The Dawn of the Atomic Age

  • David Seed

Abstract

In the issue of Life magazine devoted to the Hiroshima bombing a feature opened: ‘Aug. 5, 1945 is the day men formally began a new epoch in their history’.1 The historical positioning of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains a matter of controversy over whether they marked the end of one period or the beginning of another. Were they the unavoidable necessary final step to destroy the Japanese war machine or an object lesson to the Soviet Union in a superpower confrontation which was already taking shape? Whichever view commentators took there was common agreement that the explosion of the atomic bomb marked a radical turning-point in warfare, and Paul Boyer has shown in his classic study of the bomb’s impact on the American imagination By the Bomb’s Early Light (1985) that, even though there might have been popular acceptance of the bombing, the event was very quickly transposed on to the American scene in a whole series of accounts of atomic attack.’ In what follows I shall be examining the procedures followed by the two most widely read early commentators on the atomic bomb, William L. Laurence and John Hersey, to see how they articulate their respective convictions that it constituted a turning-point in the natural and political order so radical as to be apocalyptic. Although both writers were journalists they approached the event from the opposite perspectives of producer and victim, and not surprisingly drew on equally opposing conventions of representation.

Keywords

Magnesium Dust Foam Titan Smoke 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light (2nd edition Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 5. One of the first such accounts was The Murder of the U.S.A. by Murray Leinster writing as Will F. Jenkins, which describes the destruction of one-third of the nation in only forty minutes.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ken Cooper, ‘The Whiteness of the Bomb’, in Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 105.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    William L. Laurence, ‘My Life in Atomland’, Men and Atoms (London: Scientific Book Club, 1961), p. 98.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    David McCullough, Truman (London and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), pp. 443, 455, 456. In public Truman was more upbeat announcing that the bomb was a ‘harnessing of the basic power of the universe’ and declaring America’s custodial responsibilities: ‘we mustGoogle Scholar
  5. 8.
    General Farrell, one of the witnesses to the Alamagordo test declared frankly: ‘words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental, and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.’ Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 184.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Ruin from the Air: The Atomic Mission to Hiroshima (London: Sphere, 1978), p. 431.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    John A. Siemes, ‘Hiroshima: Eye-Witness’, Saturday Review (11 May 1946), p. 24.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (London: Longmans, Green 1931), pp. 5, 8. The last passage half-quotes Gloucester’s famous lines from King Lear, ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport’ (IV.i).Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    John Hersey, Into the Valley (New York: Knopf, 1943), p. 4; Boyer, p. 204.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    David Sanders, John Hersey (New York: Twayne, 1967), p. 46.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    John Hersey, Hiroshima (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 23.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (Durham, N C: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 55–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 30.
    William J. Scheick, ‘The Binuclear Voice of Hersey’s Hiroshima,’ Nuclear Texts and Contexts, 11 (Spring 1995), p. 5.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Seed

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