June 11, 1998
The specter of an escalating nuclear-arms race between India and Pakistan is an unsettling reminder that the end of the Cold War has not meant the end of nuclear proliferation -- or of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Over the years Atlantic contributors have contemplated the horrors of nuclear war, and a look back at some of their reflections seems appropriate while the psychological aftershocks of the tests on the Asian subcontinent are still reverberating.
In December of 1945, five months after the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dr. Alexander H. Leighton visited Hiroshima as part of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. His collection of first-hand anecdotal accounts, titled, "That Day at Hiroshima," appeared in the October, 1946, Atlantic. Leighton was struck by the physical devastation created by the bomb. "Imagine a city dump," he wrote,
with its smells of wet ashes, mold, and things rotting, but one that runs from your feet almost to the limits of vision.... Low walls made rectangles that marked where houses had stood, like sites of prehistoric villages. Here and there in the middle distance, large buildings stood about, buttes in the rubble of the plain.... We passed a number of trees burned as if in perpetual winter.Even more chilling was the effect the bomb had on Hiroshima's people, the details of which Leighton recounts with a vividness that is not for the faint of heart.
A more-detailed personal account of the Hiroshima bombing appeared in August of 1980, in "I Thought My Last Hour Had Come ...", by Robert Guillain. Although Guillain's byline appeared on the piece, most of the story is told in the words of Futaba Kitayama, a woman who at thirty-three years of age was struck down by a "shattering flash" just a mile from ground zero. "What had happened to the sky, so blue a moment ago?" Kitayama asked.
Now it was as black as night.... People by the hundreds were flailing in the river. I couldn't tell if they were men or women; they were all in the same state: their faces were puffy and ashen, their hair tangled, they held their hands raised and, groaning with pain, threw themselves into the water. I had a violent impulse to do so myself because of the pain burning through my whole body.In his preface to the account, Guillain warned that "We should bear in mind that the horrors [Kitayama] described could be multiplied a hundred-fold in the future." It was that very prospect that motivated Albert Einstein, in an Atlantic essay titled "Atomic War or Peace" (November, 1947), to lament, "In the first two years of the atomic era ... the public, having been warned of the horrible nature of atomic warfare, has done nothing about it, and to a large extent has dismissed the warning from its consciousness." That denial is now all-too-familiar, and Einstein's concluding words are as applicable today as they were fifty years ago:
The atomic scientists, I think, have become convinced that they cannot arouse ... people to the truths of the atomic age by logic alone. There must be added that deep power of emotion which is a basic ingredient of religion. It is to be hoped that not only the churches but the schools, the colleges, and the leading organs of opinion will acquit themselves well of their unique responsibility in this regard.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.