Intelligence, Morality, and the Atomic Bomb

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.

8 thoughts on “Intelligence, Morality, and the Atomic Bomb”

  1. What is now surprising, is the non-chalance with which politicians are talking about nuclear weapons. And what is provocatory is the arrogant non-chalance with which those who possess the nuclear weapons are dictating the policy for which a Country is entitled to possess nuclear armament. Instead of first dismantling their arsenals. Still go unmasked and un-condemned the new holocaust in the Middle East with the excuse of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hundreds of thousand of victims, millions of refugees, millions of injured and much of the world's press is EMBEDDED.

  2. I witnessed the Starfish Prime exoatmospheric test over Johnston Island in the summer of 1962. What I saw from Honolulu was not the detonation of a simple "Weapon of Mass Destruction," but rather a force beyond humanity, the force of the stars. After the initial flash, the sky lit up green for around seven minutes by my watch, an ARTIFICIAL AURORA BOREALIS lighting night to day as subatomic particles rained down upon earth in an electrical fire in the sky.
    No, these are not mere weapons, but are a force far beyond man. To monkey around with such power is far beyond our capacity and sustainability.
    During this time I reflect on the twice-victims of Japan. Victimized first by their brutal leaders who bludgeoned them into the war, then by the American atomic attacks that ended it. And now Peace has blossomed there, if only their neighbors could see the flower that is Japan and respect its beauty.
    The real bummer about all this is that instead of burying all the evil the Axis Powers brought to the world – ballistics missiles, nerve gas, etc. – we have embraced it and built upon the war machine they started. Let us not forget the race toward the atom bomb was a race against the Nazis and the future we face has deep roots in WWII.
    But we can't just throw it away, we can only try to understand how to reshape things in our way, to understand who we are, our principles, what is the American character and where we should go.

  3. There's something that's right in front of our noses but we're unable to see it. The Iranians consciously decided not to make chemical weapons and not to make nukes . They did so for moral(religious) and pragmatic reasons. They can teach us a few things.

    The military would have made chemical weapons . They wanted to retaliate after an intensive chemical weapons campaign from Iraq. But the religious authorities still said no.

    We in the west can only see it as 'they wanted to and maybe even tried to but we made them stop'.

    1. Have you a source for this amazing news?. Iran has just published a book about how it intends to destroy Israel. What warheads do you thing their missiles will be aimed with ? Stones perhaps. Their dream is to restore the Persian Empire and make Iran the most power nation in the Middle East.

  4. The greed of empire creates a peculiar strain of arrogance that borders on mental illness. I don't believe our leaders to be stupid, quite the contrary, most are exceptionally intelligent but these same otherwise intelligent human beings are the first people willing to take humanity to the gates of hell, all for the insatiable lust for power. Even a stupid man can tell you setting the sky on fire isn't a bright idea especially when Japan had already essentially given up but the lust to show Stalin who swings the big dick now proved more powerful then common sense. May god have mercy on our souls.

  5. Sporadisch zijn mensen niet weten wanneer u toerisme zijn een zekerste oplossing door ons gezonder worden. Ik heb dezelfde idee voordat degenen tussen u die al verveeld kunnen is met de activiteiten van het gewoon leven, datgene is sinds het lezen van artikelen met betrekking tot de reisinformatie die ik schreef en getiteld ofwel misschien wanneer u langduriger kunt jij ook door artikelen erbij luisteren verschillende attracties datgene ik de titel ik hoop dat wat ik erbij geven via deze opmerkingen kunnen een positieve waarde en het moeite waard alles geven.

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