Most human beings alive today have been born in the atomic age. The dawning of the nuclear era was ushered into history on July 16, 1945, in the remote desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico. That first horrific explosion flashed like a thousand suns. Renowned physicist Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government-funded program that produced the unprecedented monstrosity. On witnessing the massive fiery detonation, Oppenheimer was moved to ponder lines from the ancient Hindu epic The Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Though Nazi Germany had by that time been vanquished, the ferocious war with Japan continued. President Franklin Roosevelt had died. Vice President Harry Truman had become the new commander in chief. A decision was made to use the new bomb to bring about Japan’s defeat. Terrifying devastation was thus wrought on two unfortunate cities, the first one being Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki a few days later. Although there remained an adamantine determination in certain sectors of Japan’s military to fight on — even to the point of an attempted coup — Japan’s leadership, headed by the venerated Emperor Hirohito, capitulated. There is good reason to believe that a neutral demonstration of the bomb’s colossal power — before a select assembly of world leaders, including representatives from Japan — could have ended hostilities without the incineration of the civilian populations of the two cities that were targeted. Later it would be revealed that a small number of American prisoners of war were also victims.
Originally, concerns that Nazi Germany had the capacity to construct a nuclear device had spurred the race to beat them to it. In Germany, brilliant scientists like Werner Heisenberg and Otto Hahn possessed the theoretical knowledge that could lead to such a hellish creation. In the United States, equally learned scientists like Oppenheimer had a similar grasp of the atom’s potential. And refugees from Nazism like Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe and Leo Szilard had arrived in America. As Jews, they were especially concerned that if Hitler acquired the bomb first, the brutal forces of fascism could triumph and dominate the world. Szilard persuaded his friend Einstein to sign a letter composed by Szilard imploring Roosevelt to sanction and fund an effort that would ensure the U.S. would be first to own such a bomb. Consent was given and we all now live with the consequences of what was unleashed.
Monopoly proprietorship of nuclear weapons technology was short lived, and soon the Soviet Union had its own atomic weaponry. Other nations followed. Testing evermore potent nuclear devices continued. As many as 400,000 unsuspecting U.S. servicemen witnessed numerous experimental atmospheric explosions and suffered toxic aftereffects over the years from 1945 to 1962 and beyond. We know them as “atomic veterans.” Sworn to secrecy by military authorities, they suffered severe psychological and physical ailments in silence regarding their avernal experiences. In 1957, one man who witnessed a test said: “If there is a hell on earth, it’s gotta be that.” Finally, in 1996, the U.S. Congress released surviving atomic veterans from their oath. It is this troubling bit of history — no longer hidden — that provides background to the new novel “Nuclear Option” by Seattleite Dorothy Van Soest.
Retired social worker Sylvia Jensen and her younger friend investigative journalist J.B. Harrell have sleuthed as a team before. Sylvia has been sober for about two decades after having nearly destroyed herself with a reckless consumption of alcohol. The dashingly handsome Harrell writes for The New York Times. After their initial rocky relationship, they have developed a trusting friendship. This current story weaves through the years starting in 1956, in and out of Sylvia’s booze-soaked ’80s, to 2019, when Sylvia is a devout member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout her adult life, she has remained dedicated to causes of justice and peace.
Admittedly, the aging Sylvia’s energy and determination for immersion in political causes have been tempered by time’s passage. Yet an inveterate activist, the thought that she should be more involved and committed is a lingering sensibility. While attending a memorial for an elderly fellow peacenik — a valiant woman “grounded in radical Christian values and pacifism” — Sylvia muses: “It’s an old and deeply rooted character defect I’ve worked hard to overcome. And now that my life is better than ever, more serene and accepting, I intend to keep it that way.” Nice try, but before long Sylvia allows herself to be caught up in a dangerous situation.
It begins when she observes a young man at the memorial service. He looks remarkably like her old lover, Norton Cramer, dead for many years. Norton had been one of the guinea pigs — a young soldier in the U.S. military who had been exposed to the poison of radiation while stationed in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The man with a ponytail spotted by Sylvia is Corey, Norton’s son, who was a little kid when his father died of cancer.
Corey is a man whose own life is in turmoil, believing that his father’s illness had been passed down unintentionally by Corey himself to his little son, who has died. He wants revenge and has no time for what he considers ineffective measures of non-violent protest. He also has a serious drinking problem, which prompts Sylvia’s empathy and wish to help him. He draws her into a conspiratorial circle — a cabal of individuals who share Corey’s desire to depart from strictly peaceful opposition to nuclearism. As Sylvia penetrates the group, she hopes to avert a tragedy. It is obvious she is in over her head.
In the Midwestern municipality of Monrow City, the Nectaral Corporation has been ensconced in the nation’s military industrial network. A weapons manufacturer, Nectaral will be taking on a government contract to store plutonium. Demonstrations at the corporate site intensify. Carefully, Sylvia has contacted her friend and confidant J.B. regarding the disturbing plot she has become entangled in. Beyond their control, events unfold rapidly and both become endangered.
Van Soest’s fictional depiction of the pervasive nuclear threat serves as a reminder of the dreaded presence of these unspeakable entities in our midst. Just one year ago, the Doomsday Clock — first introduced in 1947 — was set at 100 seconds to midnight. That is the closest the clock has ever been set to warn of possible worldwide conflagration. Yet a glimmer of hope beckons. A cause to celebrate: On Jan. 22 the United Nations will formally pronounce all nuclear weapons everywhere to be in violation of international law. Lamentably the United States and others with these detestable weapons have not signed the declaration. Nonetheless it is a most critical step toward a new epoch of global understanding and cooperation, free from the nuclear sword of Damocles that remains a threat to all life on earth. Let us choose life and peace. There is no other choice.
Read more in the Jan. 20-26, 2021 issue.