on March 20, 2017
In "By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age", Paul Boyer argues that in the first few years after American use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “the fundamental perceptions which continue to influence our response to the nuclear menace were first articulated, discussed, and absorbed into the living tissue of the culture” (pg. 367). Boyer uses novels, radio broadcasts, popular music, popular periodicals, and polling data in his examination, juxtaposing them against government policy documents to demonstrate the conflict between mass culture and military culture. He writes, “Another surprise as I narrowed my focus to 1945-1950 was the realization of how quickly contemporary observers understood that a profoundly unsettling new cultural factor had been introduced – that the bomb had transformed not only military strategy and international relations, but the fundamental ground of culture and consciousness” (pg. xix). Boyer concludes, “Unless we recover this lost segment of our cultural history, we cannot fully understand the world in which we live, nor be as well equipped as we might to change it” (pg. xix).
Boyer’s analysis broadly examines the role of scientists in spreading information about the threat of atomic war, hopes for the future through atomic energy, predictions of the future role of atomic power, the moral debate about nuclear war, and the role of culture. Describing the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, Boyer argues, “It would be wrong to conclude that Americans took the bomb casually or that its impact quickly faded. Just below the surface, powerful currents of anxiety and apprehension surged through the culture” (pg. 12). Further, “Physically untouched by the war, the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable. Sole possessors and users of a devastating new instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims” (pg. 14). Scientists entered the public foray during these early years, helping to shape the narrative. Regarding the role of scientist activists, Boyer writes, “Many scientists concluded after August 6, 1945, that it was their urgent duty to try to shape official policy regarding atomic energy…Many of the post-Hiroshima cultural developments…cannot be fully understood without attention to the remarkable public role played by the atomic scientists” (pg. 49). While they did not create fears of annihilation, scientists did act upon them and help inform those public fears. Boyer writes, “To many post-Hiroshima social observers, <i>fear</i> represented a potent lever of social change. From mass terror would spring mass demand for the radical transformation of the international order upon which survival depended” (pg. 69). Unfortunately for the scientists, the immediate results of the first Bikini atoll tests actually dampened peoples’ fears rather than stoke them.
In contrast to fear, Boyer writes, “Along with the shock waves of fear, one also finds exalted prophecies of the bright promise of atomic energy. The more euphoric of these predictions soon faded, but the upbeat theme proved remarkably tenacious” (pg. 109). This led to an either/or mentality regarding atomic power, in which it represented either the doom of humanity or the pathway to a bright utopia. Boyer summarizes, “Presented this way, the issue did have a certain symmetry and simplicity – certainly more symmetry and simplicity than the alternative view, rarely heard in these years, that atomic energy might be <i>both</i> mankind’s scourge and benefactor” (pg. 126). Alongside this debate, Boyer argues that, in the cultural realm, “the bomb…unleashed the first wave of speculation about what would come to be called ‘post-industrial’ society” (pg. 141). To this end, the social sciences worked to fill the gap as “many social scientists in this post-Hiroshima period embraced the view that they possessed knowledge and expertise essential to mankind’s survival” (pg. 169). On the moral end of the equation, Boyer writes, “‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ stand as signposts marking both a gash in the living flesh of our historical consciousness and a turning point in our ethical history: the concluding events of a ‘good’ war, the opening events of a murky era of moral ambiguity and uncertainty through which we still wander” (pg. 182). Many Americans initially supported the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, believing that it ended the war sooner and saved lives. While the opinion may have waned, Americans largely left the issue unquestioned, and it dropped away from popular culture.
Culturally, Boyer writes, “Apart from a few isolated voices, however, the initial literary response to the atomic bomb was, to say the least, muted” (pg. 246). Many struggled for the right tone or content in the face of such hitherto unseen destruction. Boyer writes, “What was the appropriate aesthetic for the bomb? If an air raid on a small Spanish town could inspire one of Picasso’s greatest canvases, or the individual brutalities of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain Goya’s most powerful work, how was one to respond imaginatively to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, still more, to the prospect of world holocaust?” (pg. 250). Science fiction, however, provided an answer. According to Boyer, “The atomic bomb was now reality, and the science-fiction stories that dealt with it amply confirm the familiar insight that for all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues” (pg. 258). According to Boyer, the culture of the atomic age had a similar impact on Americans as the two world wars combined on Europeans and others (pg. 279). Following the successful detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb and the beginning of the Cold War, Americans “seemed not only ready to accept the bomb, but to support any measures necessary to maintain atomic supremacy” (pg. 334). The bomb lost its image as a grim specter and took its place among the United States’ other weapons.
Boyer describes two other phases of atomic paranoia, the first preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis and the second during the early years of the Reagan administration, when hawkish speeches and posturing further triggered fears. According to Boyer, “Except for a post-holocaust ‘Nuclear Winter,’ every theme and image by which we express our nuclear fear today had its counterpart in the immediate post-Hiroshima period” (pg. 364). The only difference is that now the reality outpaces the imaginings of experts.