How Hiroshima Changed War and the Future of Man

Enola Gay
Visitors look at the 60-foot fuselage of Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima 50 years ago, during the Smithsonian Institution's press review of the exhibit on June 27. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "LIVING WITH THE BOMB" on July 29, 1985. Newsweek is republishing the story.

Forty years ago this summer, the human race, by its own choice and its own invention, became an endangered species. The instrument of its peril was called the atomic bomb and was the creation of men—scientists, soldiers and politicians—who had inexact knowledge of its destructive power and of its implications for man's survival. A crude prototype was tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945; its secret ingredients included Scotch tape and Kleenex, along with a core of fissionable plutonium, but it was powerful enough to shake the earth, turn the night to noon and raise a mushroom cloud seven miles high. In a flash of cosmic light, mankind had entered the atomic age and has lived at risk ever since, hostage to the bomb and to ourselves. The stopped clocks of Hiroshima placed the beginning of that age a bit after 8:15 in the morning of August 6—the moment at which the first operational bomb exploded over the heart of what had been a bustling seaport and turned it into a city of the dead. Seen from a distance, the nuclear dawn had a certain Biblical beauty, like a vision out of Genesis; an 8-year-old schoolgirl named Kay Okubo stood in awe beside a stream in the countryside and watched the mushroom shape rise up from behind a mountain, 40 miles away. The view at first hand was a glimpse of the inferno, a city become a mass funeral pyre. A women went out searching for her husband and found only his teeth in a heap of ash. A man spent the days afterward helping cremate the victims; it was 30 years before he could wash the memory of the smell from his hands.

The story in the pages that follow is the collective memoir of six people caught up in the events of the nuclear summer of 1945. One was a scientist who helped build the bomb. One was the armaments officer who loaded it aboard the Enola Gay; his daughter, 40 years later, is working for its abolition. One was the navigator who steered it to Japan. Two were among its targets and saw it fall; they became members of a new caste called hibakuska, or bomb-affected persons, one still living in Hiroshima, the other in the United States. They were strangers whose lives intersected for a millisecond at a point called Zero, 1,980 feet above central Hiroshima, and were altered by what happened there, as the world was altered.

They were players in and witnesses to the larger drama, not its prime movers; the decisions to build and drop the bomb were taken by other, grander personages. Those decisions were debated then and have been questioned ever since, from that comfortable vantage point called historical revisionism. What the inquest has sometimes neglected was the inevitability of the bomb—the tides of discovery and war commanding its invention and, once invented, its use. "The book of nature is there for all to read," Isidor I. Rabi, the physicist and Nobel laureate, mused long afterward; if the scientists at Los Alamos had not found the secret, someone someday would have. Neither was it likely that America, having the means to end the bloodiest war in human history, would not employ it.

Yet the questions first raised 40 summers ago have continued to torment and divide us. Rabi, for one, was grateful for the bomb and its success; still, when Japan surrendered a week after Hiroshirnn, he could not bring himself to open the bottle of Johnny Walker Black he had laid away for a victory toast. As the shadow of the bomb has lengthened since, the doubts nnd second guesses have proliferated. "Nobody at Los Alamos would have drearded of 10,000 atomic weapons," another of its galaxy of Nobelists, Hans Bethe, guessed recently. But the world has 50,000 now, some a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and Bethe found his own 7-year-old grandson tortured by waking nightmares of nuclear war.

Such nightmares have become part of the common lot of mankind; in a Louis Harris poll in 1983, two-thirds of America expected a nuclear war sometime in the next 20 years. The men who make the bomb in 1945 hoped that it would blackmail humankind into keeping the peace. That hope has been realized, tenuously. But a nagging unquiet lingers beneath the surface of a world dependent for its survival on a doctrine whose acronyrn is MAD, for "mutual assured destruction." The necessities of 1945 were mother to the invention of the bomb. We have not yet devised an answer to the necessities of 1985—a more reliable guarantee than terror against the end of the world.