On days like this, my thoughts turn to the hydrogen bomb. My mind doesn’t linger on the holocaust the use of such weapons would mean. Instead, I’m thinking of it as a kind of motivational tool, a fatalist’s lament over the way the world works. The bomb is there. It’s rusting away in its silo, connected to an obsolete set of computer controls. There are madmen about who believe the bomb adds to their cumulative power. I don’t know that I’ve stopped worrying about the bomb but I know that I’ve come to love it.
Every semester until just recently, I faced a roomful of hopeful faces, students, mostly young, who want to soak up what I have to say. I remember when we used to have duck-and-cover drills in my grade school, which was also a fallout shelter. The bomb was a real thing to us. We lived with it the same way we live under clouds. Who knew when they would open up and throw down Zeus’ mighty hand?
Those students don’t realize—and this is something most Americans have forgotten—that there are 7,500 hydrogen-bomb-tipped missiles on fifteen-minute alert to be launched by the command of one human being. Due to arrangements and treaties with the former Soviet Union, 7,500 missiles sit rotting in silos in Siberia, continental Russian, and Siberia. That’s 15,000 bombs, each with the destructive capacity of all the bombs and ordnance of all of the weapons ever used by humankind.
Don’t be so dreary. I’m beginning to believe the bomb is a good thing. The fatalism that created the postwar middle class, all that spending and acquisitiveness, came in part from never knowing when the world as we knew it was going to end. As I hike those Johnson County suburbs delivering the mail, I realize that but for the bomb, those suburbs would not exist.
It was the Eisenhower-era fear of the bomb that fueled the expansion of the American city. Dispersing the population over a larger area would prevent the wholesale destruction of society. In other words, a bomb is good only when it’s a localized event. If a foe dropped or shot a hydrogen bomb on a compact city, the loss of human life would be more severe than if implemented on a city sprawled out over hundreds of square miles.
The federal government largely funded the expansion of the suburbs, and just in the nick of time. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education moved more than a few white denizens of the city’s to move out of those inner cities, where their children would have to go to school with black kids. With new federally funded highways opening up hinterlands and former orchard and cornfield to residential development, hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of their opportunity to move to places like Johnson County. In fact, we can safely say that if it weren’t for the bomb and American racism, Johnson County, as we know it today, would not exist.
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I find all aspects of the city more attractive than any suburb. The grit and rot, the new development and the rugged citizenry that stuck with the city make it an interesting place. They are all part of the same ball, the loveliness of the architecture, decline, ascendancy, crime, and neighborliness of city communities make them dynamic and precious. If it sounds like I’m saying that beauty without blemish is no beauty at all, then you are interpreting correctly. Kansas City would not be what it is without my Westside neighborhood—on its ascent—or without 10th and Harrison—with its decline and dirt and squalor. Both are necessary to make a beautiful thing.
As I carry mail to suburban developments, some of them over 50 years old, I notice that people don’t know each other as they should. I ran into a woman yesterday who didn’t know her house’s position relative to the next address. She may have known her neighbor, but I suspect she didn’t. The houses were separated by a few tens of feet but each could have been on its own planet.
Last week, I was in a neighborhood that showed the best of the suburbs. It was in decline. The houses were cramped and unkempt, the yards messes of various detritus from plastic kiddy toys to cars on blocks. Just two streets over was a super clean neighborhood. The cars were better, the houses more expansive and kept. They were part of the same ball. I would much prefer living in the midst of the older houses, competing with my neighbors for who can put more stuff in their front yards. But you could tell it was a neighborhood rather than a development.
What does this have to do with the bomb? None of it would exist the way it does without genocide in a two-ton package. It wouldn’t exist had Americans overcome themselves during Reconstruction, when we had a chance to undo what centuries of slavery and racism have done to us. But that didn’t happen. Like it or not, we have the bomb and Americans, at base, are primarily motivated by race.
When I face those suburban kids in my classes, they don’t have any idea they participate in two of the deadliest aspects of our society. Sure, we can add other deadly things to the equation—gun violence, tobacco use, obesity, diabetes, and other things Americans are prone to. Those aspects of who we are deserve attention. But when it comes to holocaust, the bomb and race outclass the rest. These have bugged us for centuries. And while you may argue that the bomb is only several generations old, the mindset that lead to its development and use is a historical problem. It took hundreds of years for us to get this far, and the bomb is no exception.
So, I go to work at one of the most democratic institutions of all our institutions. My fellow letter carriers and assistants don’t realize that their jobs depend on the spreading out of the city. They don’t connect their livelihoods with nuclear holocaust. They are like my students, going about their business without any idea how they came to be where they are.
I’ve come to love the bomb. It made us who we are. It allowed racism to keep its ugly head below the surface long enough for us to dismiss it. It allowed people “looking for a better life” to excuse the reason they moved out to the suburbs in the first place.
I, for one, have this in my head when I walk by those Ring, Nest, and Honeywell doorbells. They can see me, record me on their porches. They can keep track of me. But I have tracked them. I know some things about them they don’t know about themselves.
Above it all is the hydrogen bomb, almost like a loving mother who has watched her children grow up and understands they can’t be under her care forever. The children grow up and while they may not forget their mothers, their children grow distant, and their children are shown pictures. They don’t know how they got where they are, but the forces that made them don’t change and are often still there if we just want to look.
I hope we never use the bomb for any reason. I want to see them dismantled, despite the intentions or actions of the “other side.” There are too many madmen with the bomb. Instead of threat, it may become a reality. But when it goes off, I hope I’m one of those left standing so I can make the lives of others a little easier to live. I’m not one to pick up a gun and prey on the weak. I’m on the side of the weak and always have been. Knowing the bomb the way I do makes me so.