Hiroshima and the World: My First "Hiroshima Day"

by Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1931. After earning a Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard in 1962, he became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the Defense Department and the White House, specializing in nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making. Mr. Ellsberg worked on the top secret study of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Disillusioned by the U.S. government’s actions involving Vietnam, he turned whistleblower and made the 7,000 page study public. His trial, on twelve felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973. Since the end of the Vietnam War, Mr. Ellsberg has been a lecturer, writer, and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful U.S. interventions, and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing.

My First "Hiroshima Day"

Unlike nearly everyone else in America outside the Manhattan Project, my first awareness of the challenges of the nuclear era occurred some nine months before August 6, 1945, and in a crucially different context.

It was in a ninth-grade social studies class in the fall of 1944. I was 13, a boarding student on full scholarship at Cranbrook, a private school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Our teacher, Bradley Patterson, was discussing a concept that was familiar then in sociology, William F. Ogburn’s notion of “cultural lag.”

The idea was that the development of technology regularly moved much further and faster in human social-historical evolution than other aspects of culture: our institutions of government, our values, habits, our understanding of society and ourselves. Indeed, the very notion of “progress” referred mainly to technology. What “lagged” behind, what developed more slowly or not at all in social adaptation to new technology was everything that bore on our ability to control and direct technology and the use of technology to dominate other humans.

To illustrate this, Mr. Patterson posed a potential advance in technology that might be realized soon. It was possible now, he told us, to conceive of a bomb made of U-235, an isotope of uranium, which would have an explosive power 1,000 times greater than the largest bombs being used in the war that was then going on. German scientists in late 1938 had discovered that uranium could be split by nuclear fission, in a way that would release immense amounts of energy. Patterson brought the potential development to us as an example of one more possible leap by science and technology ahead of our social institutions.

Suppose, then, that one nation, or several, chose to explore the possibility of making this into a bomb, and succeeded. What would be the probable implications of this for humanity? How would it be used, by humans and states as they were today? Would it be, on balance, bad or good for the world? Would it be a force for peace, for example, or for destruction? We were to write a short essay on this, within a week.

I recall the conclusions I came to in my paper after thinking about it for a few days. As I remember, everyone in the class had arrived at much the same judgment. It seemed pretty obvious.

The existence of such a bomb—we each concluded—would be bad news for humanity. Mankind could not handle such a destructive force. It could not control it, safely, appropriately. The power would be “abused”: used dangerously and destructively, with terrible consequences. Many cities would be destroyed entirely, just as the Allies were doing their best to destroy German cities without atomic bombs at that very time, just as the Germans earlier had attempted to do to Rotterdam and London. (We didn’t know it yet, but within a few months the U.S. Army Air Corps would launch a campaign to destroy all the major cities of Japan , annihilating their urban population with firebombs.) With U-235 bombs, civilization, perhaps our species, would be in danger of destruction.

It was just too powerful. Bad enough that bombs already existed that could destroy a whole city block. They were called “block-busters”: 10 tons of high explosive. Humanity didn’t need the prospect of weapons a thousand times more powerful, individual bombs that could destroy whole cities.

As I recall, this conclusion didn’t depend mainly on who had the Bomb, or how many had it, or who got it first. And to the best of my memory, we in the class weren’t addressing it as something that might come so soon as to bear on the outcome of the ongoing war. It seemed likely, the way the case was presented to us, that the Germans would get it first, since they had done the original science. But we didn’t base our negative assessment on the idea that this would necessarily be a Nazi or German bomb. It would be a bad development, on balance, even if democratic countries got it first.

After we turned in our papers and discussed them in class, it was months before I thought of the issues again. I remember the moment when I did.

It was a hot August day in Detroit. I was standing on a street corner downtown, looking at the front page of The Detroit News in a news rack. I remember a streetcar rattling by on the tracks as I read the headline: A single American bomb had destroyed a Japanese city. My first thought was that I knew exactly what that bomb was. It was the U-235 bomb we had discussed in school and written papers about, the previous fall.

I thought: “We got it first. And we used it. On a city.”

I had a sense of dread, a feeling that something very ominous for humanity had just happened. A feeling, new to me as an American, at 14, that my country might have made a terrible mistake. I was glad when the war ended nine days later, but it didn’t make me think that my first reaction on Aug. 6 was wrong.

I remember that I was uneasy, on that first day and in the days ahead, about the tone in President Harry Truman’s voice on the radio as he exulted over our success in the race for the Bomb and its effectiveness against Japan. I generally admired Truman, then and later, but in hearing his announcements I was put off by the lack of concern in his voice, the absence of a sense of tragedy, of desperation or fear for the future. It seemed to me that this was a decision best made in anguish; and both Truman’s manner and the tone of the official communiqués made unmistakably clear that this hadn’t been the case.

Which meant for me that our leaders didn’t have the picture, didn’t grasp the significance of the precedent they had set and the sinister implications for the future. And that evident unawareness was itself scary. I believed that something ominous had happened; that it was bad for humanity that the Bomb was feasible, and that its use would have bad long-term consequences, whether or not those negatives were balanced or even outweighed by short-run benefits.

Looking back—in a world which still has over 20,000 nuclear weapons in it, most of them American and Russian thermonuclear H-bombs which require a Nagasaki-type A-bomb for their detonator--it seems clear to me my reactions then were right.

But neither the conclusions of my classmates the previous fall or reactions like mine on August 6 stamped us as moral prodigies. Before that day perhaps no one in the public outside our class—no one else outside the Manhattan Project (and very few inside it)—had spent a week, as we had, or even a day thinking about the impact of such a weapon on the long-run prospects for humanity.

And we were set apart from our fellow Americans in another important way. Perhaps no others outside the project or our class ever had occasion to think about the Bomb without the strongly biasing positive associations that accompanied their first awareness in August 1945 of its very possibility: that it was “our” weapon, an instrument of American democracy developed to deter a Nazi Bomb, pursued by two presidents, a war-winning weapon and a necessary one—so it was claimed and almost universally believed—to end the war without a costly invasion of Japan.

Unlike nearly all the others who started thinking about the new nuclear era after Aug. 6, our attitudes of the previous fall had not been shaped, or warped, by the claim and appearance that such a weapon had just won a war for the forces of justice, a feat that supposedly would otherwise have cost a million American lives, and as many or more Japanese. Long ago I concluded, on the basis of most scholarship, that this claim is mistaken; but most Americans still believe it, and that belief has consequences.

For most Americans at the time, whatever dread they may have felt about the long-run future of the Bomb was offset then and ever afterward by a powerful aura of its legitimacy, and its almost miraculous potential for good which had already been realized. For a great many Americans still living, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are regarded above all with gratitude, for having saved their own lives or the lives of their husbands, brothers, fathers or grandfathers, which would otherwise have been at risk in the invasion of Japan. For these Americans and many others, the Bomb was not so much an instrument of massacre as a kind of savior, a protector of precious lives.

Most Americans ever since have seen the destruction of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary and effective—as constituting just means, in effect “just terrorism,” under the supposed circumstances—thus legitimating, in their eyes, the second and third largest single-day massacres in history. (The largest, also by the U.S. Army Air Corps, was the firebombing of Tokyo five months before on the night of March 9, which burned alive or suffocated 80,000 to 120,000 civilians. Most of the very few Americans who are aware of this event at all accept it, too, as appropriate in wartime.)

To regard those acts as other than criminal and immoral—as most Americans do—is to believe that anything—anythingcan be legitimate means: at worst, a necessary, lesser, evil. At least, if done by Americans, on the order of a president, during wartime. Indeed, we are the only country in the world that believes it won a war by bombing—specifically by bombing cities with weapons of mass destruction—and believes that it was fully rightful to do so. It is a dangerous state of mind, in the ongoing nuclear era.

(Originally published on August 24, 2009)

**Note: This article is a shorter version of the longer essay that appears at Mr. Ellsberg's website. To read the essay in its entirety, visit www.ellsberg.net.**

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