Somewhere in the Great Up Yonder, Jacob Beser must have known there would be days like this. He helped usher in the Atomic Age 74 years ago this week. It’s not only this grim anniversary which provokes his memory — it’s the latest nuclear accident out of Russia.
Seventy-four years ago, Beser, a Baltimore native, was the only man who flew on both atomic bomb runs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that effectively brought World War II to a close. The end of the organized killing was the good news. The bad news was the unleashing of so much destructive atomic power, which continues to haunt all humanity.
It’s not just the possibility of wartime annihilation but accidents as well, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the mysterious explosion in northern Russia last week, about which the Kremlin is being secretive as usual.
Beser, who died in 1992 at age 71, would have understood this. He was a child of the most secretive wartime plans of all: the Manhattan Project’s creation of the atomic bomb. He was a young man out of Baltimore, a bright City College grad who’d gone on to Johns Hopkins University but dropped out to join the war effort.
We spoke a bunch of times through the years, including several on the parking lot at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, waiting for our kids to emerge on Sunday mornings.
He was a man with well-developed defense mechanisms — and no wonder. He’d had a lifetime of strangers approach him, either to thank him for ending the war or to berate him as an accomplice in the murder of thousands of human beings.
Beser would stiffen and ask, “Don’t you read any history? Don’t you know about the lives that were saved, and not just the ones that were lost?”
He meant the American troops that would have had to invade Japan if the bombs hadn’t been dropped, and the thousands of men from both sides who’d have been killed in traditional combat, and the likelihood that the war would have gone on years longer instead of effectively ending 74 years ago this week.
In the ensuing three-quarters of a century, we’ve scared ourselves into a kind of international stalemate on actual nuclear attacks. There’s been testing of all kinds, intended as macho displays of potential muscle.
But nuclear power has been seen, for the most part, as a deterrent to any war that might mean the end of all life on the planet.
Accidental nuclear disaster is another story. And just as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island’s accidents sent out warnings, so does this latest business out of Russia. (Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the HBO series “Chernobyl,” you should. It’s the most powerful piece of television I’ve ever seen. Without the astonishing courage of those who bottled up the leaks at Chernobyl, much of Eastern Europe might have become uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.)
What’s familiar about last week’s nuclear accident — a deadly explosion during the test of a new type of nuclear-propelled cruise missile — is the secrecy surrounding it. It’s reportedly the centerpiece of Russia’s arms race with the U.S. Beyond an admitted seven dead, we don’t yet know the extent of the damage.
As The New York Times reported Aug. 12, “The Russian government’s slow and secretive response has set off anxiety in nearby cities and towns.” The Times called it “possibly one of the worst nuclear accidents … since Chernobyl.”
Seventy-four years after the birth of the atomic age, we’re still frightening ourselves over its wartime potential — and its potential accidents.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).