Mythologizing the Bomb

Mythologizing the Bomb

The beauty of the atomic scientists’ calculations hid from them the truly Faustian contract they scratched their names to.


In 1943, with the war against Japan intensifying in the Pacific, Dr. L.F. Fisser of the National Defense Research Committee designed a tiny incendiary bomb for the use of the U.S. Army Air Force. The two-ounce bomb was to be dropped on Japan affixed to free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), of which there happened to be an ample supply in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. The bat bombs were to be chilled to hibernating temperature in ice-cube trays, packed 180 to a box and sprung free at a thousand feet above the ground, where they would thaw, and, in great hunger, swoop down on the wood and paper homes of Tokyo.

Something may be insane, but it is only crackpot when it doesn’t work. Another plan to bring the total warfare concept to the Japanese capital was conceived by Gen. Curtis LeMay. Using B-29 bombers as they had not been used before, he sent waves of them in low over Tokyo at night armed with 100-pound oil-gel bombs and six-pound gelled-gasoline bombs. What came to be known as “the Great Tokyo Air Raid” burned out sixteen square miles of the city, leaving 100,000 people dead, a million wounded and a million homeless. Only the powers of the mobilized human imagination–powers that verge on magic–could transform a blind shrieking bat with a little bomb clipped to its skin into a B-29.

The Japanese government, at the time xenophobic and racist, its people self-persuaded of their subjection to a living God, had its own considerable powers of military imagination. The military thought not of bats to fight their war, but they did have an ample supply of young men who could be turned into bombs–human bombs, human torpedoes, human mines–to fly, to dive, to swim, perchance to explode, against enemy armament. This was glory. This was a culture of contempt for individual life. In battle, troops were ordered to commit suicide rather than surrender. It is no wonder, with such twisted regard for their own, that Japanese commanders were uninhibitedly brutal to their prisoners of war and to their subject peoples in China, Korea, Burma. They worked over 100,000 of them to death building their Thailand-Burma railway.

But the ways of death in war are innumerable. The ethics of warfare are reconfigured to its changing technology. By 1945 there was no longer a viable distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Perhaps 51 million human beings were killed in the worldwide war that raged from 1939 to 1945. Bombed, fire-bombed, strafed, mined, suffocated, gassed, incinerated, frozen, mutilated, starved, beheaded, hanged, buried alive and dissolved in a luminous flash. Certainly more than half of them died as civilians.

Twenty years before, another great war in Europe had killed its generation of young men, the fieldpieces drawn by horses, the ordinance in dinky trucks, though all of it sufficient unto the day, with Sten guns halving men on the dotted line, and mustard gas cauterizing their lungs, and some of those Big Berthas heaving 300-pound shells in seventy-five-mile trajectories. But the technology was not yet developed for carpet-bombing cities behind the lines. There were still lines. Civilians could still be refugees clogging the roads with their carts of bedding, their hope chests, their children, while the troops pushed through them toward the front.

That was the war before the war. The twenty years or so between the war before the war, and the war after the war before the war, were hardly riven by peace. The new fascist military states field-tested their machines, dive-bombing Ethiopians who carried spears and strafing peasants on horseback in Spain. The concentration camp and the gulag were invented, genocide was the subject of secret planning sessions, and Hitler was using radio for purposes of mass hypnosis.

And so we come to the perverse and bitter fate of the international community of theoretical physicists, who, swept up by the barbarities of the time, were driven out of Europe or inward to despair, and scattered among the nations that would once more war with one another. Their collegial exchanges of information were suspended. Their abstract considerations of the nature of the universe were suddenly and desperately practical. It became all too clear that the beauty of their calculations had hidden from them the terms of the truly Faustian contract they had somehow scratched their names to.

“Dear Sir,” wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939,

Some recent work … leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy… It may become possible to set up nuclear chain reactions… Extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed… I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium… That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Undersecretary of State, von Wemacker, is attached to the Kaser Wilhelm Institute of Berhn, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

America made the A-bomb out of fear of the A-bomb. Its components were either uranium isotopes or plutonium, high explosive lenses, bullets, tubes, steel frames, inner shells, outer casings, fins, neutrons, protons, radiant poisons and a dread of the malignant war-machined sociopathy of Adolf Hitler. Industrializing our fear, we were soon effecting controlled chain reactions under the field-house stands at the University of Chicago. Another year or two and we were thermally diffusing or extracting plutonium in Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We ran critical experiments at Columbia and Berkeley, and brought everything together for design and engineering at the secret community of brains in Los Alamos.

By 1944 the atom bomb was the employer of 129,000 people.

At the heart of it all, living in isolation at Los Alamos, the scientists and mathematicians and engineers enlisted for the enterprise worked long and hard hours on a two-track program, crafting one bomb that would have an internal firing mechanism to explode it, and devising a second that would implode. While they solved one design problem after another, the scintillations of their intellectual breakthroughs and discoveries were not always connected emotionally to the grim purposes behind them.

But of course they could never forget, and the work was not even finished before they began to say among themselves that the bomb must never be used. The energetic, chain-smoking Szilard, a Hungarian, began to circulate petitions. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” said the presiding physicist and scholar of the Bhagavad-Gita, Oppenheimer, when the Trinity test at White Sands went off with blinding magnitude, like a born sun over the desert. Kistiakowsky called it the “nearest thing to Doomsday.” Bethe, Peierls, Ulam, Rabi, all of them with such terrible sickening misgivings. And young Feynman, sitting over a beer, depressed, close to tears thinking of the number of people walking around at that moment who didn’t know they were dead.

a ring of skull-
bone fused to the inside of a helmet; a pair of eyeglasses
taken off the eyes of an eyewitness, without glass,
which vanished, when a white flash sparkled.

is the way the poet Galway Kinnell puts it. What is the mythic reference for such an event? Shiva? Prometheus? The Tree of Knowledge? None is sufficient. Participating cross-mythically in cultures that encompass the globe, the nuclear explosion must itself become a primary myth in the postnuclear world to come. It will become a scriptural text. In this fiftieth-anniversary crop of serious books about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and the second bomb over Nagasaki, and the world war they concluded, and the cold war thermonuclear Superbomb they generated, we see the lines beginning to be drawn, the lineaments of conflicting accounts, as when in the years of early Christianity the struggle began to turn history into gospel.

As this age goes on, if we have the time, we will choose according to the society we conceive for ourselves the scientists, politicians, generals and spies whom we want for our story. It will have Hiroshima and Nagasaki in it, of course; it will have the Berlin wall, Korea and the Cuban missile crisis. It will have Harry S. Truman. He came into the presidency with the death of Roosevelt in April 1945. The U.S. dropped its bombs in August, just four months later. We will argue among ourselves whether Truman made the crucial decisions or simply let the years of war planning and military momentum work out to their logical conclusion. We will argue about his need to come out from under the shadow of a predecessor of whose greatness there was no question in his mind. We will have to compute the most likely number of lives of American soldiers he saved by avoiding an invasion of the Japanese homeland. We will have to decide how much the desire to cow the Russians figured in his decision. We will eventually determine whether the bomb had to be dropped at all, and if there was the need for an invasion, given the wreckage of the Japanese war machine and the signals sent by Japan that it was receptive to negotiating a surrender. And if we decide the Hiroshima bomb had to be dropped, we will need to know why the Nagasaki bomb had to be dropped as well.

Examining the beginnings of the cold war, we will have to consider the character of Secretary of State James Byrnes, a South Carolinian and Truman appointee who insisted on making the bomb our postwar foreign policy and dismissed with fierce Southern contempt the international nuclear arms control advocates David Lilienthal and Dean Acheson. We will have to try to remember David Lilienthal and Dean Acheson.

If the atom bomb was fathered by Hitler, the hydrogen bomb belongs in part to Stalin–only in part because the arms face was as much a creation of our cold war containment foreign policy as it was a result of Soviet actions. At one point soon after the end of World War 11, we were flaunting our atomic stockpile when in fact we had no assembled bombs and the work at Los Alamos had ground to a halt; and the Russians on their end were making ominous warlike references to their immense land armies when in fact they were an exhausted people with 20 million dead, a ruined economy and an infrastructure largely unrepaired from the German invasion.

Sitting on the other side of the world in Soviet Russia were the enemy’s scientists, who relied on espionage reports to guide their research. Russian espionage was a major industry. During the early days of Lend-Lease they flew planefuls of technical information from Montana to Siberia-information from every conceivable field, including atomic research. Oppenheimer’s counterpart was a Russian physicist named Vassilievich Kurchatov, who read the espionage dispatches with the acuity of a capitalist reading stock quotations. The Soviet counterpart to Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, was the infamous Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s executioner and the head of the secret police, a fact of which the assembled physicists in their privileged dachas were only too aware. Their installation at Chelyabinsk was staffed with slave labor; their nuclear tests followed at regular lengths our tests at Bikini and Eniwetok. “Did it look like the American one?” Beria demanded to know once after a Russian blast.

The spies of the cold war were an assortment of idiosyncratic emissaries between the two cultures, a strange, furtive lot of usually young idealists, not terribly smart amateurs here, like Harry Gold and David Greenglass and, according to their testimony, Julius Rosenberg … and shrewder professionals in England, like Kim Philby and Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. But the one who would most likely have a place in the postnuclear text appears now to be Klaus Fuchs, the young German Communist who was a superb scientist, a physicist of such repute that he worked in the inner circles both at Harwell in England and Los Alamos, from where he methodically leaked not only his own contributions but those of everyone else to his Soviet handlers. Vividly anti-fascist, he was personally drab, a joyless, unnaturally quiet fellow who contained in himself not only the scientist’s torment of intellectual joy mixed with moral horror but the Soviet spy’s anxiety of living dangerously in the West.

Richard Rhodes, in his exacting and compendious history of the hydrogen bomb enterprise, Dark Sun, says: “Knowledge derived from espionage could only speed up the process [of making a bomb], not determine it, and in fact every nation that has attempted to build an atomic weapon in the half-century since the discovery of nuclear fission has succeeded on the first try.” That was not the general understanding of atomic secrets in the days of the cold war. Nobody was above suspicion. Much in the same way that Beria’s scientists were told their past accomplishments would not protect them if they didn’t continue to produce did the charismatic Oppenheimer, “Oppie,” the gaunt, bony, blue-eyed genius who was the architect of the A-bomb, learn that in counseling against development of the H-bomb, he had committed a heresy for which he would be deprived of his security clearance. This was done in a public hearing that humiliated him and destroyed his spirit.

Testifying to deadly effect against him was his erstwhile physics colleague and friend, the brooding Edward Teller, once a strong advocate of international atomic controls but, at the time of his testimony, on the opposite course as the fervent promoter of–after himself–the H-bomb.

From the military ranks we will find ourselves looking more carefully at Gen. Curtis LeMay, who after his tactical successes with the B-29s In Japan went on to the task of building the Strategic Air Command and its fleet of B-52s, some of them always in the air, bombs aboard, to “kill a nation” if the need arose. He was a patriot. He was also a blunt, tough, sometimes reckless adviser. He was, above all, a von Clausewitz of the nuclear age. He realized that with atomic weapons there is no more time inside a war. As the bomb implodes, so does time. The years-long wars of the past are compressed to moments. Thus the mobilization for war must now and forever come before the war. It follows that this blood-besotted century, having with its technology erased the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, will continue, as in the cold war, to erase the distinction between wartime and peacetime.

On Elugelab Island on the northern end of Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, on November 1, 1952, the hydrogen Superbomb, code name Mike, was fired half a second before 7115 A.M. The blast vaporized the island entirely and turned every animal, bird and plant on the surrounding islands to cinder. The purplish fireball rose to 57,000 feet and eventually formed a canopy a hundred miles wide. “Its blast would have obliterated all New York City’s five boroughs,” reports Richard Rhodes. In “nanoseconds” it generated all the known elements of the universe and then created a new one. It was a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It had a neutron density 10 million times greater than a supernova-”more impressive in that respect,” a scientist observer said, “than a star.” The critical difference between an atom bomb and a thermonuclear bomb is that atomic fission inevitably exhausts its own chain reaction, which puts a limit on the amount of destructive power that can be built into an atom bomb. A thermonuclear bomb fired with the element of deuterium is theoretically capable of being designed to go on to the nth power. The H-bomb has no known limits.

This means we are locked up and turning in space with our Trumans and our Oppenheimers and our Fuchses and our Kurchatovs. We have closure. Until this story is written there can be no other. There is only one demand: that we select for our mythic archetypes. Just those scientists and politicians and generals and spies whose inadequacies of character put us most in awe of their immortal achievement.

It sits there now, conceptually finalized, a Superbomb of limitless capacity. A Runaway. It does not require a plane or a submarine or an intercontinental missile to deliver it. Whoever the enemy is, wherever he is, we need only set it off where we are. Behind a barn somewhere. In the backyard.


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