The Horror

Sean Gullette
Will we outlive the 20th Century's nuclear legacy?
August, 1999



"Sixteen hours ago an American plane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb has more power than 20,00 tons of TNT. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its powers has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East."

--President Harry Truman, Official White House Annnouncement, August 6, 1945

"This is the story of a pride that begot blindness." --Louis Mumford, 1948
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In 1939, as Hitler invaded Poland, Albert Einstein warned Roosevelt that the Nazis could develop a nuclear bomb, and explained to him the scale of the disaster which might result. FDR responded with the Manhattan Project: a secret team of soldiers, scientists and engineers, charged with adapting atomic energy to military use first.

Beneath a desert plateau in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer--a physicist with a background in the energy processes of subatomic particles-- and an international team of scientists, began to work on converting Einstein's theory that matter was equal to energy into practice.

By 1945, the long, costly, and exhausting world war was still raging around the globe. In June, the scientists oversaw the first nuclear explosion, at Almagordo; a few tests later, they told President Truman the bomb was ready. On July 26, the US and Britain gave Japan the Potsdam Declaration: surrender unconditionally now or something very bad will happen. Japan declined the ultimatum, and Truman ordered the bomb dropped immediately.

The numbers are numbing. At 08:15, the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay passed over Hiroshima, a city of 350,000 people, at 31,600 feet, and dropped the 8900 pound uranium-235 bomb. It fell for 45 seconds before detonating at 1900 feet. The force of the blast rocked the earth slightly off its axis. In seconds, a four mile high red-and-purple formation of smoke spread its wings above the city.

On the ground, Reverend Tanimoto, one of the survivors interviewed by John Hersey for his extraordinary book "Hiroshima," experienced the silent explosion as: "a tremendous flash of light..whiter than any white...it seemed a sheet of sun." The intensity of the light was such that the shadows which people cast on walls were etched there permanently.

Instantly 80% of the buildings in the city were destroyed, and some 80,000 civilians were killed. 50,000 would die shirtly afterwards. Tens of thousands of children, men and women were crippled, disfigured, and deformed by heat and radiation. Then the nuclear cloud made it rain, and the rain carried the radioactive dust down on the heads of the dead, the dying and the survivors.

Among the injured were those crushed by buildings, those whose skin was burnt from their bodies, many who were blinded in addition to other injuries. All of them were contaminated with radiation. The hospitals were rubble, and survivors wandered through the city in shock.

Three days later we dropped an even larger plutonium bomb over Nagasaki.

Years of work had been spent preparing the public relations campaign which would follow the bomb. Since of course the papers would have no first-hand information, editors just added patriotic spin to the breaking press releases, which had in fact been written in committee months earlier. The story which they told was the one that stuck--the one we still tell today. Almost no one had the courage to really deal with any other story, in public or in their own minds.

The story was country simple, barstool simple: The Japs had started the war at Pearl Harbor. Sure, payback was a bitch, but if the war had been allowed to continue, thousands more American boys would have died. It was tough decision but a moral one, the only one we could have made. And on August 14, they surrendered. It had worked; GIs around the world could come home safe.

The bomb, it seemed, was our friend. The mesmerizing, satanically sexy, and instantly iconic images of the mushroom cloud--and a selection of cooly objective aerial and landscape photos--were the only ones released by Army censors. It would be seven years before Americans began to see a few of the stunningly atrocious films and stills of dead and wounded people recorded by Japanese documentarians.

In the year following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer and his colleagues entered a troubled state of fear and moral ambivalence. Openheimer resigned in October, wracked with guilt and anxiety. His desperate ambivalence--defending his actions while hating himself for them--set the tone for the rest of the century. Atomic research accelerated without him; Truman made clear that there could be no turning back, and that there was no time for ethical reflection. Stalin told his chief scientist "Hiroshima has shaken the whole world," and by 1948 the "armaments race" was in full swing.

There are complex cognitive and textual problems that come with the attempt to describe or represent deeply traumatic events. The massive effort to rationalize, repress and isolate the bombs took effect, and as the miltary industrial complex moved forward, "history" closed around America's consciousness of the horror, soon sealing it off like a small box of photos in a huge crowded attic.

Unlike Germany, which in time made dealing with "the Nazi past" a national priority, America has remained so tight-lipped on the subject of the bombings that, as Lifton and Mitchell report, a 50th Anniversary exhibit at the Smithsonian which contained a humanitarian component about the civilian victims was 86'd by irate vets and politicians, who accused the Institute of "rewriting history."

Such repressions are seldom effective in the long run. In their thoughful and brilliantly researched analytical book "Hiroshima and America," (which provided extensive background for this column) Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell argue persuasively that our failure to face Hiroshima honestly immersed the people of the US in a cycle of "nuclear entrapment, moral inversion, national self-betrayal, enduring patterns of secrecy and numbing, deep cultural confusions, and the fear of futurelessness." The psychopathic excesses and blind spots of the Cold War and the numb paranoia of America in the 1950s would go on infect our allies and enemies, and to destroy many more lives. A deathly chill filled the hollow place where America's atomic conscience should have been.

Ethics aside, there is blowback. To pick just one menacing instance: in January, a "60 Minutes" camera crew was granted access to a Siberian city called Kresniark (sp?) 26. A rail line connects this nice-looking maximum-security secret city of 100,000 people to a sizeable nearby mountain' inside the mountain, in a honeycomb of tunnels and chamber carved from the rock, sits a facility which since World War 2 has produced 40 tons of weapons-grade plutonium: enough for 10,000 nuclear bombs. (The Soviets built the plant under a moutain so that they could continue producing more plutonium to sustain their arsenal even during a devastating nuclear war.)

Many countries already have "the bomb," and after a busy century of military activity, we have as many enemies as imitators. As the Soviet bloc dissolves into poverty and political disarray, representatives of Iraq and Libya have been aggressively shopping for plutonium. By the year 2000 there will be more plutonium on the open market than in official arsenals, so the shoppers will certainly get it. The djinni is out of the bottle, and it will now take something more powerful than an atom bomb to get him back in and seal the top.