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.
Unlike nearly everyone else outside the Manhattan Project, my first awareness of the challenges of the nuclear era had occurred – and my attitudes toward the advent of nuclear weaponry had formed – some nine months earlier than those headlines, 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.
Several popular articles about the possibility of atomic bombs and specifically U-235 bombs appeared during the war in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. None of these represented leaks from the Manhattan Project, whose very existence was top-secret. In every case they had been inspired by earlier articles on the subject that had been published freely in 1939 and 1940, before scientific self-censorship and then formal classification had set in. Patterson had come across one of these wartime articles. He 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. 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 bombs a thousand times more powerful, 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, on a street corner in Detroit. I can still see and feel the scene and recall my thoughts, described above, as I read the headline on Aug. 6.
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, it seems clear to me my reactions then were right.
Moreover, reflecting on two related themes that have run through my life since then – intense abhorrence of nuclear weapons, and more generally of killing women and children – I’ve come to suspect that I’ve conflated in my emotional memory two events less than a year apart: Hiroshima and a catastrophe that visited my own family 11 months later.
On the Fourth of July, 1946, driving on a hot afternoon on a flat, straight road through the cornfields of Iowa – on the way from Detroit to visit our relatives in Denver – my father fell asleep at the wheel and went off the road long enough to hit a sidewall over a culvert that sheared off the right side of the car, killing my mother and sister.
My father’s nose was broken and his forehead was cut. When a highway patrol car came by, he was wandering by the wreckage, bleeding and dazed. I was inside, in a coma from a concussion, with a large gash on the left side of my forehead. I had been sitting on the floor next to the back seat, on a suitcase covered with a blanket, with my head just behind the driver’s seat. When the car hit the wall, my head was thrown against a metal fixture on the back of the driver’s seat, knocking me out and opening up a large triangular flap of flesh on my forehead. I was in coma for 36 hours. My legs had been stretched out in front of me across the car and my right leg was broken just above the knee.
Daniel Ellsberg is a former American military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation who precipitated a national uproar in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, the US military’s account of activities during the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. The release awakened the American people to how much they had been deceived by their own government about the war. Ellsberg has continued as a political activist, giving lecture tours and speaking out about current events. Visit his Website.