Nuclear threats abound in a world too occupied to listen
Twin sisters Sara and Debra, clockwise from left, Amanda, yours truly, Lisabeth and brother Phillip. Missing is younger brother Robert who died in 2003 of complications related to diabetes.
This previously-unpublished piece was written in February 2013 after North Korea detonated an underground nuclear device.
FEBRUARY 2013— There is no refuge from one’s memories, the underground detonation of a nuclear device by North Korea Feb. 11, 2013 reminded me all too disturbingly.
I was transfixed by the laconic BBC News report I happened upon that early morning, followed by the equally droll appraisals from other news outlets. Nothing earnest in the least, just feigned objectivity or it seemed to me.
Air-raid sirens would have been wailing over my home in Goose Bay had news of such a dire development touched us decades ago.
But there was no alarm in the voices of the BBC anchors as they filleted the news without interpretation or, it seemed, comprehension. Yes, there were reports from Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and so forth — but it was so blasé, this nuclear detonation business.
I was a youngster in the early-sixties. I remember the tensions of the day, if only as they were dimly reflected in the muted conversations of my parents.
U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were locked in a steely standoff. It was October 1962. Khrushchev had reached an agreement with Cuban leader Fidel Castro that the Soviet Union would protect the island country; this after the abortive U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in May 1962.
It was a different time. It was a time of posturing, venal geopolitics, the Joseph McCarthy hearings into ‘un-American’ activities. It was a time during which America had crafted its policy of mutual assured destruction vis-à-vis its reaction to a nuclear attack. MAD-ness indeed.
My family lived in Labrador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The possibility of nuclear war, one presaged by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists who had a hand in the creation of the A-bomb, was real. After the first A-bomb was detonated July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer said it had brought to mind a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
At Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay, there were many ‘nuclear’ drills; we accepted them as we did school fire drills. My mother would lead her brood of seven into the basement as the haunting, shrill sound of a siren filled the air. There was never any knowing that this was ‘it’. CFB Goose Bay would have been a principal target. The air base was home to American, Canadian and NATO bomber and fighter aircraft which would have been in the air, ready to strike back had nuclear missiles started flying over.
There would be no winners. A nuclear winter would ensue and millions would perish, as had tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My mother, a member of the Women’s Air Force during the Second World War, had lived through the blitz in London, England. She was stoic as we huddled in the basement. She must have been afraid but did not show it: bright and brave, as always.
We all piled down the grey stairs to the cool concrete of the room with the tub washer, and its rollers. It was into this basement, one in which Mum and Dad brewed homemade beer and I often played alone, that we scrambled.
We older children helped put grey military blankets over the few windows in the dank prison below the living part of the house. Mum then turned on the shortwave radio: a wide, plastic thing of green and white, with tubes, no less. She was methodical and falsely cheerful.
There was no sing-along for the kids.
My father, then a flight lieutenant in the RCAF, worked as an air traffic controller at the base airport. He had been a flying officer during the Second World War. He was rarely at home when the sirens beckoned us to the Goose Bay basement. (I remember that big hill called Pine Tree Mountain, where radar devices, hidden in white geodesic domes, scanned the skies for ‘the enemy’.)
I was just seven, my twin sisters a year older, my younger brother six, another sister four, my youngest brother two and the latest arrival, a girl, an infant. One may have expected a cacophony of angst and fear from the children but there was only silence in that basement. No sounds of merriment, though our newest arrival, I don’t recall, may have cried.
We waited for the all-clear: another siren with a different sound. It usually came soon after the first because, after all, it was ‘just a drill’.
It was a soul-wrenching time as we sought our separate aloneness. It is indelible. I cannot think of ‘nuclear’ without recalling, often in an almost unconscious but spiritually powerful way, the palpable taste and smell of fear. (There are many like me.)
Kennedy’s brinksmanship prevailed. The nuclear missiles bound for Cuba were turned back, as Khrushchev blinked. But there was never any true relief then nor is there now.
We have been lulled into thinking that we are (all) in the ‘all-clear’. After all, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR is no longer, the world can boast of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The seven-year-old, that me of years ago, takes no solace in these things.
A ‘rogue state’ can change, in a heartbeat, all of what our ‘modern’ world believes. North Korea is only the latest example. There are ample others, though not many of the nuclear kind. Iran, if one believes the propagandists in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere, will join the club soon, as well.
Fifty years after the greatest nuclear threat went household, beamed to every living room, the threat persists. After the North Korean nuclear launch of early-2013, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced its ‘Doomsday Clock’ to five minutes before midnight, the time at which we leave the potential phase of annihilation and inch closer to whole-hog nuclear.
Fifty years on, global dynamics have changed. Maybe. After the North Korean provocation, it’s not just one leader facing off against another. States, unions of countries, the United Nations, even Communist China had strong and unequivocal words for the North Koreans. They drew a line in the sand, much as JFK did in 1962.
Now, even as North Korea threatens to do more harm to world peace if any country or coalition of countries tries to impose reasonable sanctions, commentators and pundits who have slept their younger lives in relative nuclear peace will provide ample advice to world leaders. The naivety seems almost ugly to me.
I am sad, as my mother was many years ago. I am in that almost catatonic state of awed disbelief my mother knew too well. The world is a fragile place. I am reminded now that the world is magical but, intrinsically perhaps, a place — our only ‘place’ — in which our nightmares become too real too often.
I can only be a pacifist. My experiences inform and form me in that way. I deplore violence of all kinds. Will that be enough? Has it ever been enough to end the machinations and malevolence of those whose lives are protected by bunkers, those whose evil in hunkered down while others pay the price?
One hopes reason leads. The history of human civilization suggests some cannot learn, save at the end of a sword.
There are no lessons for the dead.
(UPDATE FROM THE PRESENT: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Jan. 24 the Doomsday Clock would remain at two minutes to midnight as it was last year. Visit thebulletin.org. As well, just this past Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his country would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, long a deterrent against the proliferation of cruise missiles.)