Atomic Essay

Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky . Mr. Tanimoto
has a distinct recollection that it traveled from east to west, from the city
toward the hills. It seemed like a sheet of sun. ÐJohn Hersey, from
Hiroshima, pp.8 On August 6, 1945, the world changed forever. On that day the
United States of America detonated an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

Never before had mankind seen anything like. Here was something that was
slightly bigger than an ordinary bomb, yet could cause infinitely more
destruction. It could rip through walls and tear down houses like the devils
wrecking ball. In Hiroshima it killed 100,000 people, most non-military
civilians. Three days later in Nagasaki it killed roughly 40,000 . The immediate
effects of these bombings were simple. The Japanese government surrendered,
unconditionally, to the United States. The rest of the world rejoiced as the
most destructive war in the history of mankind came to an end . All while the
survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tried to piece together what was left of
their lives, families and homes. Over the course of the next forty years, these
two bombings, and the nuclear arms race that followed them, would come to have a
direct or indirect effect on almost every man, woman and child on this Earth,
including people in the United States. The atomic bomb would penetrate every
fabric of American existence. From our politics to our educational system. Our
industry and our art. Historians have gone so far as to call this period in our
history the Òatomic ageÓ for the way it has shaped and guided world
politics, relations and culture. The entire history behind the bomb itself is
rooted in Twentieth Century physics. At the time of the bombing the science of
physics had been undergoing a revolution for the past thirty-odd years.

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Scientists now had a clear picture of what the atomic world was like. They new
the structure and particle makeup of atoms, as well as how they behaved. During
the 1930Õs it became apparent that there was a immense amount of energy
that would be released atoms of Gioielli 2certain elements were split, or taken
apart. Scientists began to realize that if harnessed, this energy could be
something of a magnitude not before seen to human eyes. They also saw that this
energy could possibly be harnessed into a weapon of amazing power. And with the
advent of World War Two, this became an ever increasing concern. In the early
fall of 1939, the same time that the Germans invaded Poland, President Roosevelt
received a letter from Albert Einstein, informing him about the certain
possibilities of creating a controlled nuclear chain reaction, and that
harnessing such a reaction could produce a bomb of formidable strength. He
wrote: This new phenomena would lead also lead to the construction of bombs, and
it is conceivable, though much less certain-that extremely powerful bombs of a
new type may thus be constructed (Clark 556-557).The letter goes on to encourage
the president to increase government and military involvement in such
experiments, and to encourage the experimental work of the scientists with the
allocation of funds, facilities and equipment that might be necessary. This
letter ultimately led to the Manhattan Project, the effort that involved
billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people to produce the atomic bomb.

During the time after the war, until just recently the American psyche has been
branded with the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Here was something so powerful,
yet so diminutive. A bomb that could obliterate our nations capital, and that
was as big as somebodies backyard grill. For the first time in the history of
human existence here was something capable of wiping us off the face of the
Earth. And most people had no control over that destiny. It seemed like peoples
lives, the life of everything on this planet, was resting in the hands of a
couple men in Northern Virginia and some guys over in Russia. The atomic bomb
and the amazing power it held over us had a tremendous influence on American
Culture, including a profound effect on American Literature. After the war, the
first real piece of literature about the bombings came in 1946. The work
Hiroshima, by Jon Hersey, from which the opening quote is taken, first appeared
as a long article in the New Yorker, then shortly after in book form. The book
is a non-fiction account of the bombing of Hiroshima and the immediate
aftermath. It is told from the point-of-view of six hibakusha, or ÒsurvivorsÓ
of the atomic blast. In four chapters Hersey traces how the these people
survived the blast, and what they did in following weeks and months to pull
their lives together Gioielli 3and save their families. The book takes on a tone
of sympathy and of miraculous survival Ðthat these people were lucky
enough to survive the blast. He focuses not on the suffering of the victims but
on their courage (Stone, 7). The following passage from the first chapter shows
this:A hundred thousand people were killed by the bomb, and these six were among
the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each
of the counts many small items of chance or volitionÐa step taken in time,
a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the nextÐthat
spared him. And each that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw
more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew
anything (4). Hersey was attempting to chronicle what had happened at Hiroshima,
and to do so fairly. And in emphasizing the survival instead of the suffering he
does not make his book anti-American or something that condemns the dropping of
the bomb. He simply gives these peoples accounts of how they survived in a tone
that is more journalistic than sensationalistic. The book empathizes with their
plight while it also gives an American explanation for the bombing (Stone, 7).

That it was an act of war to end the war as quickly and as easily as possible,
and to save more lives in the long run. Hersey did all this to provide what he
considered an evenhanded portrayal of the event, but he also did not want to
cause much controversy. Although it could be criticized for not giving a more
detailed account of the suffering that occurred, and that it reads more like a
history book than a piece of literature, HerseyÕs book was the first of
its kind when it was published. Up until then all accounts of the Hiroshima
bombing writings about it took the slant that Japanese had Òdeserved what
we had given themÓ, and that we were good people for doing so. These
accounts were extremely prejudicial and racist. (Stone, 4) Hersey was the first
to take the point of view of those who had actually experienced the event. And
his work was the transition between works that glorified thedropping of the
atomic bomb, to those that focused on its amazing destructive powers, and what
they could do to our world. During the period immediately after the war, not
much information was available to general public concerning what kind of
destruction the atomic bombs had actually caused in Japan. But starting with
HerseyÕs book and continuing with other non-fiction works, such as David
Bradley’s No Place To Hide, which concerned the Bikini Island nuclear tests,
Americans really began to get a picture of the awesome power and destructiveness
of nuclear weapons. They saw that these really Gioielli 4were doomsday devices.

Weapons that could change everything in an instant, and turn things into nothing
in a moment. It was this realization that had a startling effect on American
culture and literature. Some Americans began to say ÒAt any time we could
all be shadows in the blast wave, so whatÕs the point?Ó. This
viewpoint manifested itself in literature in something called the Òapocalyptic
temperÓ; an attitude or a tone dealing with a forthcoming end to the
world. Also, many people, because of this realization of our impending death,
were beginning to say that maybe their was something inherently wrong with all
of this. That nuclear weapons are dangerous to everyone, no matter what your
political views or where you live, and that we should do away with all of them.

They have no value to society and should be destroyed. This apocalyptic temper
and social activism was effected greatly in the early Sixties by the Cuban
Missile Crisis. When Americans saw, on television, that they could be under
nuclear attack in under twenty minutes, a new anxiety about the cold war
surfaced that had not been present since the days of McCarthy. And this new
anxiety was evidenced in works that took on a much more satirical tone. And one
of the works that shows this satiric apocalyptic temper and cynicism is Kurt
Vonnegut’s Cats Cradle. Vonnegut, considered by many to be one of Americas
foremost living authors, was himself a veteran of World War Two. He, as a
prisoner of war, was one of the few survivors of the fire-bombing of Dresden. In
Dresden he saw what many believe was a more horrible tragedy than Hiroshima. The
allied bombs destroyed the entire city and killed as many people, if not more,
than were killed in Hiroshima. He would eventually write about this experience
in the semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five. This novel, like Cats Cradle,
takes a very strong anti-war stance. But along with being an Anti-war book, Cats
Cradle is an excellent satire of the Atomic Age. It is essentially the story of
one man, an author by the name of John (or Jonah) and the research he is doing
for a book on the day the bomb exploded in Hiroshima. This involves him with
members of the Dr. Felix Hoenikker familyÐthe genius who helped build the
bombÐand their adventures. In the book Vonnegut paints an imaginary world
where things might not seem to make any Gioielli 5sense. But there is in fact an
amazing amount of symbolism, as well as satire. Dr. Hoenikker is an extremely
eccentric scientist who spends most of his time in the lab at his company. He is
interested in very few things, his children not among them. His children are
almost afraid of him. One of the few times he does try to play with his children
is when he tries to teach the game of cats cradle to his youngest son, Newt.

When he is trying to show newt the game Newt gets very confused. In the book,
this is what Newt remembered of the incident:ÒAnd then he sang, ÔRockabye
catsy, in the tree topÕ;he sang, Ô when the wind blows, the cray-dull
will fall. Down will come cray-dull, catsy and all.Õ ÒI burst into
tears. I jumped up and ran out of the house as fast as I could.Ó(18)What
Newt doesnÕt remember is what he said to his Father. Later in the book we
find this out from Newts sister, Angela that newt jumped of his fatherÕs
lap screaming Ò No cat! No cradle! No cat! No cradle!Ó(53) With this
scene, Vonnegut is trying to show a couple of things. Dr. Hoenikker symbolizes
all the scientists who created the atomic bomb. And the cats cradle is the world
and all of humankind combined. Dr. Hoenikker is simply playing, like he has all
his life, that game just happens to involve the fate of the rest of the world.

And little Newt, having a childs un-blinded perception, doesnÕt understand
the game. He doesnÕt see a cat or a cradle. Like all the games
Dr.Hoenikker plays, including the ones with nuclear weapons, this one is
mislabeled. This is just one of the many episodes in the book that characterizes
Dr. Hoenikker as a player of games. He recognizes this in himself when he gives
his Nobel Prize speech:I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling
like an eight year on a spring morning on his way to school. Anything can make
me stop and wonder, and sometimes learn (17). And the Doctors farewell to the
world is a game he has played, with himself. One day a Marine General asked him
if he could make something that would eliminate mud, so that marines wouldnÕt
have to deal with mud anymore. So Dr. Hoenikker thinks up ice-nine, an imaginary
substance that when it comes in contact with any other kind of water, it
crystallizes it. And this crystallization spreads to all the water molecules
this piece of water is in contact with. So to crystallize the mud in an entire
armed division of marines, it would only take a minuscule amount of ice-nine.

Dr. Gioielli 6Hoenikker’s colleagues see this as just another example of his
imagination at work. But he actually does create a small chink of ice-nine, and
when he dies, each of his children get a small piece of it. They carry it around
with themselves in thermos containers the rest of their lives. At the end of
book one small piece of ice-nine gets out , by mere accident, and ends up
crystallizing the whole world. The game Dr. Hoenikker was playing with himself
destroyed the whole world. The accident that caused the ice-nine to get out
could be much like the accident that could cause World War III. One small thing
that sets off an amazing series of events, like piece of ice-nine just falling
out of the thermos. And Dr. Hoenikker, like the scientists of the world, was
playing game and caused it all. Here is a description of the world after the
ice-nine has wreaked its havoc:There were no smells. There was no movement.

Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak
was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth was locked up tight
(179).This description eerily resembles what many have said the Earth will look
like during a nuclear winter (Stone, 62). In addition to Dr. Hoenikker and his
doomsday games, Vonnegut provides an interesting analysis of atomic age society
with the Bokonon religion. This religion, completely made up by Vonnegut and
used in this novel, is the religion of every single inhabitant of San Lorenzo,
the books imaginary banana republic. This is the island where Jonah eventually
ends up, and where the ice-nine holocaust originates. (It also, being a
Caribbean nation, strangely resembles Cuba.) Bokonon is a strange religion. It
was created by one of the leaders of San Lorenzo, a long time ago. Essentially,
Bokonon is the only hope for all inhabitants of San Lorenzo. Their existence on
the island is so horrible that they have to find harmony with something.

Bokononism gives them that. It is based on untruths, to give San Lorenzans a
sense of security, since the truth provides none. This concept can be summed up
in this Bokononist quotation: ÒLive by thefoma* that makes you brave and
kind and healthy and happy. *Harmless untruths (4)Ó The inhabitants of San
Lorenzo do not care what is going on in their real lives because they have the
foma of Bokonon to keep them secure and happy. And Vonnegut is trying to say
that is what is happening to the rest of us. Americans, and the rest of the
world for that matter, have this false sense of security that we are safe and
secure. That in our homes in Indiana with our dogs and Gioielli 7our lawnmowers,
we think we are invincible. Everything will be okay because we are protected by
are government. This is the foma of real life, because we are trying to deny
what is really going on. WeÕre in imminent danger of being annihilated at
any second, but to deny this very real danger we are creating a false world so
that we may live in peace, however false that sense of peace may be. Throughout
the entire novel Vonnegut gives little snippets of ÒcalypsosÓ :
Bokonon proverbs written by Bokonon. Verse like:I wanted all things To seem to
make some sense,So we could all be happy, yes,Instead of tense.And I made up
liesSo that they all fit niceAnd made this sad worldA par-a-dise (90).This
calypso expresses the purpose of Bokonon and why it, with its harmless untruths,
exists. The following one is about the outlawing of Bokonon. To make the
religion more appealing to the people, the leaders had it banned, with its
practice punishable by death. They hoped that a renegade religion with a rebel
leader would appeal to the people more.So I said good-bye to government,and I
gave my reason:That a really good religionIs a form of treason (118)These
calypsos, and the rest of the book, express the points Vonnegut in a more
abstract , symbolic manner. They only add to the impact of the books message
expressing it in a very short, satirical way. The black humor used when talking
about the end of the worldÐthe nuclear endÐwas pioneered by Vonnegut.

But what many consider to be the the climax of this pop culture phenomena is
Stanley Kubrick’s movie, Dr. Strangelove(Stone 69). Subtitled Or How I learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , this movie was Kubrick’s viewpoint on how
mad the entire Cold War and arms race had become. Based a little known book by
English science fiction writer Peter George, Red Alert, the movie is about how
one maverick Air Force general, who is obviously suffering a severe mental
illness, concocts a plan to save the world from the Gioielli 8Communists. He
manages to order the strategic bombers under his command to proceed to their
targets in the Soviet Union. They all believe it is World War Three, and the
General, Jack Ripper, is the only one that can call the planes back. Kubrick’s
characters: Dr. Strangelove, President Mertin Muffley, Premier Kissof and
others, go through a series a misadventures to try and turn the planes around.

But the one, plane piloted by Major ÒKingÓ Kong, does get through,
and it drops its bombload. This is where Kubrick tries to show the futility of
everything. The governments of both the worlds superpowers have thousands of
safeguards and security precautions for their nuclear weapons. But one man
manages to get a nuclear warhead to be hit its target. And this warhead hits the
ÒDoomsday DeviceÓ. The Doomsday device is the ultimate deterrent,
because if you try to disarm it it will go off. It has the capability to destroy
every living human and animal on Earth, and it does So it is all pointless. We
have these weapons, and no matter how hard we try to control them everyone still
dies. And so to make ourselves feel better about all this impending doom,
Kubrick, like Vonnegut, satirizes the entire system. By making such moronic
characters, like the wimpish President Mertin Muffley, Kubrick is saying,
similar to Vonnegut with Dr. Hoenikker, that we are even worse off because these
weapons are controlled by people that are almost buffoonish and childish.

General Ripper, the man who causes the end of the world, is a portrait of a
McCarthy era paranoid gone mad. He thinks the communists are infiltrating and
trying to destroy are country. And he says the most heinous communist plot
against democracy is fluoridation of water:Like I was saying, Group Captain,
fluoridation of water is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist
plot we have ever had to face . . . They pollute our precious bodily fluids!
(George 97)And General Rippers personal prevention of the contamination of his
bodily fluids is equally perplexing. He drinks only Ò . . . distilled
water, or rain water, and only grain alcohol . . .Ó Kubrick uses this kind
of absurd reasoning in his movie to show the absurd reasoning behind nuclear
weapons. Both him and Vonnegut were part of the satirical side of the
apocalyptic temper in the early Sixties. They laughed at our governments, our
leaders, the Cold War and the arms race, and tried to show how stupid it all
really was. But as time moved on, the writers, and the entire country, started
to take a less narrow minded view of things. The counterculture of the Gioielli
9sixties prompted people to take a closer look at themselves. As thinkers,
teachers, lovers, parents, friends and human beings. And people concerned with
nuclear weapons started to see things in a broader context as well. Nuclear
weapons were something that affected our whole consciousness. The way we grew
up, our relationships with others and what we did with our lives. One of the
authors who put this new perspective on things was the activist, social thinker
and poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg first made a name for himself in the 1950Õs
as one of the foremost of the Beat writers. The Beats in the Fifties were a
forerunner of the more widespread counterculture of the late Sixties and early
Seventies. And Ginsberg evolved into this. He became a devoted leader in the
counterculture, who set many precedents for the Hippie generation. He lived in
various communes, delved deeply into eastern religions and experimented with
numerous hallucinogenic drugs. In the earlier part of his life Ginsberg had been
a rebel against society. He was still a rebel but now he was taking the form of
activist. By the Seventies he was involved in many causes that promoted peace
and world harmony. What separated Ginsberg from other activists is that he was
one of the first and original members of many of these movements. Now he was the
father figure to many in the non-mainstream world. While teaching at his school
of poetry in Naropa, Colorado, Ginsberg became involved in protests against the
nearby Rock Flats Nuclear Weapons Factory. During the Summer of 1978 he was
arrested for preventing a shipment nuclear waste from reaching its destination
and for numerous other protests against the facility (Miles 474). From these
experiences came two poems ÒNagasaki DaysÓ and Ò Plutonium OdeÓ.

Both these poems exhibit Ginsberg’s more mature style of writing (Miles 475).

The poems are more scholarly, containing many mythological and religious
allusions. But both these characteristics show how post war apocalyptic
literature had evolved. By the Seventies many writers, instead of taking the
defeatist, satirical view like Vonnegut, were beginning to take a make activist
standpoint, like Ginsberg. Apocalyptic literature also took on a more mature,
scholarly tone, and was more worldly and had a broader viewpoint. This stanza
from ÒNagasaki DaysÓ shows how Ginsberg is putting nuclear weapons
into the context of the universal:2,000,000 killed in Vietnam13,000,000 refugees
in Indochina 200,000,000 years for the Galaxy to revolve on its core 24,000 the
Babylonian great year24,000 half life of plutoniumGioielli 102,000 the most I
ever got for a poetry reading80,000 dolphins killed in the dragnet4,000,000,000
years earth been born (701)The half life of plutonium is brought together with
dolphins and Indochinese refugees. Also, Ginsberg makes a reference to the
Babylonian great year, which coincides with the half life of plutonium. This
cosmic link intrigued Ginsberg immensely. That fact alone inspired him to right
ÒPlutonium OdeÓ. The whole poem expands on this connection to
plutonium as a living part of our universe, albeit a very dangerous one. Here he
mentions the Great Year:Before the Year began turning its twelve signs, ere
constellations wheeled for twenty-four thousand sunny yearsslowly round their
axis in Sagittarius, one hundred sixty-seven thousand times returning to this
night. (702) Ginsberg is also relating the great year, and the half life of
plutonium, to the life of the Earth. The life of the Earth is approximately four
billion years, which is 24,000 times 167,000 (Ginsberg 796) In ÒPlutonium
OdeÓ, Ginsberg talks to plutonium. By establishing a dialogue he gives the
plutonium almost human characteristics. It is something, and is near us every
day, and is deadly. In this passage he is asking how long before it kills us
all:I enter your secret places with my mind, I speak with your presence, I roam
your lion roar with mortal mouth.One microgram inspired to one lung, ten pounds
of heavy metal dust, adrift slowly motion over gray Alpsthe breadth of the
planet, how long before your radiance speeds blight and death to sentient
beings. (703) In putting his nuclear fears and worries on the table, and saying
that these things have pertinence to us because they affect how we live our
lives and the entire the universe, Ginsberg is showing how intrigued he is with
plutonium in this poem. By the time Ginsberg was publishing these poems in late
1978, post war literature had evolved immensely. At first people had no idea
about the bomb and its capabilities. Then, as more information came out about
what the bomb could do, they began to began to start to live in real fear of
nuclear weapons. The power of it, a creation by man that could destroy the
world, that was terrifying. Then some artists and writers began to see the
absurdity of it all. They saw that we were under control by people we did not,
or should not, trust, and were a constant state of nuclear Gioielli 11fear. So
they satirized the system unmercifully, and were very apocalyptic in their tone.

But then things evolved from these narrow minded viewpoints, and people began to
envision nuclear weapons in the context of our world and our lives. The atomic
bomb and nuclear proliferation affected all facets of our lifestyle, including
what we read. Literature is a reflection of a countryÕs culture and
feelings. And literature affected Americans curiosity, horror, anxiety, cynicism
and hope concerning nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons raised questions that no
one had dare ever asked before, and had given them answers that they were afraid
to hear. They have made us think about our place in the universe, and what it
all means.

Bartter, Martha A. The Way to Ground Zero. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Dewey, Joseph. In a Dark Time. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1990.Dr.

Strangelove. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. With Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Slim
Pickens. Highland Films Ltd., 1966.(This is a novelization of the movie. All
qoutations from the movie were transribed form this book) Einstein, Albert.

ÒSirÓ (a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) Einstein: The
Life and Times. Ronald W. Clark. New York: World Publishing, 1971.

556-557.George, Peter. Dr. Strangelove. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979.Ginsberg,
Allen. ÒNagasaki DaysÓ and ÒPlutonium Ode.Ó Collected
Poems: 1947Ð1980. Ed. Allen Ginsberg. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

699-705. Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. New
York :Vintage Books, 1992.Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1985.Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Harper Perennial,
1989.Stone, Albert E. Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers and the
Bomb. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.Vonnegut, Kurt. CatÕs Cradle. New
York:Dell, 1963.


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