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You and the Atom Bomb

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70 years ago today, much of Hiroshima was obliterated by a nuclear weapon. A few days later Nagasaki suffered a similar fate. It says something about the indescribable barbarism that was normalized during the second world war that the act of instantaneously incinerating 200,000 people, most of them women and children, was considered at the time not merely defensible, but actually laudable, by many people who a few years earlier had been sickened by something like the bombing of Guernica. (Today one can still turn to the pages of the Wall Street Journal for a paean to the virtues of the atom bomb.).

A couple of months later, George Orwell wrote a prescient essay, which pointed out that the political significance of this terrifying new weapon depended on how relatively easy or difficult it would be to manufacture (I believe this essay features the first modern usage of the phrase “cold war.”)

For forty or fifty years past, Mr. H. G. Wells and others have been warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over. Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’.

70 years on, it seems remarkable that only nine nations are known to have nuclear weapons, and even more remarkable, given the history of the first half of the 20th century, that these weapons haven’t been used to blow significant parts of civilization, if not the world as a whole, into a million little pieces.

I was in college at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, and at that particular moment it seemed that the thick shell of denial surrounding the eschatological significance of a world featuring tens of thousands of nuclear weapons was in the process of breaking down, as reflected by things such as Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, and the television program — which caused something of a sensation — The Day After.

Then the moment passed, and everyone went back to sleep.

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