I never wanted my new novel to be timely. When I began researching the book that would become The Atomic City Girls, I wanted to write about the making of the first atomic bomb—specifically, the thousands of everyday people who came to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work in top-secret facilities built to enrich uranium.
Most of the workers had no idea of the purpose of their jobs until the bomb they had helped to create was dropped on Hiroshima, forcing them to grapple with the moral questions raised by this world-changing event. I thought I was writing about a subject that was safely historical.
But at the end of January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight—their direst assessment of the proximity of global catastrophe since 1953. Suddenly, we are all being forced to think about the questions haunting my fictional characters in a more real and terrifying way than we have in a long time.
The Bulletin was founded by Manhattan Project scientists troubled by the ethical implication of the weapon they had helped to create. Most had dedicated themselves to the project because they feared the Allies were in a race with Nazi Germany to produce a nuclear weapon. But by the time they successfully tested the first atomic bomb, Germany had surrendered, and many of the physicists had already begun to regret their creation. At the dawn of the atomic age in 1947, they created the Doomsday Clock as a warning, and it has been continually updated through the years to reflect the current threats to humanity’s future. At first, it was solely a measure of nuclear peril, but the Bulletin has since expanded its mission to include general political instability and climate change.
Over the past few months as North Korea has continued to test more fearful weapons and the rhetoric exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un has grown increasingly heated, Cold War anxiety has crept back into politics. In a November hearing, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed alarm with the process in place that gives the president final authority in the decision to use nuclear weapons.
The current system developed out of a series of legislative actions in the early years of the Cold War, motivated by both the fear of a Soviet attack that would require a swift response and the constitutional idea that nuclear weapons, like all aspects of the U.S. military, should ultimately be under civilian control. It gives one individual civilian, the president, tremendous power.
In a recent Washington Post poll, 60 percent of Americans reported that they do not trust President Trump with this authority, and around 50 percent expressed concern that he would launch an unjustified nuclear strike. But it is extremely unlikely that our current Congress will create any checks on the president’s power, despite the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s concerns.
President Trump has consistently demonstrated a frightening ignorance about nuclear warfare, as in his reported July 2017 request to national security advisors to build tens of thousands of new nuclear weapons, an impossible number and a strategically inept idea. Luckily, it seems that he was dissuaded. However, Trump continues to make public statements that only increase the world’s anxiety, most recently with his infamous January tweet about the size of his nuclear button. And recently Victor Cha was dropped as the White House nominee for ambassador to South Korea, because according to Cha, he expressed concern with the idea of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. The implication that the administration is seriously considering military action against a nuclear power is terrifying.
I’m sorry that nuclear weapons have been so much on our collective minds lately. But the truth is, even if the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea cool down, we will never get them off our minds entirely. They are a fact that the world has been living with now for over 70 years, which means not that many people can even remember what life was like before nuclear anxiety.
The Doomsday Clock is never going to turn all the way back, and we have to continue the ongoing task of figuring out the best way to live in a nuclear reality, even one that includes North Korea. The United States has a special responsibility as not only a leading nuclear power but the originator of the weapons and of course, the only nation to have used them. For our leaders, that means employing diplomacy and discretion to keep us as far as possible from a nuclear conflict. For the rest of us, it means letting those leaders know that we are holding them responsible for the world’s safety and will not accept irresponsible brinksmanship regarding our nuclear arsenal. One thing that hasn’t changed in the 73 years since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the absolute necessity of ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used again.