Thursday, July 10, 2008

Trinity and the Morals of Extermination

Perhaps never before in history had a group of scientists so fervently prayed. J. Robert Oppenheimer, slumping against a wooden post, told himself: "I must remain conscious!" Afraid it might electrocute him, the normally unflappable Sam Allison dropped the microphone at the last second of the countdown: "Five . . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . . . . . . . zero!"

After what seemed an interminable silence, a strange light never before seen in the world ignited the horizon and a reddish-orange fireball infinitely brighter and 10,000 times hotter than the sun rose majestically over the desert, turning darkness into light for a hundred miles around. On that day - the day of the Trinity blast - even a blind woman reported seeing the dawn.

A New York Times reporter was reminded of the Lord's command, "Let there be light!" Physicist Isidor Rabi feared the fire in the sky would burn forever. His colleague Dick Feynman, momentarily blinded, turned away in pain. Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds!"

The boiling mushroom cloud swirled into the heavens, presaging catastrophe. Under a curtain of fallout, jubilant Manhattan Project scientists broke into a jig on the desert floor.

Thus did the nuclear genie escape the bottle in the desert of Alamagordo New Mexico sixty-three years ago. Of one thing there could be no doubt: Washington was issuing unconditional surrender to the morals of extermination. Even as the atomic bomb was nearing completion, the U.S. was razing whole cities to the ground with "conventional" bombs and burning hundreds of thousands of civilians alive with napalm sticks. In April 1945 one of FDR's advisers declared that he favored "the extermination of the Japanese in toto." It was not an isolated sentiment.

With Hitler dead, Germany defeated, and Japan in ruins, the U.S. Target Committee met to select a Japanese city for atomic doom. Seeking to heighten the international impact of the bombing, General Leslie Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project, favored Kyoto, on the grounds that the inhabitants of an intellectual center would be "more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon." Secretary of State Henry Stimson, having visited Kyoto and grown fond of it, vetoed Groves's preference. The committee ultimately opted for Hiroshima, amidst a lament that its mountains weren't close enough to the city to maximize the bomb's effects.

Everyone involved in the operation was well aware of the historic nature of the occasion, and strove to act appropriately with an eye toward posterity. Moments before the Enola Gay obliterated Hiroshima, Colonel Paul Tibbets told his crew, "watch your language." Since the bombing was being recorded, he didn't want a slip of the tongue to reflect badly on his crew. Profanity, not extermination, was the feared sin.

At 8:09 a.m. Hiroshima broke into the Enola Gay's view. Four minutes later, the bombardier took control of the plane, lined up the "T" of the Aioi Bridge in the cross hairs of his bombsight and announced, "I've got it."

At 8:15 a.m. the bomb-bay doors swung open, lightening the plane's load by five tons. The plane lurched skywards. Tibbets pulled on his goggles.

Nothing happened.

With the crew suspecting a dud, the cockpit was suddenly flooded with bright light, which was followed by two strong shock waves that jolted the plane upward. Sergeant George Caron dictated into his tape recorder: "A column of smoke is rising fast. It has a fiery red core . . . . Fires are springing up everywhere . . . there are too many to count . . . " In the copilot's seat Robert Lewis scribbled a more emotional reaction: "My God, what have we done?"

On the ground thousands of feet below him came the answer. Eyes turned skyward liquified in the blinding flash, streaming down upturned faces. Bodies turned to charcoal. Infrared rays melted skin like wax.

Windows exploded, buildings crumpled, people hurtled through the air like missiles, limbless and headless bodies piled up like logs and lay under piles of fallen debris. After the ear-shattering roar, an immense column of dirt blotted out the sun. At 8:16 a.m. Hiroshima suddenly turned as still and black as night.

On the Aioi Bridge eerie silhouettes of the vaporized were permanently burned into the concrete. Along the streets, blackened and bleeding survivors swarmed towards water, hands and arms aloft, patches of roasted skin flapping in the wind. Stunned, terrified, in agony, they moved - herdlike - toward estuaries of the Ota River, which quickly filled with bloated corpses. Helpless voices cried out for water, for their mothers, for the relief of death.

The few functioning medical facilities were overwhelmed as ten thousand wounded jammed the Red Cross Hospital contending for four hundred beds and a handful of dazed doctors. Burned beyond recognition, patients hoping to be reunited with their families finger-painted their names in blood on the lobby walls.

Back in Los Alamos Hiroshima represented sweet triumph. Robert Oppenheimer received word by phone from General Groves, who confirmed that the bomb had exploded "with a very big bang indeed." Relieved and proud, Oppenheimer had an announcement issued over the public address system that a "successful combat drop" of one of Los Alamos's "units" had taken place, and called a meeting in the theater to celebrate with his ecstatic fellow scientists.

It was a showman's dream moment, and Oppenheimer didn't let it go to waste. Arriving to the meeting late, he strode up the aisle amidst the bedlam of clapping, foot-stomping, and shouting coming from his fellow experts in emotional discipline. For once the scientists were irrepressible and the celebratory din did not subside until long after Oppenheimer clasped his hands over his head in the ritual victory stance and mounted the podium to speak.

In the evening a party was held in the men's dormitory. Off in a corner Oppenheimer showed a colleague a telex of the Hiroshima damage reports. The colleague shook his head. Oppenheimer, depressed, left the party early and spotted a scientist vomiting in the bushes outside. Meanwhile, back in Washington President Truman was apparently enjoying great peace of mind, calling the atomic bombing "the greatest thing in history."

Three days later a piercing flash accompanied by a thunderous blast announced the world's first plutonium bomb in the skies over Nagasaki (Hiroshima had been a uranium bomb). At ground zero, there were no screams or moans: within a radius of 1000 yards the unsheltered perished before they could react.

The swath of destruction roared through northern Nagasaki at 9000 miles an hour, making it rain debris. Houses and buildings were smashed, crushed, and burned. Stone was pulverized and tiles shot through the air like bullets. The sturdy beams of the Mitsubishi Steelworks twisted and turned like silly putty while the roofs of reinforced concrete buildings crumpled and collapsed. Trees were ripped from the ground, utility poles snapped like matchsticks, and a hurricane of shattered glass embedded countless shards in human flesh.

Yellow smoke hung over the carbonized remains of the city. Near the epicenter fires raged out of control. Stunned survivors cupped detached eyeballs back inside their skulls.

Six days later the Japanese signed the surrender. Shortly after that the U.S. War Department announced that the atomic bombings had not been militarily necessary:

"Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts . . . it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Cultural historian Lewis Mumford recapped fission's ugly debut by accusing the U.S. government of having reverted to Bronze Age barbarism and "reversed the whole course of human history." At Hiroshima and Nagasaki the U.S. had lifted the curtain on the atomic age with the annihilation of an estimated 200,000 non-combatants, "virgin" targets deliberately selected to isolate and measure the atomic bomb's unique effects. So ended what historians have taken to calling the "good war."

That Japan was already putting out peace feelers through its emissary in Moscow did not stay the hand of the nuclear executioners, nor did the cosmic destruction deter General "Hap" Arnold from staging the war's grand finale five days after Nagasaki - a 1000-plane raid that bombarded what remained of Japanese cities, killing thousands as leaflets fluttered to the ground announcing the Japanese government's surrender. Some, however, were still not satisfied. General Carl Spaatz wanted to use a third atomic bomb on Tokyo, but decided that bouncing rubble around the demolished capital might fail to make a discernible point.

In view of the foregoing it is safe to paraphrase Mark Twain and say that reports of Hitler's defeat in WWII are greatly exaggerated. Germany was defeated, but the loathesome tenet that wholesale slaughter is praiseworthy if it brings victory was perpetuated. At Nuremberg and Tokyo the victors framed their war crime indictments to exclude Allied atrocities, deliberately pardoning U.S. officials for the atomic bombings, though Justice Radhabinod Pal of India did manage to declare in his dissent that "the decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives . . . of the Nazi leaders . . . "Secretary of War Henry Stimson justified atomic incineration on the basis that it saved lives - by obviating an American invasion of Japan. Within a generation the same "humanitarian" logic was at work in Vietnam as the CIA employed systematic torture to deter a guerrilla movement and blackmail its supporters into capitulating to U.S. demands.

Accompanying the morals of extermination was a shadowy nuclear priesthood stockpiling the bombs of cosmic violence and advancing the fascist religion of permanent war to justify them. Fine-tuning deranged technological fantasies in totalitarian enclaves of total secrecy, the Atomic Apostles operated completely outside the process of democratic government, poisoning earth and sky with radioactivity, upsetting a delicate ecological balance, and contaminating the genetic heritage of life itself. A critical focus of their work was the institutionalization of atomic testing, which showered fallout on hundreds of thousands of American G.I.'s at test ranges in Nevada and Utah while the U.S. government downplayed the radioactive dangers, assuring its conscripted guinea pigs that all would be well if they just placed complete faith in the Pentagon. At the same time in the South Pacific, Marshallese Islanders sickened by atomic tests were removed from their radiated islands to face years of bitter exile, only to return home and be evacuated anew after it was discovered that the area was still radioactive. When thousands of soldiers and islanders found themselves dying of cancer, Washington disclaimed all responsibility for their plight.

A half-century later the heirs to these atomic crimes threaten Iran with nuclear obliteration and order its president to terminate his country's development of nuclear energy. Iranian theocrats, the reasoning goes, are strangers to rationality and therefore cannot be trusted to use nuclear technology responsibly like the civilized master race in Washington has done for so long.

That the perversely comic premise of good U.S. nukes vs. evil Islamic nukes will not be debunked in this presidential election year, nor discussed in the corporate media any year, illustrates how far the United States is from anything remotely resembling democratic debate. In spite of the the fact that the constituency that desires that it not be annihilated by nuclear bombs or subjected to slow death by radiation poisoning includes everyone, no "focus group" is ever asked its reaction to the morals of extermination heralded by its leaders as merely gutsy realism in a "dangerous world."

No doubt the world is a dangerous place. But the point is that it is made a suicidal place by the lunatic policies of "rational" nuclear war upheld by the United States government. That the world has survived this nuclear recklessness for over six decades is nothing more than blind luck, and as is well known, luck inevitably runs out.


Lewis Mumford, "The Conduct of Life," (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951)

Lewis Mumford, "My Works and Days," (Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1979)

Howard Zinn, "Postwar America: 1945-1971," (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973)

Noam Chomsky, "Year 501- The Conquest Continues," (South End, 1993)

Peter Wyden, "Day One," (Simon and Schuster, 1984)

Stephen Hilgartner, "Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset," (Sierra Club, 1982)

John Hersey, "Hiroshima," The New Yorker, August 31, 1946

Frank Chinook, "Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb," (World Publishing, 1969)

Howard Zinn, "A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present," (Harper, 1995)

Walter LaFeber, "The American Age - United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750," (W. W. Norton, 1989)

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire" and "The Madness of King George (illustrations by Matt Wuerker) both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at:

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