This is American exceptionalism: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

But you have to say it without the doubt, the regret — the horror — of Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist extraordinaire and director of the Manhattan Project, who famously uttered these words in reference to the Trinity nuclear explosion in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert on July 16, 1945.

When you remove Oppenheimer’s moral awareness from the quote, it sounds more like: “Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. . . . That’s their tough luck for being there.”

The unrepentant Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima less than a month after the Trinity explosion, made this comment in an interview with Studs Terkel in 2007, in response to Terkel’s question: “. . .when you hear people say, ‘Let’s nuke ’em. Let’s nuke these people,’” — the terrorists — “what do you think?”

This is the Simple America: nuclear-armed and ready to fight. The only anti-nuke action it’s willing to take is against Iran — and before that, Iraq — whose alleged nuclear weapons program is an excuse to wage war.

Meanwhile, we have over 1,700 nuclear warheads deployed, while Russia has about 1,500. Both countries have many thousands in reserve. And we’re upgrading our nuclear arsenal all the time, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

“. . . current plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion,” Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association wrote last month for the DefPro (Defense Professional) News.

In addition, “The Air Force is seeking a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles. Modernization and operation of the United States’ 450 Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles would cost billions more.”

And, oh yeah, all this development continues to generate radioactive waste. Above-ground nuclear testing in the ’50s and ’60s spread cancer across a huge swath of the western U.S. And the Los Alamos National Laboratory, site of the original Manhattan Project and currently one of six nuclear-weapons production sites in the country, has disposed of at least 17,500,000 cubic feet of hazardous and radioactive waste at 24 locations since 1944, according to the Los Alamos Study Group. It “continues to generate and dispose of radioactive waste on-site at a facility called ‘Area G,’” where nearly 11 million cubic feet of waste is stored in perpetuity. The lab is hoping to expand the 63-acre site by another 66 acres, according to the Study Group.

A group of physicists changed the world in 1945, opening up our godlike potential to destroy life itself. We’re still smug about it.

Monday was Hiroshima Day; today is Nagasaki Day. Sixty-seven years ago, the United States ended World War II — and launched a new era of human existence — by dropping atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, on the cities, killing some 220,000 people. In the context of the carnage of World War II, perpetrated by all sides, including the Japanese, the death toll seemed minimal . . . a small price (for them) to pay. A war this big needs a dramatic ending.

And this is where American consciousness has stalled. The national ethos — Frontier Nation, conqueror of a continent — hardly changed when we became a nuclear superpower. We retained the same simplistic exceptionalism, the same sense of our own moral rightness and victimhood, ignoring any inconvenient data that would challenge it, such as evidence suggesting that Japan was ready to surrender before we dropped the atom bombs.

While internal anti-nuclear and antiwar sentiment roiled the national identity over the decades, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its clock at varying minutes before midnight (right now it’s at five minutes till), the national mainstream maintained its unquestioning patriotism and the military-industrial economy grew increasingly entrenched.

The irony is that, all the while, the ethos of exceptionalism and moral righteousness has been vulnerable not to the bluster and swagger of other nations but to the tiniest piercings of conscience and awareness. In 1995, for instance, the Smithsonian Institution was going to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, but the planned exhibit drew such howls of outrage from veterans’ and other military organizations — who claimed it depicted Japanese suffering far too graphically, to the point where Americans came off as the aggressors — that the exhibit was cancelled.

One of the most shocking and controversial pieces in the planned exhibit was a little girl’s lunchbox, which was found after the bombing. Its contents — rice and peas — had been carbonized. The girl’s body was never found.

This was too much. It undid the righteousness of patriots. “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” As I think about it now, I feel a renewal of hope that, against all odds, our humanity will save us.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at © 2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.