Seventy years ago today, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the small city of Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb killed over 100,000 people, and due to the long-term effects of radiation poisoning, ultimately, many more. Seventy years ago today, the United States of America dropped an atomic bomb. As Jews around the world debate the merits of the nuclear deal with Iran, we must pause today, in deep humility. Our country, the United States, introduced nuclear weapons to the world. Our country, the United States, is the only country (and please God, may it stay that way) to have used a nuclear weapon on a civilian population, not once, but twice.
My personal identity is deeply connected to these first bombs. Like Little Boy and Fat Man (the names of the bombs dropped on Japan), I was raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a small town high in the Rocky Mountains of Northern New Mexico with fresh air and blue, open skies. My parents did not move to Los Alamos until 1969, and I was not born until 1972, yet the legacy (or shall I say, ghost?) of the first atomic bombs was a dark, yet mostly unspoken presence in my life. Nuclear weapons were the town industry, and as such, denial about the horrors and ethical implications was part of the fabric of daily life. My recollection is that sometime in the 1980’s or 90’s, the winning entry for an international peace garden was designed to be placed in the town of Los Alamos, and the Los Alamos County Council voted to not allow such a peace memorial to be placed in town. I imagine that they did not want the town to become a pilgrimage site for mourners and activists. Was it security considerations for the laboratory? Or fear of the feelings and instability that would arise from facing the devastation that came from the “baby” of the town?
I was awarded the Oppenheimer Memorial Award when I graduated from Los Alamos High School 25 years ago. This award, honoring the memory of the first director of the laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was given to a student showing great promise in math and science. I went on to study chemistry and physics as an undergraduate at Harvard, yet my heart was not drawn to scientific discovery. Rather, my heart was drawn to seek holiness, justice and spiritual community, to seek the truths that come from deep listening (I ended up becoming a rabbi).
The early 90’s were a confusing time for me. The Cold War was ending, which seemed to be a good thing, and yet many people I knew from Los Alamos were losing their jobs. I had learned in Los Alamos that the lives of a million American soldiers were saved with the dropping of the bombs, yet in my History of Science course, I came to understand that this was likely not the complete story: the new field of social science was developing during World War II and reports had come back from social scientists studying Japan in 1945 that morale was very low. According to my professor, these reports were suppressed and not taken into account in the decision to drop the bombs. I also learned in that course about the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance during the McCarthy era, likely due to his lack of enthusiasm for the H-bomb project, a project which increased the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
From what I can understand of the nuclear deal with Iran, my intuition is to support the deal, which would allow desperately-needed funds to flow into Iran to enable greater economic prosperity. I honor the fear that arises for Israel in contemplating a nuclear Iran, and I honor the uncertainty about what will unfold in the coming years. It is also important to name that the United States has a large nuclear arsenal, and Israel also likely has a nuclear arsenal of its own. As we all know from our years as children on the playground, “We’ve got some and you can’t have any!” is, by its very nature, an unstable situation. I pray for sanity for humanity. We all have big challenges ahead of us as the temperatures rise; may we learn as a world community to make choices towards our mutual preservation. In one of the central prayers of the Jewish morning service, we recite, “ahava raba ahavtanu”, “with a great love does the Holy One love us.” May we each feel that love and learn to love open our hearts to one another. That is the beginning of our hope.