Lessons from Einstein 60 years later

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday August 06, 2005

Today is the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This is a somber moment for humanity to reflect on the destructive potential of our weapons and on the apparent inability of our political systems to render those weapons obsolete.

Albert Einstein, Time Magazine's "Man of the 20th Century," was the author of a 1939 letter to President Roosevelt that spurred America's search for atomic weapons. Later, he wrote again to Roosevelt urging that he not drop the bomb on Japanese cities. After the war, Einstein became a leading proponent of nuclear disarmament.

On May 24, 1946, Einstein sent a telegram to prominent Americans saying "the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

Einstein was clear that the bomb itself did not represent a fundamentally new problem for mankind, only one which unalterably raised the stakes. "The release of atomic energy," he wrote, "has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an 'existing one.'"

For decades, apprehension about nuclear war marked the standoff known as the Cold War. Today, 14 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, thousands of nuclear-armed missiles are still on ready-launch status. We hardly think of them but focus instead on the newer nukes of minor powers, whether the imaginary ones of Saddam's Iraq or the very real ones of North Korea.

Still, thanks to the current wave of hysterical fear-mongering (articulated in 2004 as the Bush re-election strategy), our greatest fear is of the nuke that will be smuggled in, perhaps in a shipping canister through a busy seaport.

We don't appear to be much closer to Einstein's new ways of thinking than we were 60 years ago. Einstein remarked that "peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage and resolution than are needed to prepare for war."

This is a notion that runs utterly contrary to the drive for vengeance and the pre-emptive strike doctrine of the Bush administration and to the thinking of those in the Democratic Party who would one-up the Republicans in an arms-race-of-one driven by domestic political rivalry.

Like Gandhi and King, Einstein was a committed pacifist. "I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. ... Men should continue to fight," he said, "but they should fight for things worthwhile, not for imaginary geographical lines, racial prejudices and private greed draped in the colors of patriotism. Their arms should be weapons of the spirit, not shrapnel and tanks."

The "existing problem" Einstein warned us of is not merely nationalism which he labels "an infantile disease ... the measles of mankind." Nationalism does not explain the religious fanaticism of the jihadists whether of the Muslim, Hindu or Christian variety (on the latter, see Leonard Pitts' recent column on Congressman Tom Tancredo's threat to bomb Mecca).

Einstein viewed "the problem" as a quality of the human species, a dangerous one that might never be eliminated but that could be channeled and brought under the control of our better nature.

"This 'human nature' which makes wars is like a river," he said. "It is impossible in geological time to change the nature of a river. But when it continually overflows its banks and destroys our lives and homes, do we sit down and say, 'It is too bad. We can't change the river.' Just as we use reason to build a dam to hold a river in check, we must now build institutions to restrain the fears and suspicions and greeds which move peoples and their rulers."

Einstein lived through a time when the specter of fascism gave way to an era of hope marked by the growth of global institutions and international treaties.

Today, we have taken giant steps backward as the Bush administration scoffs at those treaties and makes a mockery of the foremost of those institutions, the United Nations.

Among the more sobering of Einstein's predictions is that "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." With U.S. congressmen contemplating the bombing of Mecca, World War III may once again enter the realm of possibility. On this anniversary of those most abominable acts of war, let us renew our commitment to peace, to new ways of thinking and to the institutions that can foster and sustain them.



I don't usually pay much attention to the noise on AOL, but today they had a story about the A-bomb anniversary. They also had a poll. It asked whether the US was right to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

When I saw the poll this morning, 79% of those responding said yes. They said we were right.

I know it's not a representative sample and all that, but this kind of thing makes me wonder if I'm not from some other planet. What are these people thinking?

How could it possibly be "right" to obliterate so many people instantly -- not to mention ongoing health problems and genetic disorders the bomb created.

What a sad day.


No doubt, the A-bomb left craters that can be measured by their physical and psychological spans half-lives over decades and centuries. But I do think it's essential to view the actions in the context of the time.

While it's clear that the Pacific-front war would have ended in another year or two at the outside, the impact it was having on the greatest generation can't be ignored. During certain extended periods of the Pacific campaign, we were losing 90 PERCENT of our soldiers and sailors. Add to that the reaction of being attacked on our soil -- considering the hysteria it created just four years ago -- and I doubt any President could have held off using the A-bomb knowing of its potential to stop our losses.

In some ways, the world owes an unpayable debt to the Japanese people for bearing the brunt of that horrible field test of destructive power. Just think: if it hadn't been used then, but instead used a few decades later in megatonnage 100 or 10000 times larger, the physical effects alone could have been worldwide.

Instead, memory of its effect has had such a dramatic psychological impact that those who hold its power have been restrained from its use.

My older son is a history major at UNC-Charlotte, his semester long senior seminar this spring was on the dropping of the A-bombs. From what I learned from his seminar paper, there is a lot of speculation that the urgency (for the American military and diplomats) of ending the war BEFORE Russia made massive territorial advances in the Far East may have been just as important a factor diplomatically as the issue of saving the lives of thousands of American troops who would have died in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. My other son (who is a sophomore at Louisburg College) for second summer session World Civ had to write his final paper last month on the dropping of the A bomb.

The notion that the US would have invaded Japan thereby losing thousands of lives is a fiction of propaganda that has been long used to justify the dropping of the bomb. The Japanese were already defeated. Negotiations for Japanese surrender were already well under way. As Gerry points out, the A-bomb was more of a message to the Soviets than to the Japanese.

In many ways, the bombing of Hiroshima is analogous to the invasion of Iraq: both were subject to trumped-up, false justifications that obscured the actual geo-political purposes.

I hope everyone can at least agree with the sense of repugnance that I read in Jim's post. The manufacture and especially the use of these weapons epitomizes immorality.

Now, before Mother Ruby gives us a talking to, we should probably drop this debate of world history and get back to orangepolitics.

It is not conceivable that the motive of trying to head off greater territorial gains by the Soviet Empire was itself a noble and justifiable one? Unfortunately, direct territorial gains in Asia were not the only way for the Soviets to accomplish their objectives, and thus subsequently Communist regimes took power in several states with their assistance and murdered or starved tens of millions of people.

Sure, eventually it will be asserted that international issues are not to be debated on this forum. Happens every time that threads on international issues are introduced, however obliquely.

It is almost 4:00 pm here in Honolulu and there have been several 60th anniversary ceremonies here. Needless to say, there are very conflicted emotions about the bomb here.

Of interest is the concern by the WWII generation over the apaty displayed by young people. One high school girl said, "It is an inconvenience an annoying to have a ceremony lie this."

The elders wonder if the attitude makes the use of nucs more likely.

One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, has a spectacular new novel that traces one surreal aftershock of the A-bomb. If you've not read this author, you're in for a literary treat.

You can get the book online, of course, but you can also buy it at the Internationalist (a local angle!) if you're so inclined.

Kafka on the Shore

"The Book of Lights," by Chaim Potok is another excellent novel addressing this subject. In fact, Potok credited all his books (The Chosen, The Promise, etc.) to "that moment in time when I stood in Hiroshima, trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing there, and what it all really meant to me."

I just finished reading "109 East Palace" by Jennet Conant,
who is the graddaughter of John Conant, one of
Robert Oppenheimer's colleagues. As this book (which I
recommend highly) explains, Oppenheimer had great
remorse about the bomb after the first test. Coincidentally,
my brother-in-law finished Truman's biography and cited me
this passage: Oppenheimer literally cried in Truman's office about the blood on his [Oppenheimer's] hands.
Truman was having none of it however, saying that there was 10 times as much blood on my hands than on yours.
Conant went on to say that it was impossible for any military strategist who possessed such a weapon to not use it.

Joi Ito's essay in today's NYTimes gives a contemporary Japanese take which may surprise some of you. The Times calls Joi an "Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist" which is sort of like calling Muhammad Ali, a boxer.
Also of interest is Joi's note about how he wrote his essay and the comments from the readers of the post and of the essay.

I've redone the post above to include my column from last Saturday instead of the event listings.

Tuesday night's event is:

Remembering Nagasaki 60 Years Later

Panel with Stephen Young, senior analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists;
Steven Wing, UNC Department of Epidemiology;
Mark Driscoll, UNC Department of Asian Studies;
Timothy McKeown, UNC Department of Political Science.

7:30 PM, August 9, Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 MLK Blvd. Information: 967-2172.

To John Hood's comment: the ends do not justify the means. No political or military goal can justify the killing of over one hundred thousand civilians.

Great column, Dan. Thanks for posting it here.

And I'm glad to see Ed's succinct response to John Hood. Of course, the killing of more than one hundred thousand civilians is exactly what's happening in Iraq right now -- a war declared by men who have neither curiosity about history nor personal experience with battle. Most days I can't decide whether to cry or rage at how little we seem to have learned.

Isn't that true, Jim? I thought at the time that the only good thing about Vietnam was that our generation wouldn't repeat the mistakes made there by our fathers and grandfathers. And here we are.

Thanks Jim. I'm supposed to cover strictly local concerns but once in a blue moon the urgency of some global concern gets the best of me.

Uh, actually I was not defending the use of the atom bombs by Truman. Read more carefully. I was only defending the alleged motivation of stopping Soviet expansionism, which was treated oddly as something less than noble.

I have always been troubled by any military action that violates Just War theory -- any action that is not aimed at a legitimate military target and is really taken for the purposes of killing or terrorizing civilians and, thus, compelling surrender by political authorities. So I have retained a deep skepticism about the legitimacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as the groteseque use of conventional weaponry on German and Japanese cities.

However, I don't agree with your premise that 100,000 dead civilians inherently makes an act immoral. In theory, if legitimate military action (that is, targeted at combatants) resulted in many unavoidable civilian deaths but the alternative would be more destructive of civilian life -- as proved to be the case with Communist takeovers in China and Southeast Asia, for example, and is almost certainly true in Iraq today -- then the action is not only moral defensible but is morally required.

Obviously, I think pacifism is difficult to defend on moral grounds unless (as in Gandi's case) legitimate military action is not really a practical option.

John, the fascinating thing about your comment is that you wouldn't have to change it much if you did support Truman's bombing. Just cut the first sentence and the second paragraph.


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