Dwight Macdonald, The Bomb, 1945

At 9:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, an American plane dropped a single bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Exploding with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT, the bomb destroyed in a twinkling two-thirds of the city, including, presumably, most of the 343,000 human beings who lived there. No warning whatsoever was given. This atrocious action places “us”, the defenders of civilization, on a moral level with “them”, the beasts of Maidanek. And “we”, the American people, are just as much and as little responsible for this horror as “they”, the German people.

So much is obvious. But more must be said. For the “atomic” bomb renders anticlimactical even the ending of the greatest war in history.

1. THE CONCEPTS, “WAR” AND “PROGRESS”, ARE NOW OBSOLETE. Both suggest human aspirations, emotions, aims, consciousness. “The greatest achievement of organized science in history”, said President Truman after the Hiroshima catastrophe — which it probably was, and so much the worse for organized science. Such “progress” fills no human needs of either the destroyed or the destroyers. And a war of atomic bombs is not a war. It is a scientific experiment.

2. THE FUTILITY OF MODERN WARFARE SHOULD NOW BE CLEAR. Must we not now conclude, with Simone Weil, that the technical aspect of war today is the evil, regardless of political factors? Can one imagine that the atomic bomb could ever be used “in a good cause?” Do not such means instantly, of themselves, corrupt ANY cause?

3. ATOMIC BOMBS ARE THE NATURAL PRODUCT OF THE KIND OF SOCIETY WE HAVE CREATED. They are as easy, normal and unforced an expression of the American Standard of Living as electric iceboxes. We do not dream of a world in which atomic fission will be “harnessed to constructive ends”. The new energy will be at the service of the rulers; it will change their strength but not their aims. The underlying population should regard this new source of energy with lively interest — the interest of victims.

4. THOSE WHO WIELD SUCH DESTRUCTIVE POWER ARE OUTCASTS FROM HUMANITY. They may be gods, they may be brutes, but they are not men.

5. WE MUST “GET” THE MODERN NATIONAL STATE BEFORE IT “GETS” US. The crazy and murderous nature of the kind of society we have created is underlined by the atomic bomb. Every individual who wants to save his humanity — and indeed his skin — had better begin thinking “dangerous thoughts” about sabotage, resistance, rebellion, and the fraternity of all men every-where. The mental attitude known as “negativism” is a good start.

Politics, august 1945.


WHAT first appalled us was its blast.

“TNT is barely twice as strong as black powder was six centuries ago. World WAR II developed explosives up to 60% more powerful than TNT. The atomic bomb is more than 12,000 times as strong as the best improvement on TNT. One hundred and twenty-three planes, each bearing a single atomic bomb, would carry as much destructive power as all the bombs (2,453,595 tons) dropped by the Allies on Europe during the war.” [1]

It has slowly become evident, however, that the real horror of The Bomb is not blast but radioactivity. Splitting the atom sets free all kinds of radioactive substances, whose power is suggested by the fact that at the Hanford bomb plant, the water used for cooling the “pile” (the structure of uranium and other substances whose atomic interaction produces the explosive) carried off enough radiation to “heat the Columbia River appreciably”. Time added: “Even the wind blowing over the chemical plant picked up another load of peril, for the stacks gave off a radioactive gas”. And Smyth notes:

“The fission products produced in one day’s run of a 100,000-kilowatt chain-reacting pile of uranium might be sufficient to make a large area uninhabitable.”

There is thus no question as to the potential horror of The Bomb’s radioactivity. The two bombs actually used were apparently designed as explosive and not gas bombs, perhaps from humanitarian considerations, perhaps to protect the American troops who will later have to occupy Japan. But intentions are one thing, results another. So feared was radioactivity at Hanford that the most elaborate precautions were taken in the way of shields, clothes, etc. No such precautions were taken, obviously, on behalf of the inhabitants of Hiroshima; the plane dropped its cargo of half-understood poisons and sped away. What happened? The very sensitivity of the Army and the scientists on the subject is ominous. When one of the lesser experts who had worked on the bomb, a Dr. Harold Jacobson of New York, stated Publicly that Hiroshima would be “uninhabitable” for seventy years, he was at once questioned by FBI agents, after which, “ill and upset,” he issued another statement emphasizing that this was merely his own personal opinion, and that his colleagues disagreed with him.

But recent news from Japan indicates that perhaps Dr. Jacobson was right and his eminent colleagues wrong. After stating that 70,000 persons were killed outright in the two explosions and 120,000 wounded, Radio Tokyo on August 22 continued: “Many persons are dying daily from burns sustained during the raids. Many of those who received burns cannot survive the wounds because of the uncanny effects which the atomic bomb produces on the human body. Even those who received minor burns, and looked quite healthy at first, weakened after a few days for some unknown reason”. Howard W. Blakeslee, the A.P. Science Editor, commented that these “probably were victims of a phenomenon that is well-known in the great radiation laboratories of the United States.” Two kinds of burns are produced by the rays from an atomic explosion: the gamma, or X-ray type, which is always delayed and which finally produces on the skin the same effect as an ordinary burn, and which also produces internal burns; and burns made by streams of released neutrons. The latter, in laboratory tests made on animals (in Japan, we used human beings), produced no apparent effect at first, but resulted in death a few days later because the neutron rays had destroyed so many white corpuscles. The first wave of neutrons released by the bomb may have struck the earth, releasing more neutrons, and so on; the poisonous effects may persist indefinitely.

Now all this may be mere propaganda (though it will be interesting to see if Hiroshima and Nagasaki are put out of bounds for American troops). But the point is that none of those who produced and employed this monstrosity really knew just how deadly or prolonged these radioactive poisons would be [2]. Which did not prevent them from completing their assignment, nor the Army from dropping the bombs. Perhaps only among men like soldiers and scientists, trained to think “objectively” — i.e., in terms of means, not ends — could such irresponsibility and moral callousness be found. In any case, it was undoubtedly the most magnificent scientific experiment in history, with cities as the laboratories and people as the guinea pigs.

THE official platitude about Atomic Fission is that it can be a Force for Good (production) or a Force for Evil (war), and that the problem is simply how to use its Good rather than its Bad potentialities. This is “just common sense.” But, as Engels once remarked, Common Sense has some very strange adventures when it leaves its cozy bourgeois fireside and ventures out into the real world. For, given our present institutions — and the official apologists, from Max Lerner to President Conant of Harvard, envisage at most only a little face-lifting on these — how can The Bomb be “controlled,” how can it be “internationalized »‘ ? Already the great imperialisms are jockeying for position in World War III. How can we expect them to give up the enormous advantage offered by The Bomb? May we hope that the destructive possibilities are so staggering that, for simple self-preservation, they will agree to “outlaw” The Bomb? Or that they will foreswear war itself because an “atomic” war would probably mean the mutual ruin of all contestants? The same reasons were advanced before World War I to demonstrate its “impossibility”; also before World War II. The devastation of these wars was as terrible as had been predicted — yet they took place. Like all the great advances in technology of the past century, Atomic Fission is something in which Good and Evil are so closely intertwined that it is hard to see how the Good can be extracted and the Evil thrown away. A century of effort has failed to separate the Good of capitalism (more production) from the Evil (exploitation, wars, cultural barbarism). This atom has never been split, and perhaps never will be.

The Marxian socialists, both revolutionary and reformist, also accept the potentialities-for-Good-or-for-Evil platitude, since this platitude is based on a faith in Science and Progress which is shared by Marxists as well as conservatives, and is indeed still the basic assumption of Western thought. (In this respect, Marxism appears to be simply the most profound and consistent intellectual expression of this faith.) Since the Marxists make as a precondition of the beneficial use of Atomic Fission a basic change in present institutions, their position is not open to the objections noted just above. But if one looks deeper than the political level, the Marxist version of the platitude seems at the very least inadequate. I don’t want to go into this here; I shall try to deal with it in “The Root Is Man”. Let me just indicate that (1) it blunts our reaction to the present horror by reducing it to an episode in an historical schema which will “come out all right” in the end, and thus makes us morally callous (with resulting ineffectuality in our actions against the present horror) and too optimistic about the problem of evil; (2) it ignores the fact that such atrocities as The Bomb and the Nazi death camps are right now brutalizing, warping, deadening the human beings who are expected to change the world for the better; that modern technology has its own anti-human dynamics which has proved so far much more powerful than the liberating effects the Marxist schema expects from it.

THE BOMB produced two widespread and, from the standpoint of The Authorities, undesirable emotional reactions in this country: a feeling of guilt at “our” having done this to “them,” and anxiety lest some future “they” do this to “us”. Both feelings were heightened by the super­human scale of The Bomb. The Authorities have therefore made valiant attempts to reduce the thing to a human context, where such concepts as Justice, Reason, Progress could be employed. Such moral defenses are offered as: the war was shortened and many lives, Japanese as well as American, saved; “we” had to invent and use The Bomb against “them” lest “they” invent and use it against “us”; the Japanese deserved it because they started the war, treated prisoners barbarously, etc., or because they refused to surrender. The flimsiness of these justifications is apparent; any atrocious action, absolutely any one, could be excused on such grounds. For there is really only one possible answer to the problem posed by Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor: if all mankind could realize eternal and complete happiness by torturing to death a single child, would this act be morally justified?

Somewhat subtler is the strategy by which The Authorities — by which term I mean not only the political leaders but also the scientists, intellectuals, trade-unionists and businessmen who function on the top levels of our society — tried to ease the deep fears aroused in every one by The Bomb. From President Truman down, they emphasized that The Bomb has been produced in the normal, orderly course of scientific experiment, that it is thus simply the latest step in man’s long struggle to control the forces of nature, in a word that it is Progress. But this is a knife that cuts both ways: the effect on me, at least, was to intensify some growing doubts about the “Scientific Progress” which had whelped this monstrosity. Last April, I noted that in our movies:

“the white coat of the scientist is as blood-chilling a sight as Dracula’s black cape… If the scientist’s laboratory has acquired in Popular Culture a ghastly atmosphere, is this not perhaps one of those deep intuitions of the masses? From Frankenstein’s laboratory to Maidanek [or, now, to Hanford and Oak Ridge] is not a long journey. Was there a popular suspicion, perhaps only half conscious, that the 19th century trust in science was mistaken…?”

These questions seem more and more relevant. I doubt if we shall get satisfactory answers from the scientists (who, indeed, seem professionally incapable even of asking, let alone answering, them). The greatest of them all, who in 1905 constructed the equation which provided the theoretical basis for Atomic Fission, could think of nothing better to tell us after the bombings than:

“No one in the world should have any fear or apprehension about atomic energy being a supernatural product. In developing atomic energy, science merely imitated the reaction of the sun’s rays. [“Merely” is good!] Atomic power is no more unnatural than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.”

Thus, Albert Einstein. As though it were not precisely the natural, the perfectly rational and scientifically demonstrable that is now chilling our blood! How human, intimate, friendly by comparison are ghosts, witches, spells, werewolves and poltergeists! Indeed, all of us except a few specialists know as much about witches as we do about atom-splitting; and all of us with no exceptions are even less able to defend ourselves against The Bomb than against witchcraft. No silver bullet, no crossed sticks will help us there. As though to demonstrate this, Einstein himself, when asked about the unknown radioactive poisons which were beginning to alarm even editorial writers, replied “emphatically” : “I will not discuss that.” Such emphasis is not reassuring.

NOR was President Truman reassuring when he pointed out:

“This development, which was carried forward by the many thousand participants with the utmost energy and the very highest sense of national duty… probably represents the greatest achievement of the combined efforts of science, industry, labor and the military in all history.”

Nor Professor Smyth:

“The weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius but by the arduous labor of thousands of normal men and women working for the safety of their country”.

Again, the effort to “humanize” The Bomb by showing how it fits into our normal, everyday life also cuts the other way: it reveals how inhuman our normal life has become.

The pulp writers could imagine things like the atom bomb; in fact, life is becoming more and more like a Science Fiction story, and the arrival on earth of a few six­legged Martians with Death Rays would hardly make the front page. But the pulp writers’ imaginations were limited; their atom-bombs were created by “devilish” and “warped” geniuses, not by “ thousands of normal men and women” — including some of the most eminent scientists of our time, the labor movement (the Army “warmly” thanked the AFL and the CIO for achieving “what at times seemed impossible provision of adequate manpower”), various great corporations (DuPont, Eastman, Union Carbon & Carbide), and the president of Harvard University.

Only a handful, of course, knew what they were creating. None of the 125,000 construction and factory workers knew. Only three of the plane crew that dropped the first bomb knew what they were letting loose. It hardly needs to be stressed that there is something askew with a society in which vast numbers of citizens can be organized to create a horror like The Bomb without even knowing they are doing it. What real content, in such a case, can be assigned to notions like “democracy” and “government of, by and for the people”? The good Professor Smyth expresses the opinion that “the people of this country” should decide for themselves about the future development of The Bomb. To be sure, no vote was taken on the creation and employment of the weapon. However, says the Professor reassuringly, these questions “have been seriously considered by all concerned [i.e., by the handful of citizens who were permitted to know what was going on] and vigorously debated among the scientists, and the conclusions reached have been passed along to the highest authorities.

“These questions are not technical questions; they are political and social questions, and the answers given to them may affect all mankind for generations. In thinking about them, the men on the project have been thinking as citizens of the United States vitally interested in the welfare of the human race. It has been their duty and that of the responsible high Government officials who were informed to look beyond the limits of the present war and its weapons to the ultimate implications of these discoveries. This was a heavy responsibility. In a free country like ours, such questions should be debated by the people and decisions must be made by the people through their representatives.”

It would be unkind to subject the above to critical analysis beyond noting that every statement of what-is contradicts every statement of what-should-be.

ATOMIC FISSION makes me sympathize, for the first time, with the old Greek notion of Hubris, that lack of restraint in success which invited the punishment of the gods. Some scientist remarked the other day that it was fortunate that the only atom we as yet know how to split is that of uranium, a rare substance; for if we should learn how to split the atom of iron or some other common ore, the chain reaction might flash through vast areas and the molten interior of the globe come flooding out to put an end to us and our Progress. It is Hubris when President Truman declares: “The force from which the sun draws its powers has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.” Or when the Times editorialist echoes:

“The American answer to Japan’s contemptuous rejection of the Allied surrender ultimatum of July 26 has now been delivered upon Japanese soil in the shape of a new weapon which unleashes against it the forces of the universe.”

Invoking the Forces of the Universe to back up the ultimatum of July 26 is rather like getting in God to tidy up the living room.

IT seems fitting that The Bomb was not developed by any of the totalitarian powers, where the political atmosphere might at first glance seem to be more suited to it, but by the two “ democracies,” the last major powers to continue to pay at least ideological respect to the humanitarian-democratic tradition. It also seems fitting that the heads of these governments, by the time The Bomb exploded, were not Roosevelt and Churchill, figures of a certain historical and personal stature, but Attlee and Truman, both colorless mediocrities, Average Men elevated to their positions by the mechanics of the system. All this emphasizes that perfect automatism, that absolute lack of human consciousness or aims which our society is rapidly achieving. As an uranium “ pile,” once the elements have been brought together, inexorably runs through a series of “ chain reactions” until the final explosion takes place, so the elements of our society act and react, regardless of ideologies or personalities, until The Bomb explodes over Hiroshima. The more commonplace the personalities and senseless the institutions, the more grandiose the destruction. It is Götterdämmerung without the gods.

The scientists themselves whose brain-work produced The Bomb appear not as creators but as raw material, to be hauled about and exploited like uranium ore. Thus, Dr. Otto Hahn, the German scientist who in 1939 first split the uranium atom and who did his best to present Hitler with an atom bomb, has been brought over to this country to pool his knowledge with our own atomic “team” (which includes several Jewish refugees who were kicked out of Germany by Hitler). Thus Professor Kaputza, Russia’s leading experimenter with uranium, was decoyed from Cambridge University in the thirties back to his native land, and, once there, refused permission to return. Thus a recent report from Yugoslavia tells of some eminent native atom-splitter being highjacked by the Red Army (just like a valuable machine tool) and rushed by plane to Moscow.

INSOFAR as there is any moral responsibility assignable for The Bomb, it rests with those scientists who developed it and those political and military leaders who employed it. Since the rest of us Americans did not even know what was being done in our name— let alone have the slightest possibility of stopping it — The Bomb becomes the most dramatic illustration to date of that fallacy of collective responsibility which I analyzed in “The Responsibility of Peoples”. Yet how can even those immediately concerned be held responsible? A general’s function is to win wars, a president’s or prime minister’s to defend the interests of the ruling class he represents, a scientist’s to extend the frontiers of knowledge; how can any of them, then, draw the line at the atom bomb, or indeed anywhere, regardless of their “personal feelings”? The dilemma is absolute, when posed in these terms. The social order is an impersonal mechanism, the war is an impersonal process, and they grind along automatically; if some of the human parts rebel at their function, they will be replaced by more amenable ones; and their rebellion will mean that they are simply thrust aside, without changing anything. The Marxists say this must be so until there is a revolutionary change; but such a change never seemed farther away. What, then, can a man do now? How can he escape playing his part in the ghastly process?

Quite simply by not playing it. Many eminent scientists, for example, worked on The Bomb: Fermi of Italy, Bohr of Denmark, Chadwick of England, Oppenheimer, Urey and Compton of USA. It is fair to expect such men, of great knowledge and intelligence, to be aware of the consequences of their actions. And they seem to have been so. Dr. Smyth observes:

“Initially, many scientists could and did hope that some principle would emerge which would prove that atomic bombs were inherently impossible. The hope has faded gradually…”

Yet they all accepted the “assignment”, and produced The Bomb. Why? Because they thought of themselves as specialists, technicians, and not as complete men. Specialists in the sense that the process of scientific discovery is considered to be morally neutral, so that the scientist may deplore the uses to which his discoveries are put by the generals and politicians but may not refuse to make them for that reason; and specialists also in that they reacted to the war as partisans of one side, whose function was the narrow one of defeating the Axis governments even if it meant sacrificing their broader responsibilities as human beings.

But, fortunately for the honor of science, a number of scientists refused to take part in the project. I have heard of several individual cases over here, and Sir James Chadwick has revealed “that some of his colleagues refused to work on the atomic bomb for fear they might be creating a planet-destroying monster.” These scientists reacted as whole men, not as specialists or partisans. Today the tendency is to think of peoples as responsible and individuals as irresponsible. The reversal of both these conceptions is the first condition of escaping the present decline to barbarism. The more each individual thinks and behaves as a whole Man (hence responsibly) rather than as a specialized part of some nation or profession (hence irresponsibly), the better hope for the future. To insist on acting as a responsible individual in a society which reduces the individual to importance may be foolish, reckless, and ineffectual; or it may be wise, prudent and effective. But whichever it is, only thus is there a chance of changing our present tragic destiny. All honor then to the as yet anonymous British and American scientists — Men I would rather say — who were so wisely foolish as to refuse their cooperation on The Bomb! This is “resistance,” this is “negativism,” and in it lies our best hope.

Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982).

Politics, september 1945.


Science: The Detective Story

A book could be written on the role of science in Popular Culture. Note that one of the earliest forms was the detective story, which can be traced back to the memoirs of Vidocq, the master-detective of the Napoleonic era. Poe, who was more fascinated by science and scientific method than perhaps any other serious writer has ever been, wrote the first, and still the greatest, masterpieces in the genre. The detective story could only appeal to — only be comprehensible to, in fact — an audience conditioned to think in scientific terms: to survey the data, erect a hypothesis, test it by seeing whether it “works” — i.e., points to the true murderer. The very idea of an art genre cast in the form of a problem to be solved by analysis of the data could only have occurred in a scientific age. It has not been observed how much “serious” literature of our times is based on this idea: the novels of Conrad and Henry James, for example, are essentially studies in ambiguity; there is always a mystery to be solved, a riddle to be read, and the novel consists of successive hypotheses which get closer and closer to the central reality (without ever quite reaching it.) The data are psychological instead of materialistic as in the detective story, but the pattern and much of the effect is the same.

Science: Arcanum Arcanorum

The above is the more sophisticated, intellectualized use of science — a direct transfer of its methods to Popular Culture. This is the attitude of the middle classes, who think of science as theirs (as, in a sense, it is). The masses are less confident, more humble and awed, in their attitude. Their kitsch conceives of science as the modern Arcanum arcanorum, at once the supreme mystery and the philosopher’s stone which explains the mystery. The latter concept is shown in comic strips like “Superman”, and in the charlatan-science exploited by “health fakers” and “nature fakers” like Bernarr Macfadden. In this sense, science gives man mastery over his environment (as also in the detective story—Sherlock Holmes is the hero as mage, with scientific deduction substituted for the wizard’s wand) and is beneficent. But science itself is not understood, therefore not mastered, therefore terrifying because of its very power. In this sense, as supreme mystery, science is the stockin-trade of the “horror” pulp-magazines and movies.

It has got to the point, indeed, that if one sees a laboratory in a Hollywood film, one shudders, and the white coat of the scientist is as blood-chilling a sight as Dracula’s black cape. (A typical horror-film idea: in The Man-Made Monster, the hero gets filled with electricity in the electric chair, is brought back to life and encased in a rubber suit, in which he is fatal to the touch, and finally “bleeds” to death when his suit tears on a barbed-wire fence and the electricity leaks out.) These “horror films” have apparently an indestructible popularity: Frankenstein was still popular in 1942 after eleven years, as against the normal life-span of two years (article in Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1942). The other day I saw a local theatre’s poster: “THURSDAY AND FRIDAY — ALL HORROR SHOW!”

If the scientist’s laboratory has acquired in Popular Culture a ghastly atmosphere, is this not perhaps one of those deep intuitions of the masses? From Frankenstein’s laboratory to Maidanek is not a long journey. Was there a popular suspicion, perhaps only half conscious, that the 19th century trust in science was mistaken and that science can be used for anti-human as easily as for human ends, perhaps indeed more easily? How otherwise explain the continued popularity, after more than a century, of the Frankenstein idea?

Politics, april 1945.


[1] Time, august 20, 1945. Time’s special “Atomic Age” section is the best general survey I have seen. The most authoritative published scientific account of The Bomb is the 30,000 word report to the War Department by professor H. D. Smyth of Princeton (summarized by Waldemar Kaempffert in New York Times of August 16).

[2] Some one who should know tells me, as this goes to press, that early in September the War Department rushed Dr. Shields Warren, of the Harvard Medical School, a leading authority on radium poisoning, to Japan to study the effects of The Bomb. The Department is evidently less certain of the precise effects of The Bomb than its propaganda would indicate.


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