AFTER witnessing the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”, was moved to quote from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita in order to do justice to the emotions he was feeling.
“Now I am become death” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.”
One look at the recently declassified footage of US nuclear tests from the 40s and 50s and it is plain to see why Oppenheimer felt compelled to speak those words.
The awe-inspiring footage, posted to YouTube by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), depicts 210 nuclear tests carried out by the US in its arms race with Soviet Russia. Each of these were captured at 2,400 frames per second, from multiple camera angles, in order to analyse later.
To say the footage is compelling viewing would be an understatement – they are truly awesome, in the literal sense of the word, and utterly mesmerising. As well as jarringly terrifying.
The overwhelming power and potential for absolute destruction is quite breathtaking and unsettlingly humbling.
The release of the footage comes at a particularly poignant time as a conference to discuss the total elimination of nuclear weapons meets for the first time on March 27.
The meeting is open to all states, international organisations and representatives of civil society, according to the UN, and will bring world leaders together to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, with the end goal being their abolition.
The relevant resolution to convene the conference was co-sponsored by 57 states and was adopted by 113 positive votes.
While nuclear-weapon-owning France, Israel, Russia, United Kingdom and United States voted against it, perhaps most notably, North Korea voted in favour of the resolution.
With resounding support from UN member states, it appears that, for the first time since the foundation of the United Nations, the majority of the international community seems prepared to take a bold and fundamental step towards total disarmament.
Several similar efforts have been undertaken throughout history in an attempt to limit the awesome power that nuclear proved to be. Rivalry and mistrust between the superpowers, however, made its abolition incredibly difficult and the struggle to develop practical results proved fruitless. Instead the world had to settle for international restrictions that aimed at limiting the number of countries that could possess such weapons.
The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970, is the most adhered to among those instruments. While it was the best attempt, the treaty was not without its faults and over the next decades four other countries came to acquire their own atomic arsenals – North Korea, India, Israel and Pakistan.
Despite the mounting threat, countries continued to refuse to negotiate and any efforts aimed at complete abolition ground to a frustrating halt. Since the beginning of the nuclear age no substantive multilateral progress has been achieved on concrete disarmament measures and it is this frustration with the lack of progress that is, in part, responsible for the upcoming conference on Monday.
As we now find ourselves in a world in which the threat of nuclear feels all a little too palpable, the timing could not be more pointed.
Just this week, US President Donald Trump vowed to reconsider decades-old US policy of a world without nuclear. And Christopher Ford, Trump’s pick for the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation, claimed that the “headspace” for reducing nuclear arsenals had diminished in recent years and that the US is unlikely to cut their store, declaring that Trump “will not accept a second place position in the nuclear weapons arena.”
North Korea is also developing their nuclear programme and seem increasingly volatile and trigger-happy as Kim Jong Un rises to the provocations of the US and South Korea.
And an expert this week said that India may abandon its ‘no first use’ nuclear policy and launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan if it feared that Islamabad was likely to use the weapons first.
In this atmosphere of heightened tension and unpredictable leaders, the world will be watching next week’s conference with keen interest. The responsibility on those in power to take action on the abolition of nuclear weapons is huge, and the sobering force and destruction in the newly released test footage brings that home.
Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences and no amount of humanitarian response would come close to combating the scale of suffering and death experienced for many years after the initial explosion.
As discussion begins in this momentous debate, we would do well to remember the words of Oppenheimer as he describes people’s reactions to seeing an atomic explosion. I think the eyes say it all.