The Atomic Bomb


"Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky . Mr.
Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it traveled from
east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed
like a sheet of sun. John Hersey, from Hiroshima, pp8
 On August 6, 1945, the world changed forever. On that day
the United States of America detonated an atomic bomb over
the city of Hiroshima. Never before had mankind seen
anything like. Here was something that was slightly bigger
than an ordinary bomb, yet could cause infinitely more
destruction. It could rip through walls and tear down
houses like the devils wrecking ball. In Hiroshima it
killed 100,000 people, most non-military civilians. Three
days later in Nagasaki it killed roughly 40,000 . The
immediate effects of these bombings were simple. The
Japanese government surrendered, unconditionally, to the
United States. The rest of the world rejoiced as the most
destructive war in the history of mankind came to an end .
All while the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tried to
piece together what was left of their lives, families and

 Over the course of the next forty years, these two
bombings, and the nuclear arms race that followed them,
would come to have a direct or indirect effect on almost
every man, woman and child on this Earth, including people
in the United States. The atomic bomb would penetrate every
fabric of American existence. From our politics to our
educational system. Our industry and our art. Historians
have gone so far as to call this period in our history the
"atomic age" for the way it has shaped and guided world
politics, relations and culture. 

 The entire history behind the bomb itself is rooted in
Twentieth Century physics. At the time of the bombing the
science of physics had been undergoing a revolution for the
past thirty-odd years. Scientists now had a clear picture
of what the atomic world was like. They new the structure
and particle makeup of atoms, as well as how they behaved.
During the 1930's it became apparent that there was a
immense amount of energy that would be released atoms of
Gioielli 2certain elements were split, or taken apart.
Scientists began to realize that if harnessed, this energy
could be something of a magnitude not before seen to human
eyes. They also saw that this energy could possibly be
harnessed into a weapon of amazing power. And with the
advent of World War Two, this became an ever increasing
concern. In the early fall of 1939, the same time that the
Germans invaded Poland, President Roosevelt received a
letter from Albert Einstein, informing him about the
certain possibilities of creating a controlled nuclear
chain reaction, and that harnessing such a reaction could
produce a bomb of formidable strength. He wrote: This new
phenomena would lead also lead to the construction of
bombs, and it is conceivable, though much less certain-that
extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be
constructed (Clark 556-557).The letter goes on to encourage
the president to increase government and military
involvement in such experiments, and to encourage the
experimental work of the scientists with the allocation of
funds, facilities and equipment that might be necessary.
This letter ultimately led to the Manhattan Project, the
effort that involved billions of dollars and tens of
thousands of people to produce the atomic bomb. During the
time after the war, until just recently the American psyche
has been branded with the threat of a nuclear holocaust.
Here was something so powerful, yet so diminutive. A bomb
that could obliterate our nations capital, and that was as
big as somebodies backyard grill. For the first time in the
history of human existence here was something capable of
wiping us off the face of the Earth. And most people had no
control over that destiny. It seemed like peoples lives,
the life of everything on this planet, was resting in the
hands of a couple men in Northern Virginia and some guys
over in Russia. The atomic bomb and the amazing power it
held over us had a tremendous influence on American
Culture, including a profound effect on American Literature.
 After the war, the first real piece of literature about
the bombings came in 1946. The work Hiroshima, by Jon
Hersey, from which the opening quote is taken, first
appeared as a long article in the New Yorker, then shortly
after in book form. The book is a non-fiction account of
the bombing of Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath. It is
told from the point-of-view of six hibakusha, or
"survivors" of the atomic blast. In four chapters Hersey
traces how the these people survived the blast, and what
they did in following weeks and months to pull their lives
together Gioielli 3and save their families. The book takes
on a tone of sympathy and of miraculous survival Ðthat
these people were lucky enough to survive the blast. He
focuses not on the suffering of the victims but on their
courage (Stone, 7). The following passage from the first
chapter shows this:A hundred thousand people were killed by
the bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They
still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each
of the counts many small items of chance or volitionÐa step
taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one
streetcar instead of the nextÐthat spared him. And each
that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw
more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time,
none of them knew anything (4). Hersey was attempting to
chronicle what had happened at Hiroshima, and to do so
fairly. And in emphasizing the survival instead of the
suffering he does not make his book anti-American or
something that condemns the dropping of the bomb. He simply
gives these peoples accounts of how they survived in a tone
that is more journalistic than sensationalistic. The book
empathizes with their plight while it also gives an
American explanation for the bombing (Stone, 7). That it
was an act of war to end the war as quickly and as easily
as possible, and to save more lives in the long run. Hersey
did all this to provide what he considered an evenhanded
portrayal of the event, but he also did not want to cause
much controversy. Although it could be criticized for not
giving a more detailed account of the suffering that
occurred, and that it reads more like a history book than a
piece of literature, Hersey's book was the first of its
kind when it was published. Up until then all accounts of
the Hiroshima bombing writings about it took the slant that
Japanese had "deserved what we had given them", and that we
were good people for doing so. These accounts were
extremely prejudicial and racist. (Stone, 4) Hersey was the
first to take the point of view of those who had actually
experienced the event. And his work was the transition
between works that glorified the dropping of the atomic
bomb, to those that focused on its amazing destructive
powers, and what they could do to our world. During the
period immediately after the war, not much information was
available to general public concerning what kind of
destruction the atomic bombs had actually caused in Japan.
But starting with Hersey's book and continuing with other
non-fiction works, such as David Bradley's No Place To
Hide, which concerned the Bikini Island nuclear tests,
Americans really began to get a picture of the awesome
power and destructiveness of nuclear weapons. They saw that
these really Gioielli 4were doomsday devices. Weapons that
could change everything in an instant, and turn things into
nothing in a moment. It was this realization that had a
startling effect on American culture and literature. Some
Americans began to say "At any time we could all be shadows
in the blast wave, so what's the point?". This viewpoint
manifested itself in literature in something called the
"apocalyptic temper"; an attitude or a tone dealing with a
forthcoming end to the world. Also, many people, because of
this realization of our impending death, were beginning to
say that maybe their was something inherently wrong with
all of this. That nuclear weapons are dangerous to
everyone, no matter what your political views or where you
live, and that we should do away with all of them. They
have no value to society and should be destroyed. This
apocalyptic temper and social activism was effected greatly
in the early Sixties by the Cuban Missile Crisis. When
Americans saw, on television, that they could be under
nuclear attack in under twenty minutes, a new anxiety about
the cold war surfaced that had not been present since the
days of McCarthy. And this new anxiety was evidenced in
works that took on a much more satirical tone. And one of
the works that shows this satiric apocalyptic temper and
cynicism is Kurt Vonnegut's Cats Cradle. Vonnegut,
considered by many to be one of Americas foremost living
authors, was himself a veteran of World War Two. He, as a
prisoner of war, was one of the few survivors of the
fire-bombing of Dresden. In Dresden he saw what many
believe was a more horrible tragedy than Hiroshima. The
allied bombs destroyed the entire city and killed as many
people, if not more, than were killed in Hiroshima. He
would eventually write about this experience in the
semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five. This novel, like
Cats Cradle, takes a very strong anti-war stance. But
along with being an Anti-war book, Cats Cradle is an
excellent satire of the Atomic Age. It is essentially the
story of one man, an author by the name of John (or Jonah)
and the research he is doing for a book on the day the bomb
exploded in Hiroshima. This involves him with members of
the Dr. Felix Hoenikker familyÐthe genius who helped build
the bombÐand their adventures. In the book Vonnegut paints
an imaginary world where things might not seem to make any
Gioielli 5sense. But there is in fact an amazing amount of
symbolism, as well as satire. Dr. Hoenikker is an extremely
eccentric scientist who spends most of his time in the lab
at his company. He is interested in very few things, his
children not among them. His children are almost afraid of
him. One of the few times he does try to play with his
children is when he tries to teach the game of cats cradle
to his youngest son, Newt. When he is trying to show newt
the game Newt gets very confused. In the book, this is what
Newt remembered of the incident:"And then he sang,
ÔRockabye catsy, in the tree top';he sang, Ô when the wind
blows, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come cray-dull,
catsy and all.' "I burst into tears. I jumped up and ran
out of the house as fast as I could."(18)What Newt doesn't
remember is what he said to his Father. Later in the book
we find this out from Newts sister, Angela that newt jumped
of his father's lap screaming " No cat! No cradle! No cat!
No cradle!"(53) With this scene, Vonnegut is trying to
show a couple of things. Dr. Hoenikker symbolizes all the
scientists who created the atomic bomb. And the cats cradle
is the world and all of humankind combined. Dr. Hoenikker
is simply playing, like he has all his life, that game just
happens to involve the fate of the rest of the world. And
little Newt, having a childs un-blinded perception, doesn't
understand the game. He doesn't see a cat or a cradle. Like
all the games Dr. Hoenikker plays, including the ones with
nuclear weapons, this one is mislabeled. This is just one
of the many episodes in the book that characterizes Dr.
Hoenikker as a player of games. He recognizes this in
himself when he gives his Nobel Prize speech:I stand before
you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight year
on a spring morning on his way to school. Anything can make
me stop and wonder, and sometimes learn (17). And the
Doctors farewell to the world is a game he has played, with
himself. One day a Marine General asked him if he could
make something that would eliminate mud, so that marines
wouldn't have to deal with mud anymore. So Dr. Hoenikker
thinks up ice-nine, an imaginary substance that when it
comes in contact with any other kind of water, it
crystallizes it. And this crystallization spreads to all
the water molecules this piece of water is in contact with.
So to crystallize the mud in an entire armed division of
marines, it would only take a minuscule amount of ice-nine.
Dr. Gioielli 6Hoenikker's colleagues see this as just
another example of his imagination at work. But he actually
does create a small chink of ice-nine, and when he dies,
each of his children get a small piece of it. They carry it
around with themselves in thermos containers the rest of
their lives. At the end of book one small piece of
ice-nine gets out , by mere accident, and ends up
crystallizing the whole world. The game Dr. Hoenikker was
playing with himself destroyed the whole world. The
accident that caused the ice-nine to get out could be much
like the accident that could cause World War III. One small
thing that sets off an amazing series of events, like piece
of ice-nine just falling out of the thermos. And Dr.
Hoenikker, like the scientists of the world, was playing
game and caused it all. Here is a description of the world
after the ice-nine has wreaked its havoc:There were no
smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a
gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was
echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth
was locked up tight (179).This description eerily resembles
what many have said the Earth will look like during a
nuclear winter (Stone, 62). In addition to Dr. Hoenikker
and his doomsday games, Vonnegut provides an interesting
analysis of atomic age society with the Bokonon religion.
This religion, completely made up by Vonnegut and used in
this novel, is the religion of every single inhabitant of
San Lorenzo, the books imaginary banana republic. This is
the island where Jonah eventually ends up, and where the
ice-nine holocaust originates. (It also, being a Caribbean
nation, strangely resembles Cuba.) Bokonon is a strange
religion. It was created by one of the leaders of San
Lorenzo, a long time ago. Essentially, Bokonon is the only
hope for all inhabitants of San Lorenzo. Their existence on
the island is so horrible that they have to find harmony
with something. Bokononism gives them that. It is based on
untruths, to give San Lorenzans a sense of security, since
the truth provides none. This concept can be summed up in
this Bokononist quotation: "Live by the foma* that makes
you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *Harmless
untruths (4)" The inhabitants of San Lorenzo do not care
what is going on in their real lives because they have the
foma of Bokonon to keep them secure and happy. And Vonnegut
is trying to say that is what is happening to the rest of
us. Americans, and the rest of the world for that matter,
have this false sense of security that we are safe and
secure. That in our homes in Indiana with our dogs and
Gioielli 7our lawnmowers, we think we are invincible.
Everything will be okay because we are protected by are
government. This is the foma of real life, because we are
trying to deny what is really going on. We're in imminent
danger of being annihilated at any second, but to deny this
very real danger we are creating a false world so that we
may live in peace, however false that sense of peace may
be. Throughout the entire novel Vonnegut gives little
Bokonon. Verse like:I wanted all things To seem to make
some sense,So we could all be happy, yes,Instead of
tense.And I made up liesSo that they all fit niceAnd made
this sad worldA par-a-dise (90).This calypso expresses the
purpose of Bokonon and why it, with its harmless untruths,
exists. The following one is about the outlawing of
Bokonon. To make the religion more appealing to the people,
the leaders had it banned, with its practice punishable by
death. They hoped that a renegade religion with a rebel
leader would appeal to the people more.So I said good-bye
to government,and I gave my reason:That a really good
religionIs a form of treason (118)These calypsos, and the
rest of the book, express the points Vonnegut in a more
abstract , symbolic manner. They only add to the impact of
the books message expressing it in a very short, satirical
way. The black humor used when talking about the end of
the worldÐthe nuclear endÐwas pioneered by Vonnegut. But
what many consider to be the the climax of this pop culture
phenomena is Stanley Kubrick's movie, Dr. Strangelove(Stone
69). Subtitled Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love
the Bomb , this movie was Kubrick's viewpoint on how mad
the entire Cold War and arms race had become. Based a
little known book by English science fiction writer Peter
George, Red Alert, the movie is about how one maverick Air
Force general, who is obviously suffering a severe mental
illness, concocts a plan to save the world from the
Gioielli 8Communists. He manages to order the strategic
bombers under his command to proceed to their targets in
the Soviet Union. They all believe it is World War Three,
and the General, Jack Ripper, is the only one that can call
the planes back. Kubrick's characters: Dr. Strangelove,
President Mertin Muffley, Premier Kissof and others, go
through a series a misadventures to try and turn the planes
around. But the one, plane piloted by Major "King" Kong,
does get through, and it drops its bombload. This is where
Kubrick tries to show the futility of everything. The
governments of both the worlds superpowers have thousands
of safeguards and security precautions for their nuclear
weapons. But one man manages to get a nuclear warhead to be
hit its target. And this warhead hits the "Doomsday
Device". The Doomsday device is the ultimate deterrent,
because if you try to disarm it it will go off. It has the
capability to destroy every living human and animal on
Earth, and it does So it is all pointless. We have these
weapons, and no matter how hard we try to control them
everyone still dies. And so to make ourselves feel better
about all this impending doom, Kubrick, like Vonnegut,
satirizes the entire system. By making such moronic
characters, like the wimpish President Mertin Muffley,
Kubrick is saying, similar to Vonnegut with Dr. Hoenikker,
that we are even worse off because these weapons are
controlled by people that are almost buffoonish and
childish. General Ripper, the man who causes the end of the
world, is a portrait of a McCarthy era paranoid gone mad.
He thinks the communists are infiltrating and trying to
destroy are country. And he says the most heinous communist
plot against democracy is fluoridation of water:Like I was
saying, Group Captain, fluoridation of water is the most
monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have
ever had to face . . . They pollute our precious bodily
fluids! (George 97)And General Rippers personal prevention
of the contamination of his bodily fluids is equally
perplexing. He drinks only " . . . distilled water, or rain
water, and only grain alcohol . . ." Kubrick uses this kind
of absurd reasoning in his movie to show the absurd
reasoning behind nuclear weapons. Both him and Vonnegut
were part of the satirical side of the apocalyptic temper
in the early Sixties. They laughed at our governments, our
leaders, the Cold War and the arms race, and tried to show
how stupid it all really was. But as time moved on, the
writers, and the entire country, started to take a less
narrow minded view of things. The counterculture of the
Gioielli 9sixties prompted people to take a closer look at
themselves. As thinkers, teachers, lovers, parents, friends
and human beings. And people concerned with nuclear weapons
started to see things in a broader context as well. Nuclear
weapons were something that affected our whole
consciousness. The way we grew up, our relationships with
others and what we did with our lives. One of the authors
who put this new perspective on things was the activist,
social thinker and poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg first
made a name for himself in the 1950's as one of the
foremost of the Beat writers. The Beats in the Fifties were
a forerunner of the more widespread counterculture of the
late Sixties and early Seventies. And Ginsberg evolved into
this. He became a devoted leader in the counterculture, who
set many precedents for the Hippie generation. He lived in
various communes, delved deeply into eastern religions and
experimented with numerous hallucinogenic drugs. In the
earlier part of his life Ginsberg had been a rebel against
society. He was still a rebel but now he was taking the
form of activist. By the Seventies he was involved in many
causes that promoted peace and world harmony. What
separated Ginsberg from other activists is that he was one
of the first and original members of many of these
movements. Now he was the father figure to many in the
non-mainstream world. While teaching at his school of
poetry in Naropa, Colorado, Ginsberg became involved in
protests against the nearby Rock Flats Nuclear Weapons
Factory. During the Summer of 1978 he was arrested for
preventing a shipment nuclear waste from reaching its
destination and for numerous other protests against the
facility (Miles 474). From these experiences came two poems
"Nagasaki Days" and " Plutonium Ode". Both these poems
exhibit Ginsberg's more mature style of writing (Miles
475). The poems are more scholarly, containing many
mythological and religious allusions. But both these
characteristics show how post war apocalyptic literature
had evolved. By the Seventies many writers, instead of
taking the defeatist, satirical view like Vonnegut, were
beginning to take a make activist standpoint, like
Ginsberg. Apocalyptic literature also took on a more
mature, scholarly tone, and was more worldly and had a
broader viewpoint. This stanza from "Nagasaki Days" shows
how Ginsberg is putting nuclear weapons into the context of
the universal:2,000,000 killed in Vietnam13,000,000
refugees in Indochina 200,000,000 years for the Galaxy to
revolve on its core 24,000 the Babylonian great year24,000
half life of plutoniumGioielli 102,000 the most I ever got
for a poetry reading80,000 dolphins killed in the
dragnet4,000,000,000 years earth been born (701)The half
life of plutonium is brought together with dolphins and
Indochinese refugees. Also, Ginsberg makes a reference to
the Babylonian great year, which coincides with the half
life of plutonium. This cosmic link intrigued Ginsberg
immensely. That fact alone inspired him to right "Plutonium
Ode". The whole poem expands on this connection to
plutonium as a living part of our universe, albeit a very
dangerous one. Here he mentions the Great Year:Before the
Year began turning its twelve signs, ere
constellations wheeled for twenty-four thousand sunny
yearsslowly round their axis in Sagittarius, one hundred
sixty-seven thousand times returning to this night. (702)
Ginsberg is also relating the great year, and the half life
of plutonium, to the life of the Earth. The life of the
Earth is approximately four billion years, which is 24,000
times 167,000 (Ginsberg 796) In Plutonium Ode", Ginsberg
talks to plutonium. By establishing a dialogue he gives the
plutonium almost human characteristics. It is something,
and is near us every day, and is deadly. In this passage he
is asking how long before it kills us all:I enter your
secret places with my mind, I speak with your presence, I
roam your lion roar with mortal mouth.One microgram
inspired to one lung, ten pounds of heavy metal dust,
adrift slowly motion over gray Alpsthe breadth of the
planet, how long before your radiance speeds blight and
death to sentient beings. (703) In putting his nuclear
fears and worries on the table, and saying that these
things have pertinence to us because they affect how we
live our lives and the entire the universe, Ginsberg is
showing how intrigued he is with plutonium in this poem. By
the time Ginsberg was publishing these poems in late 1978,
post war literature had evolved immensely. At first people
had no idea about the bomb and its capabilities. Then, as
more information came out about what the bomb could do,
they began to began to start to live in real fear of
nuclear weapons. The power of it, a creation by man that
could destroy the world, that was terrifying. Then some
artists and writers began to see the absurdity of it all.
They saw that we were under control by people we did not,
or should not, trust, and were a constant state of nuclear
Gioielli 11fear. So they satirized the system unmercifully,
and were very apocalyptic in their tone. But then things
evolved from these narrow minded viewpoints, and people
began to envision nuclear weapons in the context of our
world and our lives. The atomic bomb and nuclear
proliferation affected all facets of our lifestyle,
including what we read. Literature is a reflection of a
country's culture and feelings. And literature affected
Americans curiosity, horror, anxiety, cynicism and hope
concerning nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons raised
questions that no one had dare ever asked before, and had
given them answers that they were afraid to hear. They have
made us think about our place in the universe, and what it
all means. 
Works Cited 

Bartter, Martha A. The Way to Ground Zero. New York:
Greenwood Press, 1988. Dewey,
Joseph. In a Dark Time. West Lafayette: Purdue University
Press, 1990.Dr.
Strangelove. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. With Peter Sellers,
George C. Scott and Slim
Pickens. Highland Films Ltd., 1966.(This is a novelization
of the movie. All qoutations
from the movie were transribed form this book) Einstein,
Albert. ÒSir" (a letter to
President Franklin D. Roosevelt) Einstein: The Life
and Times. Ronald W. Clark. New
York: World Publishing, 1971. 556-557.George, Peter.
Dr. Strangelove. Boston: Gregg
Press, 1979.Ginsberg, Allen. ÒNagasaki Days" and ÒPlutonium
Ode." Collected Poems:
 1947Ð1980. Ed. Allen Ginsberg. New York: Harper and
Row, 1984. 699-705.
Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard
Feynman. New York :Vintage Books,
1992.Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1985.Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Harper
Perennial, 1989.Stone, Albert E. Literary Aftershocks:
American Writers, Readers and the Bomb. New York: Twayne
Publishers, 1994.Vonnegut, Kurt. 

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