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When H.G. Wells Split the Atom | The Nation

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When H.G. Wells Split the Atom

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OF COURSE it was H.G. Wells who first perfected the atomic bomb and put it to work. And not only did he put it to work, demolishing most of the world's capital cities and destroying governments, but then he got busy and built an entirely new society. In less time than you can imagine after the last bomb fell, everybody was settling down nicely in a global socialist community under a World Republic; atomic energy, internationally controlled, was performing all the necessary jobs of production, transportation, heating, and such, and the creative energies of mankind were being applied to higher things. In 1914, when "The World Set Free" was published and no bombs of any sort had been dropped it all sounded fantastic and even funny.

This essay, from the August 18, 1945, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on nuclear politics and the global disarmament movement, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

About the Author

Freda Kirchwey
Freda Kirchwey was a former managing editor, literary editor, editor and, ultimately, publisher of The Nation. She died...

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Mr. Wells's first atomic bomb dropped during the final war between the Allies and the Central European powers. Hostilities started, dramatically enough, with an air attack on the headquarters in Paris of the Allied High Command. It demolished the War Control Board, and you might have thought that would have put an and to the fighting. But not at all. What it did was to encourage the "rather brutish young aviator with the bullet head," who was in charge of the French special scientific corps, to go ahead and run the war the way he wanted to. He was pleased to have the War Control out of the way.

 

He slapped his second-in-command on the shoulder. "Now," he said, "there's nothing on earth to stop us going to Berlin and giving them tit-for-tat.... Strategy and reasons of state--they're over.... Come along, my boy, and we'll just show these old women what we can do when they let us have our heads." ...He looked at the sky and noted with satisfaction a heavy bank of clouds athwart the pallid east.
   He was a young man of infinite shrewdness, and his material and airplanes were scattered all over the countryside, stuck away in barns, covered with hay, hidden in woods.... But that night he only wanted one of the machines, and it was handy and quite prepared under a tarpaulin between two ricks not a couple of miles away; he was going to Berlin with that and just one other man.... He had in his hands the black complement to all those other gifts science was urging upon unregenerate mankind, the gift of destruction, and he was an adventurous rather than a sympathetic type....

 

Presently the airplane, which was a model far in advance of those recently sent over Japan for it had a noiseless atomic engine, flew across Westphalia and Saxony toward Berlin. The young aviator was at the controls. His face "had something of that firm beauty which all concentrated purpose gives, and something of the happiness of an idiot child that has at last got hold of the matches."

 

His companion, a less imaginative type, sat with his legs spread wide over the long, coffin-shaped box which contained in its compartments the three atomic bombs, the new bombs that would continue to explode indefinitely and which no one so far had ever seen in action. Hitherto carolinum, their essential substance, had been tested only in almost infinitesimal quantities within steel chambers imbedded in lead.

 

It wasn't until he had passed Potsdam and was approaching the palace and the government buildings that he was attacked by a German plane which "slanted down like a sword swung by a lazy man" and then began to shoot. The French plane had no bomb-sight, it seems, but the pilot was flying low enough to see his objectives. The bombardier was ready.

 

The gaunt face hardened to grimness, and with both hands [he] lifted the big atomic bomb from the box and steadied it against the side. It was a black sphere, two feet in diameter. Between its handles was a little celluloid stud, and to this he bent his head until his lips touched it.... Very quickly he bent forward, bit the stud, and hoisted the bomb over the side.
   The bomb flashed blinding scarlet in mid-air and fell, a descending column of blaze eddying spirally in the midst of a whirlwind. Both the airplanes were tossed like shuttlecocks, hurled high and sideways; and the steersman...fought in great banking curves for a balance.... When he could look down again it was like looking down upon the crater of a small volcano. In the open garden before the Imperial castle a shuddering star of evil splendor spurted and poured up smoke and flame toward them like an accusation.... Suddenly the façade tottered and crumbled before the flare as sugar dissolves in water. The man stared for a moment...hoisted out another bomb and sent it down after its fellow.... Then that bomb had exploded, and steersman, thrower, and airplane were just flying rags and splinters of metal and drops of moisture in the air, and a third column of fire rushed eddying down upon the doomed buildings below....

 

Now the mechanism of Wells's bomb may sound a little primitive, but its action was more advanced than that of the bomb that wiped out Hiroshima--for it operated on the principle of continuing explosion. We won't try to explain it to you here; it is enough to say that the radio-activity of the bombs dropped on Berlin was "never entirely exhausted," so that for years afterward "the battlefields and bomb-fields of that frantic time" were "sprinkled with radiant matter and so centers of inconvenient rays."

Perhaps it should be mentioned that Mr. Wells's book, although written in 1914, chronicled a war that took place about forty years later, in the words of a man living in the World Republic that was established after the peace. We wouldn't want our readers to get their dates mixed up. Because we now present that man's backward glance at the social and political impact of the first atomic bombs.

 

Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands. Yet the broad facts must have glared upon any intelligent mind. All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare, that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape. Every sort of passive defense...was being outmastered by this tremendous increase on the destructive side. Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule.... These facts were before the minds of everybody; the children in the street knew them. And yet the world still,. as the Americans used to phase it, "fooled around" with the paraphernalia and pretensions of war.
   It is only by realizing this profound, this fantastic divorce between the scientific and intellectual movement on the one hand and the world of the lawyer-politician on the other that the men of a later time can hope to understand this preposterous state of affairs. Social organization was still in the barbaric stage.... The community as a whole was aimless, untrained, and unorganized to the pitch of imbecility. Collective civilization, the "modern state," was still in the womb of the future.

 

But even the atomic bomb did not immediately wake people up. The great war went on. One of Mr. Wells's lesser heroes was fighting in Holland when the Central Europeans dropped atomic bombs on the dikes. He describes in his diary the thunder, the flaring trail in the night sky, the tremendous pillars of fire, the roaring wind. Then the awful moment when he knew the dikes were gone and the sea was coming in. (He and his men barely escaped destruction in their laading barges.) The catastrophe wiped out most of the population and most of the invading armies. His barge made a "strange overland voyage among trees and houses and churches by Zaandam and between Haarlem and Amsterdam to Leiden."

 

"I do not think any of us felt we belonged to a defeated army, nor had we any strong sense of the war as the dominating fact about us. Our mental setting had far more of the effect of a huge natural catastrophe. The atomic bomb had dwarfed the international issues to complete insignificance. When our minds wandered from the preoccupations of our immediate needs, we speculated upon the possibility of stopping the use of these frightful explosives before the world was utterly destroyed. For to us it seemed quite plain that these bombs and the still greater power of destruction of which they were the precursors might quite easily shatter every relationship and institution of mankind."

 

Just as men are thinking and saying today. But then the bombs kept falling and war went on interminably, it seemed, until eventually, on a mountainside overlooking Lake Maggiore, "away from burning cities and starving multitudes," there gathered "the conference of rulers that was to arrest, if possible, before it was too late, the debacle of civilization."

They did it too, though not without dispute, and conflicts of interest, and the final, climactic danger that they might all be blown to eternity, along with their plans, by the cunning King of the Balkans, known as the Slavic Fox, who had a few atomic bombs secreted near the meeting place. They did it because they dared not do otherwise. Some of them wanted a limited form of international control, a sort of United Nations Charter. But this, of course, was nonsense, as young King Egbert pointed out. "There's got to be one single government for the whole world," said the King over his shoulder to his adviser, Firmin, who had taught politics at the London School of Sociology, Economics, and Political Science. Firmin protested.

 

"Yesterday," said the King by way of explanation, "the Japanese very nearly got San Francisco."
    "I hadn't heard, sir."
    "The Americans ran the Japanese airplane down into the sea, and there the bomb got busted."
    "Under the sea, sir?"
    "Yes. Submarine volcano. The steam is in sight of the California coast. It was as near as that. And with things like this happening, you want me to go up this hill and haggle...."

 

Enthusiasm gripped the conference as the meetings went on. King Egbert's youthful optimism spread among the older statesmen (there was no Big Three). They set up a World Government, which, for the moment, was themselves; they took over all the plants and materials for the production of atomic explosives (nobody even suggested separate control when the obvious price was cosmic disaster); and then they set to work to plan the administration of the world. There was little disposition to argue; too much needed to be done too fast. Mr. Wells describes "the condition of mankind at the close of the period of warring states, in the year of crisis that followed the release of atomic power." The huge, overcrowded cities which, "under the shock of the atomic bombs," had been emptied largely of their population so that masses of people were "dispossessed and scattered disastrously over the surrounding areas." The countryside "disordered by a multitude of wandering and lawless strangers." Hunger. Disease. Large areas of China "a prey to brigand bands." And huge danger zones, in which fires burned and explosions continued.

Obviously the new government had to "act greatly." "From the first they had to see the round globe as one problem"--one world. Nothing could be done on a small scale or country by country.

Of course all this meant socialism, although the Council had been predisposed to reconstitute the system that prevailed before the coming of atomic energy. They soon realized that capitalism had been rendered obsolete by the character of the disaster as well as by the onset of limitless energy. A new society and a whole new concept of man's place in the world became inevitable.

 

Once the world was released from the hardening insecurities of a needless struggle for life that was collectively planless and individually absorbing, it became apparent that there was in the vast mass of people a long-smothered passion to make things.... The majority of our population consists of artists and the bulk of activity in the world lies no longer with necessities but with their elaboration, decoration, and refinement.... Property was never more than a means to an end, nor avarice more than a perversion.

 

Karenin, the dying Russian sage, described very well the period through which the world had passed and the role the atomic bomb had played in setting it free.

 

"Our age," he said, "has been so far an age of scene-shifting. We have been preparing a stage, clearing away the setting of a drama that was played out, and growing tiresome.... If I could but sit out the first few scenes of the new spectacle....
   "How encumbered the world had become! It was ailing with a growth of unmeaning things. It was entangled, feverish, confused. It was in sore need of release, and I suppose that nothing less than the violence of those bombs could have released it and made it a healthy world again. I suppose they were necessary.... We've had unity and collectivism blasted into our brains....
    "You know, I've got a fancy--it is hard to prove such things--that civilization was very near disaster when the atomic bombs came banging into it, that if there had been no Holsten and no induced radio-activity, the world would have--smashed--much as it did. Only instead of its being a smash that opened a way to better things, it might have been a smash without a recovery."

 

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