The Atomic Age

Born in the Trinity explosion (above), christened in blood at Hiroshima exactly 21 days later, it has cast a cloud over mankind for 40 years

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Early on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, named for the pilot's mother, cut east to west across the rivers of Hiroshima, opened its hatches, and an atom bomb fell free. From that moment to this, nothing has ever been the same in the world. The people of Hiroshima, the course of World War II, subsequent wars, subsequent peace, the position of science, the role of the military, international politics, the nature of knowledge, art, culture, the conduct of lives: all changed. Other ages in history were characterized by heroes or by ideas. The atomic age is characterized by a weapon and a threat.

Forty years later, what is Hiroshima? What happened there to make it impossible for the world to turn back? How has the Bomb served the world, and how is the world supposed to live with it?

Here are four views of what occurred on and after Aug. 6, 1945. Not four sides of an argument, but four perspectives on a reality. The first view is that of a survivor of the bombing who is now the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. What he saw was the suffering of people and the destruction of a city. The second view is that of a physicist who witnessed the first successful nuclear chain-reaction experiment in Chicago in 1942, worked on the Bomb at the Los Alamos laboratory and flew in the yield-measuring instrument plane beside the Enola Gay. Later he was the director of Los Alamos. What he saw was the effort of American scientists to win the war and the developing partnership of science and the military.

The third view is that of a U.S. President, one of eight Americans in history to have the power to wield nuclear weapons. What he saw after Hiroshima was a revolution in world politics and in the nature of the presidency. The fourth is a view of how the Bomb affected American thought and culture. What the people saw after Hiroshima was a fearful vision of the future.

Not only do these views sometimes clash with one another, there are doubts and contradictions within each of them. Yet individual views are all that is left of this singular event, since the rubble of Hiroshima has long been bulldozed away, the dead cremated, the air blown clean. Today on streets over which the Bomb's cloud rose like a red-purple flower are coffeehouses where Mozart is played, gilded hotels with blazing chandeliers, COKE IS IT signs and the headquarters of the Mazda corporation. Everything faces forward, except that the name of the city can never be mentioned without invoking a past to which everyone is attached, and an immediate private silence. Hiroshima survives in the mind, which broods, denies, forgets and eventually must deal with what it saw.