[Editorial] End Of Innocence: How Hiroshima and Nagasaki Changed The World
By on August 9th, 2011

It was mankind’s greatest crime against itself and the demonstration of one of his greatest achievements. It wasn’t just the number of people killed or maimed, it wasn’t even the number of building flattened or vaporized, it was about the effect and the awe of an object never seen before. Two blobs of metal, weighing about four tonnes each and concealing inside them the results of five years of intensive research by the best minds of the world, would change history forever. Two days mark this permanent turn of history 6th August and 9th August.

There are only a few events in history, which can serve as dividers in time; any other event can be described as before or after such an event. The innocuously named atom bombs, Little Boy’ (Hiroshima) and Fat Man’ (Nagasaki), would create in its wake a world, where either mass murder could become the norm or a sudden realization may jolt Man out of its madness. It was the end of innocence.

Living under a strange shadow

The Most Unkindest Cut of All

Probably, the greatest threat from the bomb was not that it killed so many, but that the very act of deploying such a bomb involves so little emotional pain. Photos showing Hiroshima before and after the explosion tell a story, but it is up to the viewer to interpret it. Often, the interpretation of the devastation on a large scale is that of awe, not of sympathy. We’re awed by the tremendous power of the bomb, shocked by the emptiness of space in which a city once existed and, sadly, also get an ego boost from all this. Somewhere, the tiny voice of sympathy and pity for unspeakable human atrocities is drowned.

Did the utter destruction of Hiroshima (right) rob the sense of tragedy? (Left: A burn victim)

The estimates of the number of dead vary – more than 100,000 dead at Hiroshima and nearly 70,000 dead at Nagasaki are official numbers- but those are mere numbers. Five years of research went into this. The irony of the Manhattan Project, the super secret governmental project to design the atom bomb, was manifold. A congregation of the best minds in science were not involved in solving a cosmic riddle, but to tinker around with the ugly equations of engineering and design a weapon to replicate the Sun on Earth. They were driven by a fear, more than patriotism that Hitler might produce the super-bomb’ before them and he would have no qualms about using such a murder device. It was, in fact, the grizzly-haired, peace-loving Einstein, who signed the historic letter to Roosevelt, urging him to put the bomb research at the forefront.

The city of Nagasaki, before the bomb and after it. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The Manhattan Project

Within one year, under the supervision of General Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer brought together a galaxy of stars from the world of physics that included veterans like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Arthur Compton alongwith not-yet-a-PhD-but-blindingly-brilliant Richard Feynman. Housed in the secluded and, often, freezing mountains of Los Alamos, shielded from the rest of the world by intense security and allowed an indefinite amount of grants, these men dealt with radioactive substances like Uranium. Their aim: purify the Uranium ore enough so as to gain a large percentage of the fissile U-235 isotope, rather than the benign U-238 material. How ever protected they might have been from the external world, they  weren’t  shielded from the isotope that they regularly handled. Like a Mummy’s Curse, this would be the cause of death for most people working at the facility. They would die of radiation-induced cancer, but this was all for the country and against all-conquering Germany, with true intentions of altruistic world peace.

Carpet bombing of major cities of Germany, like Dresden, Hamburg and Wesel, following the Normandy invasion on German’s west front and simultaneous advances by Soviet troops on the East flanks, meant that the Fuhrer had no choice, but to surrender in March, 1945. Hitler is believed to have committed suicide, leaving a broken world behind. The atom’s energy hadn’t been harnessed yet.

Hiding behind the thick glass windshield of a pickup truck, so that most of the oncoming ultraviolet radiation can be absorbed, Feynman, now a PhD, watched as the ground exploded and the air burst into flames, stunning people into silence. The day was July 16, 1945, the location was the Trinity Site’ at New Mexico and the event was the first demonstration of the atom bomb. Behind the rampantly drunk evening crowd of scientists, celebrating the culmination of their five-year scientific endeavour, must have hidden concerned souls. Immediately after the war, Feynman would pessimistically wonder why man made any fruitful constructions like bridges or buildings anyway they could be obliterated in an instant by a bomb dropped 20 blocks away.

First, there was one Sun. Then there were two Suns. And then there was no Sun at all Anonymous.

True, the atom bomb did bring the war to an end. Japan surrendered on 15th August, but historians, especially Japanese, argue that the surprise aggressive moves by USSR on the western waters of Japan were as much responsible for the surrender as the bomb. If anything, the bomb made the Japanese patriots more eager than ever to fight for their motherland in her darkest hour. A Hundred Million’ could die for their Emperor and country. Korechika Anami, a prominent war commander in the Japanese army, wanted a massive backlash mainly with the help of suicide attack squads, like the Kamikazes. But, Emperor Hirohito had seen enough the madness over the Pacific had to come to an end.

 The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon. – Erstwhile Secretary of State War, Henry Stimson

Bigger than can be measured in kilotons

No, the legacy or the political influence of the bomb  couldn’t  possibly end there; the atom, in all its fissile glory, was too powerful. Leaving aside the public fascination with a weapon of this kind, it had created two power blocs the American Capitalist West and the Russian Communist East. The meme of the atom bomb spread through the head of every world leader, multiplying the number of the bombs, which furthered the runaway process. The ultimate Arms Race had begun one that could destroy life on Earth twenty times over and then leave it uninhabitable for millennia. Earlier, only God could have annihilated man using floods or earthquakes, now man could too! As Oppenheimer said, at the Trinity Test, I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, translating from the Bhagvad Gita, a Hindu scripture. He should’ve been more impersonal.

The impact of the two days is not just commemorated by memorials. Probably, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki have recovered, as has the Japanese way of life. Perhaps, the present generation of Japanese has forgiven the Americans. However, the genetic code hasn’t forgotten and will not for another few hundred years, at least. The radiation induced mutations have passed on from one generation to another, manifesting itself in disfigured limbs or immature brains.

Was Einstein's equation really to blame? Is science really the culprit?

The bomb has done more than that. It has imprinted on our perception, the notion of the destructive Mushroom Cloud. Science, the blind process of cold verification of hard facts, laying no claims to be the guiding moral compass, had suddenly become immoral. It would forever be blamed by the public for producing the most awful instrument of war ever created and damned for promising something even worse. This was truly the End of the Age of Innocence.

Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.
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