A Faustian Bargain

George Bandy

There are many things today that make us question the fragility of our society and our planet. Not only the disruption brought about by the pandemic, but also the ongoing threats to democracy and the rule of law, the delicacy of our social systems, and the harm to our climate and environment. 

In recent weeks there have been developments on another of these threats. On Friday 22 January 2021, the UN Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW) came into force. This legally binding agreement requires parties not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

It has been 75 years since the first use of nuclear weaponry. From its creation, its significance in our history was not missed. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan project, said two years after the first test – “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

The atomic bomb had a sharp rise to fame in contemporary discussion. The secrecy surrounding the Manhattan project had left the majority of the population in the dark. This changed when President Truman released a White House statement to the American people on August 6th 1945, describing the weapon that had been developed and the scientific achievement it represented. The statement followed 16 hours after the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” had been dropped by the United States on Hiroshima.

The idea of atomic power was not unfamiliar. American scientists were indulging themselves on ideas of powering entire cities with the immense energy released by splitting atoms. Nuclear energy was seen to be a fuel of the future.

 Across the pond, there was speculation that the Germans were working on a nuclear project of their own, which gave even more drive to the Allies to be the first to successfully achieve usable atomic power. Up to this point though, such energy was thought of for its passive uses. A futuristic way to power our factories, schools, cars and homes.

Little Boy exploded on Hiroshima with a force two thousand times more powerful than the previous most powerful bomb used during WWII. Note that current nuclear weapons can be over three thousand times more powerful still. August 6th marks a sudden turning point in how humankind understood the extent of its powers over the Earth.

Editorial cartoons have often been used in their function as a barometer of public opinion at a given moment in time. Accompanying this piece are a set of editorial cartoons printed in The New York Times on Sunday 12th August 1945 that contain some of the first visual interpretations of the new era of atomic weaponry. “For a peaceful earth” touches on the potential of the bomb for good, as a tool for achieving peace, but zooming out each cartoon raises the same concerns. In each representation we have outgrown our Earth, we stand outside it, and look down upon it. The Earth is shown smaller, more fragile, and more prone to our own influence.

Over the last 75 years, we have become more familiar with the idea of nuclear technology. Nuclear power now accounts for around 10% of global energy production, produced by over 440 reactors across the globe, the most prominent producers include France, for which nuclear energy accounts for 70% of its total energy usage. The production of nuclear weaponry has also become more familiar.

 As of early 2020, the number of nuclear weapons in current existence is approximately 13,500. This is considerably less than the 70,000+ present during the hight of the cold war, though still substantial. Whilst more familiar, it should in no way mean more normalised, and no less concerning. 

As promoted by President Truman 75 years ago, the argument is that nuclear arms are the only serious deterrent against current threats of war. Speaking in November 2020, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, said the TPNW treaty “disregarded the realities of global security. […] Giving up our deterrent without any guarantees that others will do the same is a dangerous option. […] A world where Russia, China, North Korea and others have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is not a safer world.”

There are currently 52 states party to the agreement (out of 195 UN member countries). Notable absentees include the US, Russia, China, Germany, UK, and France. Regarding the EU Member States, only Austria, Ireland and Malta have signed. As the world’s nuclear powers are not (yet) a party, the impact of the treaty is more symbolic than anything else. The ultimate goal – a global ban on nuclear weaponry – is still far off.

The ethics of their existence is an endless contention. The Manhattan project had built something that appears so irreconcilable with humanity, with being humane, that what classes as a “safer world” is brought under question. Much like in the tale of Faust, perhaps we have bargained with something too great.


First published Online, January 2021. Volume 16, Issue 2. Cartoon: The New York Times, Sunday 12th August 1945