Middle Israel: Atomic perspectives (I)

By mid-1946, it was understood that the Bomb was not only strategic trophy, but also a moral abyss.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Having failed to join the bombing of Hiroshima, New York Times correspondent William L. Laurence managed to board the B-29 that was heading toward Nagasaki carrying the payload that would soon level that city and end history's bloodiest war. Someone said "there she goes," he reported, and "out of the belly of the Great Artiste what looked like a black object went downward." Though the aircraft swung around to flee the scene, and despite the broad daylight inside it, "all of us became aware of a giant flash that broke through the dark barrier of our arc welder's lenses and flooded our cabin with intense light." They removed their glasses after the first flash, but "a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky all around" still lingered on. Then "a tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail." Four blasts later, "each resounding like the boom of cannon fire hitting our plane from all directions," a giant ball of fire could be seen from the vessel's rear windows rising "as though from the bowels of the earth, belching forth enormous white smoke rings." That's when they saw "a giant pillar of purple fire" that had reached the height of their flight. "Awestruck, we watched it shoot up like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes." It was not the first time Laurence, who won a Pulitzer for this report, waxed poetic about the Bomb. Having been invited to the first test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Laurence compared the sight to "the grand finale of a mighty symphony of the elements." From a distance of some 30 kilometers, he only partly grasped the full meaning of the blast, which he aptly described as "fascinating and terrifying, uplifting and crushing, ominous, devastating, full of great promise and great foreboding." On that very moment, he concluded, hung eternity. "Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the birth of the world - to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said 'let there be light.'" Understandably or not, such were the accounts with which Laurence emerged after having witnessed two of the first three atomic explosions, first from afar, then from above. A year later The New Yorker's John Hersey visited Japan. His account, titled "Hiroshima," was more down to earth, and much less romantic. AFTER HAVING described six surviving residents' last minutes before the blast - people like department store clerk Toshiko Sasaki who was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, who was about to read a newspaper on his hospital porch; or Methodist pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was pushing a handcart brimming with belongings he wanted to save from a bombardment all were expecting - Hersey explained that these people, unlike the bomb's 100,000 casualties, counted "many small items of chance or volition, a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next" that saved their lives. The siren that was sounded toward 6 a.m. was soon halted, as the Japanese saw only three airplanes, and assumed they were the weather forecasters with which the US Air Force was by then signaling the arrival of every new Japanese morning. And so, there was no sound of planes as Tanimoto approached his friend's house with the pushcart; "the morning was still and the place was cool and pleasant." That's when it came. "A tremendous flash of light cut across the sky. Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it traveled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed a sheet of sun." Tanimoto's friend dashed into his house and buried himself among bedrolls, while the pastor "threw himself between two rocks in the garden." His belly up and his face against the stone, "he felt a sudden pressure and then splinters and pieces of board and fragments of tile fell on him." Having heard no roar, as almost no one in Hiroshima did, Tanimoto lay there paralyzed until he finally dared raise his head, and saw that his friend's house had collapsed on him. Panicked, he ran to the street, where the first thing he saw was a group of soldiers who had been digging dugouts the army had planned to use in its last-ditch battles. "The soldiers," wrote Hersey, "were coming out of the hole where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests and backs. They were silent and dazed. Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker." Hersey's subject was so intriguing, and his account so compelling, that The New Yorker dedicated to it an entire issue, which the public instantaneously shaved off the newsstands, to the last copy. Clearly, by the summer of 1946 all had understood that the Bomb represented not only a physical wonder, a military revolution and a strategic trophy, but also a moral abyss, the very antithesis of "the birth of the world" which Laurence had lauded. Some, however, understood early on the Bomb's deeper meaning. In fact, the first ones to warn against its misuse were some of its largely Jewish inventors. First in a three-part series.