shackles?

Back to the Real Question

The real question is, of course: What policies will govern the possible use or non-use of acquired nuclear weapons? Implicit in any such discussion is the whole concept of “civilian casualties” in warfare, a topic so often pertinent to the conflicts we hear reported every day. There seem to be no satisfactory answers to that issue and to the even larger questions – and that is very troubling.  As the “Wall Street Journal” book review reported, “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member of the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which bombed Hiroshima, died last month. His view of modern warfare discounted any application of moral logic: “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” As General William T. Sherman so aptly stated and demonstrated in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, “War is hell,” and there is no other way around it. The world had better think long and hard about that reality, for the potential stakes today are immense, and there is no room or time for second-thoughts.

A Postscript:

Two years ago, Linda and I toured Hyde Park on the Hudson in upper New York. We found it fascinating, and the more we learn about Franklin Roosevelt, the man and the politician, the more we want to know. As our little tour group assembled in front of the venerable old mansion which was Roosevelt’s family home for generations, our middle-aged tour guide with a back-east accent said something unusual, something which certainly struck a chord with me.

NY 2012_150_AlanPS“See that door over there at the right-corner of the house?” he asked. He went on to explain that is where Franklin Roosevelt and long-time friend and White House advisor, Harry Hopkins, made the most important decision of Roosevelt’s long career. In that little corner office, they set in motion the Manhattan Project, the full-out, no-expense-spared effort to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do it. The nuclear race was on. “A most unusual opening remark for a tour guide,” was my first reaction. My long interest in the Manhattan Project and all that it signifies, however, made me nod in agreement. Our guide had obviously studied his history and had similar viewpoints on that particular matter – very interesting!

For readers who would like to know more about the Manhattan Project and the ramifications which stem from its success, I whole-heartedly recommend the documentary film by Jon Else, “The Day After Trinity.” It is the best of the many and varied fine documentaries I have in my video library. It is a film which everyone should watch, and one which no one who does watch will forget. It is not a film about bombs, or science, or merely history – it is first and foremost a human story, centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant principal architect of the bomb. The story, as related by many of the key players on the project, delivers a message for all humanity. Oppenheimer’s eyes on the DVD cover convey a message about the truth he had quickly recognized: The nuclear genie is loose, and it is already too late to control it.

IMG_1376PSDespite my enthusiastic testimonial for this film, I have no connection whatsoever with its sales or marketing. My mission here, as always, is to pass along something that I deem special to the readers of my blog.