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Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option.

Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity.

In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.


CONTRIBUTORS

Rachel Bronson is the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel, Red Birds, will be published next year by Bloomsbury.

Lydia Millet’s next book, the short story collection Fight No More, will be published in 2018 by W. W. Norton.

Theodore Postol is a professor emeritus of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Elaine Scarry is a professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom (W. W. Norton).

Eric Schlosser is the author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin).

Alex Wellerstein is a professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and a principal investigator at the Reinventing Civil Defense project.

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