The Atomic Age


"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 it. 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, mostly civilians. Three days later
in Nagasaki it killed roughly 40,000 people.
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
homes. 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 knew the structure
and particle makeup of atoms, as well as how they behaved.
They 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. 

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 to the construction of extremely
powerful bombs of a new type". (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 nation's
capital, and that was as big as somebody's 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 as if people's lives, the life of everything on this
planet, was resting in the hands of a couple of men in
Northern Virginia and some guys 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 3) and save their families. 

The book takes on a tone of sympathy and of miraculous
survival --that 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 them counts many small items of chance
or volition--a step taken in time, a decision to go
indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next--that
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 people's 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 4) were 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 there
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 "Cat's 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 family--the genius who helped build
the bomb--and their adventures. 

In the book, Vonnegut paints an imaginary world where
things might not seem to make any (Gioielli 5) sense. 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 cat's 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, 'Rockabye
catsy, in the tree top'; he sang, '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 Newt's sister, Angela, that newt jumped off
his father's lap screaming, "No cat! No cradle! No cat! No

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 cat's cradle is the world
and all of humankind combined. Dr. Hoenikker is simply
playing, as if he has all his life and that game just
happens to involve the fate of the rest of the world.
Little Newt, having a child's 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 Doctor's 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 6) Hoenikker'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 the 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 the piece of ice-nine just falling
out of the thermos. And Dr. Hoenikker, like the scientists
of the world, was playing a 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 gravely 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
book's 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 7) our
lawnmowers, we think we are invincible. Everything will be
okay because we are protected by our 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 snippets

"I wanted all things 
To seem to make some sense,
 So we could all be happy, yes,
 Instead of tense.
 And I made up lies
 So that they all fit nice
 And made this sad world
 A 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 religion
 Is a form of treason" (118)
These calypsos, and the rest of the book, express the
points that Vonnegut want to emphasize in a more abstract
and symbolic manner. They only add to the impact of the
book's message expressing it in a very short, satirical

The black humor used when talking about the end of the
world--the nuclear end--was 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
on 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 8) Communists. 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 of 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 hit its target, the "Doomsday Device". The
Doomsday device is the ultimate deterrent, because if one
tries to disarm it it will go off. It has the capability to
destroy every living human and animal on Earth. As it
ultimately does, the futility of it all can be seen. We
have these weapons, and no matter how hard we try to
control them everyone still dies. 

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 our 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 Ripper's 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 he
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 9) sixties prompted people
to take a closer look at themselves, 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 of 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 Vietnam
 13,000,000 refugees in Indochina 
200,000,000 years for the Galaxy to revolve on its core 
80,000 dolphins killed in the dragnet
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 years slowly 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 Alps the 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 start to live in real fear
of nuclear weapons. The power of it, a creation by man that
could destroy the world, 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
11) fear. 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 American's curiosity,
horror, anxiety, cynicism and hope concerning nuclear
weapons. Nuclear weapons raised questions that no one had
dared to ever ask 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. "Sir" (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. "Nagasaki Days" and "Plutonium 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. Slaughterhouse-Five. 


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