The Atomic Bomb turns 70, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Today, and on August 9, we remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in all their devastation and the long term effects of radiation poisoning. A former British Army soldier (name removed for anonymity) reflected on the bombings, stating, “They were the best thing that could have happened to me. I was about to be sent off to Japan to fight with the Americans. The bomb[ing] saved my life.” Indeed, the horrific scale of the devastation aside, the bombings are credited with shortening the the Second World War in the Pacific and forestalling a costly and destructive invasion of Japan. This view has been attributed to President Truman himself, and a poll conducted this year by the Pew Research Center has revealed that 56 percent of US citizens still believe the bombings were at least partly justified. However, the aftermath of the bombings led to the Cold War and at least four decades of popular fear of nuclear annihilation. Therefore, we should question what has the legacy of the bombings meant for popular culture and the media.
A number of factors led to the beginning of the Cold War, one of the main causes being the war mentality and ‘us versus them’ outlook of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Simply put, the USSR pushing back the German army from 1944, the 1945 Yalta conference with Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, and the Truman doctrine of containment all contributed to the entrenchment of two opposing political and military camps in the postwar world, and therefore were all linked to the early phases of the Cold War. Mutual suspicion and tensions helped escalate the mistrust between the two nuclear powers, with duplicity and imperialist activity on both sides making matters worse.
The United States and the Cold War
As the Cold War escalated in the United States, popular culture quickly latched onto try to deal with the atomic bomb scare, once it was obvious that the Soviets had either stolen the information to make the bomb, or had learned how to make it themselves. The knowledge that both sides now possessed the power to eradicate the other, utterly, at any time, became a constant thread running throughout American (and indeed Western) cultural output, from The Manchurian Candidate to Star Trek.
The film Doctor Strangelove heavily satirises the way the United States plans its bombing and war operations, showing the need for dialogue and reflection on why the cold war was taking place.
Doctor Strangelove, a German immigrant, most likely in the US because of Operation Paperclip satirises Nazi Germany and the consequences of having a nuclear war in the following clip:
The full film is available here, for your viewing pleasure:
The 1982 documentary, Atomic Cafe, recounts the early terror of Communism in the United States by gathering public records, government propaganda, to create a documentary highlighting the effects of the atomic bomb on American society. A great documentary, a surprisingly honest assessment of the Cold War atomic scare, the film is worth a watch to not only understand how the scare developed, but why many of these sentiments still exist in the United States today.
The American government’s film shown “Red Nightmare” to US military personnel, tells the story of an alternative city that has been taken over by the communists in the early 1960s:
One of the most chilling reflections of the anxieties evoked by the constant threat of nuclear war, however, can be found in Watchmen, the graphic novel (and, more recently, film) first published in 1986. Set in an alternate United States in 1985, in which the titular Watchmen have catalyzed the Cold War into a far more volatile conflict, the novel is superb at crafting an atmosphere of paranoia and mounting dread, as the Americans and Soviets inch ever closer to all-out war. This fear is embodied particularly clearly in the character of Doctor Manhattan, this world’s first genuine superhero, whose arrival is described as changing the nature of politics, war and daily life for everyone else. The parallels between this figure and the atomic bomb are not coincidental. Indeed, the novel’s 1985 can be viewed as the sort of hellish world that might have resulted had the US used the bomb more often.
Equally interesting, however, is the way in which this and other characters are also used to make a moral judgement on the atomic bomb and its role in the Cold War. Several of the ‘heroes’ in the story serve as representations of what author Alan Moore seems to view as humankind’s hubris in creating such all-consuming instruments of death. In addition to Doctor Manhattan, the novel shows us Ozymandias, whose plan ostensibly to save the world involves destruction on a scale comparable to a nuclear apocalypse, and the Comedian, who decides to embrace the immorality that he and the other masked heroes represent by becoming a callous, enthusiastic killer. As allegories for the atomic bomb, these characters could not send a clearer message.
The bomb’s association with destructive hubris has even survived past the end of the Cold War, with various quotes relating to it still used today to warn against pushing the boundaries of science or technology too far ahead of morality. The most famous of these is Robert Oppenheimer’s quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita to describe what his creation had caused: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. This phrase has become synonymous with over-ambitious, unethical scientific advances, to the extent that it appears frequently in cultural works that have nothing to do with the atomic bomb (for a recent example, see the film Ex Machina).
While the terror of potential nuclear destruction has, for various reasons, diminished in Western popular culture, this broader moral point has not. Together, they present an interpretation of the atomic bomb as an unjustified, even unnatural development, whose shadow we still live in today.
The Victims and their legacy
Those that died instantly from the fall of the two bombs number well over 100,000 while those injured add a considerable amount, though the real number may never be known. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused devastating damage to both cities. Reading eyewitness accounts provides some dire reading; one particular account recalls a mother losing her son on the day of the Hiroshima bombing. It is unavoidable to discuss the traumatic events of the 6th and 9th August 1945 without truly considering the massive amount of damage done by the Americans.
Today, the Japanese right wing politicians do not wish to discuss the war atrocities committed by Japan, and instead focus on presenting Japan as a peace seeking country. In the US, the bombing is seen as a solution to end the war, and it should be reflected on more, as being morally dubious. The Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament gives various reasons for the dropping of the bombs, one of which was to ‘use the world’s first atomic bomb for an actual attack and observe its attack.’ The test on 16th July 1945 in New Mexico was exactly three Mondays before the first attack on Hiroshima. America never, really, was able to consider the true impact of the attacks; what impact these attacks would have, on not just Japan, but the world.
The thoughts of the team at History To The Public are with those that died 70 years ago on those ill-fated days and those that have suffered since. It was an unnecessary lesson to learn and may we not repeat the same level of destruction again.