This article originally appeared on TruthDig.
It was a hot August day in Detroit. I was standing on a street corner downtown, looking at the front page of The Detroit News in a news rack. I remember a streetcar rattling by on the tracks as I read the headline: A single American bomb had destroyed a Japanese city. My first thought was that I knew exactly what that bomb was. It was the U-235 bomb we had discussed in school and written papers about, the previous fall.
I thought: “We got it first. And we used it. On a city.”
I had a sense of dread, a feeling that something very ominous for humanity had just happened. A feeling, new to me as an American, at 14, that my country might have made a terrible mistake. I was glad when the war ended nine days later, but it didn’t make me think that my first reaction on Aug. 6 was wrong.
Unlike nearly everyone else outside the Manhattan Project, my first awareness of the challenges of the nuclear era had occurred–and my attitudes toward the advent of nuclear weaponry had formed–some nine months earlier than those headlines, and in a crucially different context.
It was in a ninth-grade social studies class in the fall of 1944. I was 13, a boarding student on full scholarship at Cranbrook, a private school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Our teacher, Bradley Patterson, was discussing a concept that was familiar then in sociology, William F. Ogburn‘s notion of “cultural lag.”
The idea was that the development of technology regularly moved much further and faster in human social-historical evolution than other aspects of culture: our institutions of government, our values, habits, our understanding of society and ourselves. Indeed, the very notion of “progress” referred mainly to technology. What “lagged” behind, what developed more slowly or not at all in social adaptation to new technology was everything that bore on our ability to control and direct technology and the use of technology to dominate other humans.
To illustrate this, Mr. Patterson posed a potential advance in technology that might be realized soon. It was possible now, he told us, to conceive of a bomb made of U-235, an isotope of uranium, which would have an explosive power 1,000 times greater than the largest bombs being used in the war that was then going on. German scientists in late 1938 had discovered that uranium could be split by nuclear fission, in a way that would release immense amounts of energy.
Several popular articles about the possibility of atomic bombs and specifically U-235 bombs appeared during the war in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. None of these represented leaks from the Manhattan Project, whose very existence was top-secret. In every case they had been inspired by earlier articles on the subject that had been published freely in 1939 and 1940, before scientific self-censorship and then formal classification had set in. Patterson had come across one of these wartime articles. He brought the potential development to us as an example of one more possible leap by science and technology ahead of our social institutions.