Even before Hiroshima, people knew about the atomic bomb
Milton Rothmar, a US Army corporal stationed in Italy, learned of the news of the Hiroshima bombing from the Stars and Stripes armed forces newspaper. He wrote: “The title said ‘Atomic Bomb’. For someone who was raised in stories like The Final War, it was both a terror and a hope. Man could use that to destroy everything.
But Rothmar couldn’t suppress his enthusiasm that atomic energies could be used for less destructive purposes: “Damn it, but it’s exciting to hear the words ‘atomic energy’ used on the radio like if they were talking about the latest car model. I want to shout to everyone ‘I told you!’ “
His reaction, written the very day he heard the news, may seem oddly prescient: How did he so quickly come to realize all the implications and possibilities of what was supposed to be a top secret weapon?
The answer is he had been thinking of them for years – just like many other Americans. The sudden appearance of an actual atomic bomb was shocking, but its nature – and the implications of its use – had been debated for decades. People struggling with the Hiroshima news did it less by learning new information than by remembering things they had known for a long time.
Fascinated by radioactivity
American newspapers were making headlines on Hiroshima hours after the attack. They relied on an announcement by President Truman who began by describing the astonishing scale of the explosion – 2,000 times greater than anything that had happened before – before explaining that it was possible because the bomb in question “is an atomic bomb. It is an exploitation of the fundamental power of the universe.
The surprisingly effective secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project meant that few expected an atomic bomb to appear during the current war. Many of those who helped make “Little Boy” – the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – may never have known what they were working on. But what Truman meant by “atomic bomb” was common knowledge.
Long before August 6, 1945, the public had a clear (and surprisingly precise) idea of the kind of destruction a bomb based on the release of nuclear energy would be capable of. So many writers have explored the idea that the turn of the 20th century is sometimes referred to as the “radium age” of science fiction. Eminent scientists have written popular books on how to experiment with radioactive substances at home. It was as well-known a concept as Star Trek warp training could be today.
The result was an intense public fascination with nuclear energy. Crowds flocked to museums to catch a glimpse of a speck of radium, delighted by what the newspapers said was an incredibly potent substance that radioactively “leaked” a tiny fraction of the energy it stored. The big question at the time was whether scientists could find a way to harness this remaining energy and – if they did – if they could control it.
Opinions have varied.
The arguments for uncontrollable atomic apocalypses have often been made by the charter generation of nuclear scientists themselves. Radiochemist Frederick Soddy, in a popular lecture series, imagined that nuclear power would allow mankind to “make the whole world a smiling Garden of Eden” – and just as easily, with one mistake, to do so. destroy.
From science fiction to FDR
Radioactive substances have gained public attention precisely because of these horrific implications of their seemingly limitless energy. Even what was supposed to be impartial, the educational treatment of the subject tended to become sordid.
As historian Spencer Weart noted, famous British physicist William Crookes explained the energy in a single gram of radium by saying that it was enough to lift the weight of the entire British Navy by several thousand feet. The unintentionally violent image of the explosive demolition of a military target has crept into public discourse. This was the logical conclusion to everything else the newspapers were publishing about the fantastic energies locked in the atom.
Writers of fiction have made these implications explicit.
HG Wells coined the term “atomic bomb” in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free, which depicts a mid-20th century war waged with radioactive bombs that exploded – then continued to explode, poisoning the region with radiation. The novel was dedicated to Soddy, referencing his lectures, and indirectly contributed to real-world nuclear history: it inspired, for example, physicist Leo Szilard to reflect on the implications of his theory of neutron chain reactions. Szilard then lobbied FDR to launch research into a nuclear program.
Wells was neither the first nor the last author to explore the explosive potential of atomic energies. Comics, pulp science fiction magazines, and popular science literature of the time were crisscrossed with speculation about atomic-powered spacecraft, radium bombs, and radioactive monsters that emitted mysterious rays.
Some were absurd flights; others were excellent summaries of current nuclear science. Both kinds had the same effect: perpetuating the discussion about what the atomic future would look like.
It was often quite optimistic – nuclear medicine and cheap electricity were on people’s minds too – but bombs were always a part of it.
Oddly, atomic bombs were discussed more before the start of the war than during it, in part thanks to wartime paper restrictions that strangled some science fiction magazines.
The technical problems of building a fission weapon were already known before the war. There was less open talk about the possibility that these obstacles could be overcome soon. Military censors have discouraged magazines from publishing articles about atomic bombs, although at least one savvy publisher has claimed it was such a common conspiracy that suddenly banning them from printing would signal to the enemy that the United States was making progress on such a weapon. .
The months following Hiroshima and Nagasaki were emotionally charged for Americans: joy at the end of the war mingled with worry over the scale of destruction and fear that such weapons could one day. be used against them.
Atomic bombs and all their moral and technological implications have been brought up again in pulpits, cartoons, newspaper editorials and science fiction. But if this was a more urgent discussion now, it was none the less familiar.