n an August morning in 1945, 600 metres over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, a small sun came briefly into existence. Few remember a sound, but the flash printed shadows on the pavements and sent buildings thrashing. The explosion – 2,000 times greater than that of any bomb yet used – announced not only a new weapon but a new era.
It was a stunning military victory for the United States. Yet jubilation there was undercut by “uncertainty and fear”, the newsman Edward R Murrow observed. It took only a moment’s reflection on the bomb’s existence to see the harrowing implication: what had happened in Hiroshima, and three days later in Nagasaki, could happen anywhere.
The thought proved impossible to shake, especially as, within the year, on-the-ground accounts emerged. Reports came of flesh bubbling, of melted eyes, of a terrifying sickness afflicting even those who’d avoided the blast. “All the scientists are frightened – frightened for their lives,” a Nobel-winning chemist confessed in 1946. Despite scientists’ hopes that the weapons would be retired, in the coming decades they proliferated, with nuclear states testing ever-more-powerful devices on Pacific atolls, the Algerian desert and the Kazakh steppe.
The fear – the pervasive, enduring fear – that characterised the cold war is hard to appreciate today. It wasn’t only powerless city-dwellers who were terrified (“select and fortify a room in which to shelter”, the UK government grimly advised). Leaders themselves were shaken. It was “insane”, US president John F Kennedy felt, that “two men, sitting on the opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilisation”. Yet everyone knowingly lived with that insanity for decades. It was as if, wrote the historian Paul Boyer, “the Bomb” were “one of those categories of Being, like Space and Time, that, according to Kant, are built into of the very structure of our minds, giving shape and meaning to all our perceptions”.
Boyer remembered the unsettling news of the Hiroshima bombing, which occurred the week of his 10th birthday and shaped the rest of his childhood. Today, someone remembering the bomb that well would have to be 86 at least. The memory of nuclear war, once vivid, is quietly vanishing. The signs on the fallout shelters – those that remain – are rusted, and most of the world’s population can’t even recall an above-ground nuclear test (the last was in 1980). The bomb no longer gives “shape and meaning to all our perceptions”; until recently, many thought of it only rarely. It has been tempting to see nuclear war as a bygone terror that no longer terrifies, like polio.
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