On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.
Most Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.
An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from Nature.com:
On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.
The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.
Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.