The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: “It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with “nature” or “the environment.” No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say.” Nor should they. Fiege’s work–which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history–demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more “conventional” history. But, as much as Fiege’s work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege’s attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled “atomic sublime,” Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that “the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good.” This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege’s argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos “the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values.” It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace–ultimately saving more lives than it took–and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What’s more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. “When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. ‘We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,’ Richard Feynman wrote.” The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, “the spirit just wasn’t there.” The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was “not pro-war. I’m most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree.”

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of “openness, toleration, and democracy.”* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not “deep moral ambiguity” and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege’s interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege’s is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

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4 thoughts on “The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

  1. Steve says:

    Please allow me a few wandering thoughts. My career has been shaped by the Manhattan Project. I arrived in Oak Ridge in 1978, a city built by the project, where I work even today as a consultant after 33 years of employment at the national lab. By my time, the efforts were mainly toward energy applications. When I arrived some who had worked there during the war were still around to tell stories about it. The man who hired me, like many others, had no idea what he was working on. It only became known when the first bomb was dropped. I started out at the installation where the uranium was enriched for that weapon but by my time was exclusively for electricity generation. It is amazing to me that ground was broken in 1942 and they produced their product in 2 1/2 years. That facility, the K25 plant, is nearly all torn down now. The cleanup has been going on for around twenty years and counting. You probably know that The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was started by those who after having taken part in the development of the bomb were chagrined by what had happened. I used to scan through it at the library at K25 which was next to the cafeteria. I used to go to Los Alamos moderately often in the eighties, not so much since. I knew people involved in testing the devices at the Nevada test site. Actually, the most liberal people that I have ever known and pretty much against most of our military actions since I’ve been alive. They were convinced their activities were serving the purpose of world peace, actually. They came of age in the fifties and began their careers in the sixties. I’d like to write more but need to get to work.

    • “The man who hired me, like many others, had no idea what he was working on.” I sat down to lunch with a professor of environmental history yesterday who made this same observation. I clarified to him what I perhaps did not make clear here either: my complaint is with the portrayal of people like Oppenheimer and other project leaders who knew enough to have fleeting and self-serving doubts but constructed the weapon for use anyway. That the dozens of lower ranking participants were kept in the dark and are therefore in no way culpable for the unintended consequences of actions performed in ignorance seems to me self-evident.

      As to whether or not men like Oppenheimer were “convinced their activities were serving the purpose of world peace,” I admit I will need persuading. The man I lunched with, himself an ardent liberal, tried to argue that the bomb had indeed kept the world out of several wars, but it seems indefensible to me to suggest that the bomb has served the cause of world peace, that any peace-loving person could be truly convicted that it would, or that it is in any respect ethical to have sacrificed 200,000 unknowing and unwilling people chasing the rainbow of peace through horrific violence.

  2. Steve says:

    Yes, this thought was enough to knock me off my seat, mentally.

    “Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.”

    Not sure exactly what the author was saying except that there are noble reasons for pursuing knowledge and creating technology, generally speaking. But I have a hard time connecting that to the pursuit of the bomb in any singular way.

    I read the autobiography of Werner Heisenberg a long time ago, perhaps not remembering it accurately. I believe he was the leader of the German bomb project. In the early 1970’s account he seemed to say his heart was not in it and he was glad that they made some kind of mistake, an error in the strength of some effect or some such, that led them in the wrong direction and fortunately doomed their approach.

    The direction my thoughts wandered while reading this was toward a reflection on how people were different then than now. I don’t think humans then were inherently different. But seemingly the expression of human nature is plastic and there are and will be many manifestations of that. Not to justify what went on in any way. People living then had cars and radio but otherwise were closer to the 19th century than we are now. Life was different and the cares that occupied their minds and the demands on their bodies was likewise varied from ours today. In the eighties I saw a series of films by Morris Massey titled “You Are What You Were When.” The thesis was that generally, a person’s belief system and perception of the world was programmed in them around age ten. He proceeded to arrange people into decade groupings. For those who turned ten during the decade of the 1930’s, they were of course affected by the depression and their notions of what was normal, their relationship with money, their work ethic, was programmed by that. Obviously, the baby boomers (that’s me) grew up in a different situation and for us normal was different. It finally explained to me a lot of things. Since then others have analyzed subsequent generations , Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, etc discussing their general characteristics. And I think there is some truth to it.

    As we move further in time from the 1940’s, the memory of what it was like will be more difficult to comprehend. Life has changed so much. My Dad was a teenager then and now he is in his eighties. He has told me stories of the time. The fifties were incrementally different and I can just remember that time. Society expresses and exhibits many and contradicting things. With that proviso, I recall there was a palpable fear about what we had unleashed with the development of the bomb. The forties and fifties were times when authority was more respected than now. Before the 1960’s, it was unusual to question the authorities, including the government.

    I liked the Whitman quote.

    • That, I think, is a much better way of approaching a fuller understanding of what, psychologically, went in to making the bomb. Rather than trying to elevate utopian rationalizations to the level of justifying motivations, we should consider the culture of pervasive fear during the WWII, the prevailing attitudes about race (and I think it should not escape us who the bomb was dropped on), and that utopianism was a defensive relic of pre-1914 optimism. I don’t want to hold the Manhattan Project scientists to ethical standards as my generation (or yours) would perceive them, but I also am firmly convinced that there is nothing in their peculiar generational disposition that excuses their willful lack of foresight. It explains it, perhaps, but it does not make it a manifestation of all that is beautiful and loving and good.

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