"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. John Hersey, from Hiroshima, pp8
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 it. 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, mostly civilians. Three days later in Nagasaki it killed roughly 40,000 people.
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 atomic age 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. Scientists now had a clear picture of what the atomic world was like. They knew the structure and particle makeup of atoms, as well as how they behaved. They 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.
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 to the construction of extremely powerful bombs of a new type". (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 nation's capital, and that was as big as somebody's 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 as if people's lives, the life of everything on this planet, was resting in the hands of a couple of men in Northern Virginia and some guys 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 "survivors" 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 3) and save their families.
The book takes on a tone of sympathy and of miraculous survival --that 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 them counts many small items of chance or volition--a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next--that 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 people's 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, Hersey's 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 "deserved what we had given them", 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 the dropping 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 Hersey's 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 4) were 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 "At any time we could all be shadows in the blast wave, so what's the point?". This viewpoint manifested itself in literature in something called the "apocalyptic temper"; 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 there 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 "Cat's 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 family--the genius who helped build the bomb--and their adventures.
In the book, Vonnegut paints an imaginary world where things might not seem to make any (Gioielli 5) sense. 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 cat's 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: "And then he sang, 'Rockabye catsy, in the tree top'; he sang, 'when the wind blows, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come cray-dull, catsy and all.' "I burst into tears. I jumped up and ran out of the house as fast as I could."(18) What Newt doesn't remember is what he said to his Father. Later in the book we find this out from Newt's sister, Angela, that newt jumped off his father's lap screaming, "No cat! No cradle! No cat! No cradle!"(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 cat's cradle is the world and all of humankind combined. Dr. Hoenikker is simply playing, as if he has all his life and that game just happens to involve the fate of the rest of the world. Little Newt, having a child's un-blinded perception, doesn't understand the game. He doesn't 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 Doctor's 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 wouldn't 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 6) Hoenikker'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 the 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 the piece of ice-nine just falling out of the thermos. And Dr. Hoenikker, like the scientists of the world, was playing a 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 gravely 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 book's 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: "Live by the foma* that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *Harmless untruths (4)"
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 7) our lawnmowers, we think we are invincible. Everything will be okay because we are protected by our government. This is the foma of real life, because we are trying to deny what is really going on. We're 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 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 lies So that they all fit nice And made this sad world A 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 religion Is a form of treason" (118)
These calypsos, and the rest of the book, express the points that Vonnegut want to emphasize in a more abstract and symbolic manner. They only add to the impact of the book's message expressing it in a very short, satirical way.
The black humor used when talking about the end of the world--the nuclear end--was 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 on 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 8) Communists. 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 of misadventures to try and turn the planes around. But the one, plane piloted by Major "King" 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 hit its target, the "Doomsday Device". The Doomsday device is the ultimate deterrent, because if one tries to disarm it it will go off. It has the capability to destroy every living human and animal on Earth. As it ultimately does, the futility of it all can be seen. We have these weapons, and no matter how hard we try to control them everyone still dies.
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 our 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 Ripper's personal prevention of the contamination of his bodily fluids is equally perplexing. He drinks only . . . distilled water, or rain water, and only grain alcohol . . ."
Kubrick uses this kind of absurd reasoning in his movie to show the absurd reasoning behind nuclear weapons. Both he 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 9) sixties prompted people to take a closer look at themselves, 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 1950's 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 of nuclear waste from reaching its destination and for numerous other protests against the facility (Miles 474). From these experiences came two poems "Nagasaki Days" and "Plutonium Ode".
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 "Nagasaki Days" shows how Ginsberg is putting nuclear weapons into the context of the universal:
2,000,000 killed in Vietnam 13,000,000 refugees in Indochina 200,000,000 years for the Galaxy to revolve on its core 80,000 dolphins killed in the dragnet
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 "Plutonium Ode". 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 years slowly 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 "Plutonium Ode", 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 Alps the 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 start to live in real fear of nuclear weapons. The power of it, a creation by man that could destroy the world, 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 11) fear. 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 country's culture and feelings,and literature affected American's curiosity, horror, anxiety, cynicism and hope concerning nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons raised questions that no one had dared to ever ask 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. "Sir" (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. "Nagasaki Days" and "Plutonium Ode." 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. Slaughterhouse-Five.