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By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age Review


The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one of the most crucial moments of the 20th century: in twin flashes of blinding light and towering mushroom clouds they put an end to the long 30 years of war which had been ignited by the fateful assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and they ushered in the long, relative, peace which the world has known since. These fateful instruments of war and death were not just titanic in their effects on the poor souls they were dropped on, but sent reverberations throughout popular culture, thought, hopes, dreams, and fear across the world - a subject which is superbly captured in Paul Boyer's book By the Dawn's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. This tour de force manages to provide a comprehensive and holistic look at the American vision of the atomic age, showing the fear, panic, hope, and dreams which seized the American public as they grappled to come to terms with this dramatic alteration to their existence.

In the introduction,

The first part of the book deals with immediate reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Boyer establishes, there was a fair degree of bravado with the initial American reception of the news - but this was quickly tempered by a rash of articles and stories which revealed a deep unease with the sheer destructiveness of the bomb. As with later discussions, these tended to be mixed with an effort to write a positive spin on the bomb, about the triumph of science, but as predictions of nuclear war already took hold, the story was a dark one. In any case, the bomb quickly penetrated American popular culture with commercial marketing based on it, children's games, hosts of articles, and of course, the climate of fear.

Part 2 takes a closer look at what sort of responses there were to try to deal with the deadly new peril of the bomb: one of the most prominent early proposals was for a world government, based on the idea that war had grown too deadly to allow its threat to be unleashed by independent nations. There was a real popular engagement with discussion of the issue of nuclear war, and a wide range of scientists, including some who worked on the Manhattan project itself, and public figures lined up in support of world government propositions. That none of these proposals would amount to anything, that that they lacked support when it came to practical introduction, and that many of its proponents ultimately abandoned it does not subtract from the real moment in time which they responded to and the fears they concerned.

Physicists such as Leo Szilard were instrumental in using the prestige of the atomic scientist to press for objectives like international control of nuclear weapons.

Physicists such as Leo Szilard were instrumental in using the prestige of the atomic scientist to press for objectives like international control of nuclear weapons.

The aforementioned scientists themselves take center stage in part 3, with the elevation of the scientist into a public figure. Scientists involved in the atomic bomb project sought to leverage their authority to oppose nuclear war, military control, and support efforts for peace. Their efforts for international control of nuclear weapons however, would founder. It was partially in response to this, and a belief of insufficient public awareness of the issues, that scientists carried out a campaign of popularization and awareness, using the prestige of atomic scientists to carry out a public relations campaign with public speakers, pamphlets such as One World or None, journals, and lectures. These emphasized the devastation that a nuclear war would bring, helping to form the idea of nuclear Armageddon and introducing themes of the long-term damage caused by radiation (helped by the Bikini nuclear tests, which although disappointing visually, brought awareness of the deadly consequence of radiation). It was hoped that this fear would drive support for public action on the nuclear question, but this was also the topic of controversy in the movement - as it was thought that this climate of fear might paralyze society and prevent a rational and effective response to the situation. Furthermore, it was quickly clear that the scientist's movement was in decline, with pushback on their theme of the necessity of a world government, an attack on their socially active role, and above all else the clear failure of efforts pressing for international control or world government. These scientists had represented a unique, but quickly passing moment in the post-war world, before the beginning in earnest of the Cold War and fervent anticommunism made their positions untenable and started a full scale nuclear arms race.

Fantasies of an atomic utopia balanced ou the dark side of the bomb.

Fantasies of an atomic utopia balanced ou the dark side of the bomb.

Part 4 shows that there was another side of the nuclear story - the confidence in it bringing a miraculous technological utopia replete with infinity electricity, material abundance, weather control, and most strikingly, flying cars. For years, American popular culture had been fascinated by the development of atomic science in science fiction, and the real Hiroshima bomb let these fantasies loose. Scientists had to counter-attack in responding that these ideas almost uniformly lacked in merit and were scientifically impossible. But this did not put an end to the obsession with atomic power among the public, particularly the highly educated, who latched onto the one reasonable - if exaggerated - immediate benefit of atomic power, isotopes. These hopes were often purposefully linked to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a sometimes outright admitted effort to attempt to accentuate the positives of the nuclear age, creating an either/or dichotomy of nuclear power either saving or annihilating humanity, instead of the more complex but realistic formula of it bringing complex ranges of issues: the peaceful atom was a cover for the bomb and its violence.

Part 5 discusses the delicate issues of social implications of the atomic bomb. Universal was the belief that the bomb represented a fundamental change in human existence. The debate over its consequences was more profound: did the atomic bomb represent a triumph of free peoples, with its scientists drawn from many countries and backgrounds, a selfless and noble project, which would continue on in peace time? Or by contrast, was the atomic age the harbinger of doom? Even peaceful applications for nuclear energy might lead to a dangerous utopia which would radically disbalance human life, and the growing technological specialization of society might lead to a further diminishing of the individual, dominated by large corporations. The atomic bomb meanwhile, promised death and destruction, as well as a huge increase of government power in preparation for war, with the growth of an unprecedented military industrial complex which would strangle democracy. Scientists were eager to declare their particular importance in expert opinion in the new era, stressing the need for educated and more broad minded citizens who could better grapple with the issues of the atomic age. Public intellectuals argued for control over new atomic energy, in an extension of the New Deal. Social scientists were the most eager to enter the arena however, pontificating that the massive advances in technical science required a similar advance in social science, which would transform education, psychology, and leadership. This was leveraged particularly in the battle for additional federal funding. Religious thinkers and some intellectuals however, announced their doubt to any particular hope for social scientists to be able to confront the issues facing the world, but social scientists strove ahead with ideas such as a complete decentralization of American cities.

Religion and morals takes shining place in part 6. Initial public lack of remorse and enthusiasm, which only started gradually change with the realization of radiation's effects, did not entirely do away with the beginning of debate over whether the bomb was justified, with many of the crucial arguments about encouraging Japanese surrender, saving lives, and a deterrence to Russia starting in 1945 - even if they only became a public debate decades later. Early dissenters to the usage of the atomic bomb were a distinct minority, but did exist and expressed horror about the death and destruction. This included a substantial part of black America's press, who both expressed dismay at the unequal treatment of black workers during the Manhattan Project, and suspected that the bomb had been used against non-white Japanese rather than Europeans, and liberal Protestants and Catholics, condemning the bomb's usage on civilians; particularly Catholics as this undermined the Just War doctrine, continuing a war-time opposition to terror bombing. Journalistic articles like John Hershey's Hiroshima humanized the victims of the bomb in a range of biographical stories. But nowhere was this enough to put paid to the atom bomb: neither Protestantism or Catholicism would ultimately firmly condemn the atomic bomb, even if they stood against its use as a terror weapon. Writers like Dwight MacDonald found the bomb to be a blow against the entire idea of science and progress, and him and others saw it as the final stage of bureaucratic, rational, scientific horror with horrifying consequences for humanity. A new relationship to ethics and morality was needed. Churchmen meanwhile, took advantage of the atom bomb to integrate the threat of atomic warfare into their cries, in a long tradition of scientific backing for the coming apocalypse.

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A great deal of literature was published about the bomb. Most of this was dismally depressing in the predictions of the social consequences of the bomb, showing ideas of social disintegration and doom, and science fiction books portrayed the struggle against its usage as a heroic battle. But even more important were the results: either humanity would reforge itself after the fall of technology, or it was doomed to extinction. Combined with the prestige of science was also a greater fear and suspicion of its power, and the atomic bomb had shaken the faith in science as producing only good and progress, for it too had brought destruction and the apocalypses. A cultural shift of increasing suspicion of science was afoot in post-war America. It was however, tremendously difficult to examine the psychological developments caused by Hiroshima and Nagasaki: if they are to be narrowed down, they focus above all else on fear, a new type of mass death by surprise, and to the realization that life was a very fragile thing indeed, that could be wiped out at any moment, shattering previous certainties about the ultimate survival of the species. These fears would, suggested psychologists, lead to global psychosis and neurosis, and a police state needed to control society, one which might collapse into either hedonism or apathy: life under the threat of the bomb would be worse than death.

To respond to these fears, the ideal of the peaceful atom was deployed. The years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw the blunting of the worse fears of social breakdown in the shadow of the bomb prove unfounded, but also a decline of the utopian predictions of the atomic world. These were revived in the late 1940s, purposefully, in an effort to promote a more positive public image of the bomb through stressing both its peaceful usage and even more importantly, speaking positively about it and trying to make it less frightening to the public. Government security hid it behind a shroud of patriotic secrecy, while the public was assured that it was not really so destructive after all. Civil defense meanwhile, promised to further ensure the safety of the United States, replacing previous focus on international control for ensuring the protection of America with the United State's own means. The more ambitious of these proposals, with moving entire cities underground and dispersing them, would never come to pass, but there were more realistic proposals for planning cities to better withstand the impact of the bomb, and experts from fields across the spectrum promised the American people that surviving atomic war was possible. Rising fears of the Cold War would not lead to control and limitation of the bomb, but rather to an energetic embrace of its massive deployment to counter the Soviet Union. The post-war moment had ended: the scientists' movement was over, international control dead, social scientists would divert their attention to planning atomic war, instead of how to deal with avoiding it, and Christian and Jewish religious authorities would become more muted in their opposition to the bomb. The bomb had triumphed, and would stay, with fear being its eternal companion.

The epilogue traces the continued development of anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States, and the continuing cultural resonance of nuclear war, peaking in the years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and rapidly fading thereafter, to almost nothing, driven by the illusion of security, distance, the peaceful use of the atom, the growing complexity of nuclear strategy, and of course, the Vietnam War. But under Reagan, in a magnificent case of history repeating itself, many of the same questions, debates, and issues of the immediate post-Hiroshima years reemerged, in a questioning of nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and atomic power. History had repeated itself: the question that the author raises, is whether there will in the end be any success in harnessing its power to put an end to the threat of nuclear war, or will it continue to rear its head time and time again.

It is a very difficult thing indeed to manage to assemble a whole host of cultural elements from an era and to be able to fashion a convincing message out of it. There are so many sources which Boyer had to consult: scientific meetings, novels, magazines, radio broadcasts - that it is extremely impressive that he managed to bring together so many diverse sources. This is written with a real attention to people and individuals, and the writers, commentators, thinkers, and policy makers who explored the response to the atomic bomb stand out for their human characteristics, giving the book a sense of humanism and individuality, instead of just a cold recounting of general cultural trends. A wonderful array of images, photos, and pictures accompany it all.

Boyer's style should be given tremendous credit with this. In recounting literary pieces, such as Hiroshima by John Hershey, he has a great deal of empathy, of humanity, a prose which is deliberate, slow, solemn, which enables the reader to absorb the full feeling of sadness, misery, pain, occasioned by the usage of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb, like so many other weapons, has occasioned the belief that this time there will be dramatic changes in the human psychology - and of course, changes are much less dramatic than that. So it is fascinating to have pieces, such as Lewis Mumford's 1947 essay in the journal Air Affairs which show the psychological terror which scientists and thinkers expected the bomb to wreak on society - and the real feeling of foreboding and horror which is given to their descriptions. That they came out to not pass, that the atomic bomb quickly enough entered the background of life, as just another danger to be lived with, doesn't take away from its emotive power in those early years.

That from these it manages to craft a comprehensible and well-structured argument for the zeitgeist of the times makes it all the more fascinating. The bomb was a revolution in American relationship to science - but the revolution is shown as being very specifically engineered by the government, as best as it could, and driven massively by a sense of guilt. Americans constantly tried to assure themselves that the atomic genie which they had unleashed contained good as well as evil, and that so as it could destroy cities, so it could also be used for peace, to make endlessly cheap electricity, to solve the problems of aging, and seemingly most tantalizing, to produce flying cars! That none of these came to pass, and that only the relatively unglamorous form of isotope research truly proved practical (at least before nuclear energy came of age decades later - and while useful, it has never succeeded in creating electricity too cheap to meter), didn't matter, because the focus on the peaceful side of the atomic age was not driven by rational appreciation of the atom, but a desperate attempt to convince the American public of its positive sides too, a panicked response to the realization of the horrors unleashed. The dichotomy of atoms for war and atoms for peace was never a real one - atoms were always above all else for war. Boyer both manages to present an incredibly impressive tableau of how American culture interacted on a specific level with the coming of the atomic age, but he then succeeds in showing the broader relevance of it to American society.

In this, it seems unfortunate that it did not discuss the previous European experience with such miracles of science - the First World War particularly, and how it resulted in the discrediting of the 19th century ideal of universal progress, and the reification of science and technology. In its own way, Hiroshima seems like the pigeons coming home to roost of the Europeans having unleashed the genie of destruction of modern way, of its brutal dehumanization and the nihilistic despair which it engendered as humanity had to face the coming of the technological axeman - but which the Americans, by distance, had been spared the full brunt of for decades, unlike the lost generations of Europe. In the searing bright explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America had to confront fully the terrible horror of modern technology's application to warfare, had to accept that they too, however confident and proud they were of their technology, faced the terrifying prospect of execution at the hands of the creatures they had let loose. That there is not a greater exploration between European fears of an aerial holocaust in the 1930s, and American fears of nuclear Armageddon in the 1940s, is a missed opportunity, in particular since many of the ideas of world government (or at least a European Union) first gained significant traction in the 1920s just in response to such a fear.

A truly masterful book, which manages to provide a deeply human, personal, and incredibly deep and broad look into the influence of the atomic bomb on American society, thought, and culture in the years after Hiroshima, and a brilliant tool to better understand both the impact of the bomb, and to understand our relationship to the bomb itself, one which will never go away so long as the nuclear sword of Damocles continues to exist.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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