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Learning From the Bomb

Six decades after our nation unleashed the nuclear age by dropping atomic bombs on Japan, fully three-fifths of Americans believe a new world war is likely within their lifetimes. That’s the main finding of a new poll conducted by the Associated Press and a Japanese news agency in early July, to mark the August 6 anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The emergence of America as the world’s sole superpower has left Americans more insecure than ever.

Japanese, surprisingly, are far less pessimistic. Fewer than one in three believe a world war is imminent.

Americans’ nervousness stems in part from the growing popularity of apocalyptic end-of-days beliefs, part of the rise of the Christian right. But the biggest single cause of our jitters is the sense that the war is already upon us. We’re mired in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that have no clear end in sight. Terrorist attacks of ever-increasing deadliness seem to be a permanent fact of life. The messages we get from our leaders are variations on more of the same — or, as President Bush once said, “Bring it on.” Compounding the terror is the utter failure of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Security and intelligence experts say it’s only a matter of time before a terrorist group gets its hands on a nuclear device and uses it. Keeping disaster at bay demands a smart mix of prevention and deterrence, bottling up the loose nukes left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed and preventing rogue states from pursuing weapons programs.

On every one of those fronts we’re floundering. Ex-Soviet containment efforts are woefully underfunded. Our policies toward emerging nuclear powers are a mess of zig-zag and indecision, most recently in the ill-considered agreement to share nuclear know-how with India despite the alarms it’s sure to raise in Pakistan.

Have we learned nothing in the past 60 years? Pessimists and doomsayers tell us there’s nothing much to be learned, except that humankind is conceived in sin and condemned to the fires. The trouble is, that way of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Making a better future has to begin with hope.

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