At 8: 16 AM on August 6, 1945 – 08:16:02 to be precise, Hiroshima time – Little Boy exploded. When President Harry Truman learned of the successful detonation of the atomic bomb and the destruction of the Japanese city, he said, "This is the greatest thing in history" (Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon and Shuster: New York, 1986, p. 734).
When future historians convene to compile an account of the 20th century – if there is enough of a future after global warming and nuclear proliferation – they may very well agree with Truman.
The effort and enterprise and science that went into the development of nuclear weapons embraced most of the greatest scientific minds of the generation, and the ability to unleash the immense forces within the basic building blocks of nature represented an astonishing culmination. If there is any single and irreplaceable watershed in the history of human intellectual accomplishment, the success of the Manhattan Project represents it.
And if there is a watershed in the history of human morality, the cataclysms caused by Little Boy over Hiroshima and, three days later, by Fat Man, the second atomic bomb used in warfare, over Nagasaki, are at the top of the heap.
Although the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hardly approximates a quarter of a million – small potatoes in comparison to the "conventional" genocides of Hitler and Stalin – it is the coincidence of high intelligence and maximal destruction that warrant citation. The pursuit of knowledge is almost invariably a pursuit of power. And power, once obtained, is virtually impossible to resist.
Most of the great minds who had helped to develop the bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico, when they heard of Hiroshima, celebrated, notwithstanding the uniquely devastating "kill rate" of civilians.
But what if Truman had desisted? What if the leader of the most powerful country in the world by far at the time had exercised restraint? What if the astonishing unlocking of nuclear forces had been kept for non-military purposes alone, if at all?
We’ll never know, but we can make a fair assumption about such consequences: that much of our present peril would have been avoided. Only a string of near-miracles and astonishing good luck has prevented the dogs of nuclear war from annihilating the species thus far: the record of close calls is hair-raising and terrifying.
Perhaps, given an example of clemency, an example that would have been "great" in an unimaginably beneficent way, a paradigm might have been established for our fragile human psyche, for common good, instead of mutually assured destruction.
And perhaps, as the anniversary of "the greatest thing in history" is upon us today, we will pause and reflect and renew our efforts to dismantle the species-threatening legacy that had its beginnings on a relatively cloudless day in the skies above Hiroshima.
That’s a different kind of power – a far far greater thing for the history books, if we can persist.
Emanuel E. Garcia is a physician and author who resides in New Zealand.