Today, August 14, marks the 60th anniversary of VJ Day—the supposedly glorious day ending the second World War, a day of triumph in the wake of terror and devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On US radio, poet-journalist Norman Corwin commemorated the event with this hastily composed script:
Congratulations for being alive and listening.
Millions didn’t make it. They died before their time, and they are gone and gone, for the Fascists got them. . . .
Fire a cannon to their memory!
God and uranium were on our side.
And the wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,
And the very planet quivered with implications.
Tokyo Rose was hung over from the news next day
And the Emperor, he of the august stupid face, prayed to himself for succor.
Sound the gun for Achilles the Atom and the war workers: Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, the Archangel Gabriel, and the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Jubilantly joining the concept of God and the reality of uranium as if blessing the killing of thousands of civilians by the US and their allies, the celebratory broadcast titled “14 August”—expanded and rebroadcast five days later as “God and Uranium”—is one of Corwin’s few artistic misfires; insensitive, smug, and crudely patriotic in its derision of the “stupid”-looking emperor and his nuked subjects.
Did Americans really need to commemorate the dead by “[s]ound[ing] the gun,” by firing yet another cannon? After all, it was US weaponry, not “the Fascist,” that “got them” over in Japan. Unlike the subdued “On a Note of Triumph,” “God and Uranium” is an unquestioning sanction of total warfare, of nuclear means justifying the end—the end of a culture: “The Jap who never lost a war has lost a world: learning, / This too is worth a cheer.”
The “very planet quivered with implications,” all right, but the broadcast does not acknowledge the potentially terrible consequences of nuclear armament. These days, the implications continue to make themselves felt as more and more nations join the “community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee” and aspire to becoming atomic superpowers.
Instead, rather too sure about a peaceful future, Corwin’s salute to the victors asserts that the “peoples have come a long way since the time of Cain.” He claims that, “[e]ffective 15 August, peace, its care and handling, becomes our ward.” It appears that the US still fancies itself to be such a “ward,” imposing its views onto the world, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of civilians in a quest for a Western-centric conception of peace.
“14 August” was “written overnight, alas,” Corwin remarked somewhat apologetically shortly after the war; it was a project he did not want to accept at the time. A mere two and a half months later, on October 29, 1945, he offered far more sobering reflections of atomic power with “Set Your Clock at U235,” a broadcast that contributed to the appearance of his name in Red Channels:
Now we are in it together:
The rich with their automatic comforts, and the family bunkering seven in a room.
The highly trained, who understand the poems and the engines; and those whose culture measures five hundred words
across the middle: Old people tired of wars and winters, and children who do not yet know they are made of matter:
The famous face in four colors, nationalized on the cover of the magazine; and the crowd face, the background face, gray, nameless, out of focus:
Now we are in it, in it together.
The secrets of the earth have been peeled, one by one, until the core is bare:
The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki:
The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily.
As if coming to his senses after having toasted victory rather too shrilly, Corwin encouraged listeners to “reset the clock.” No longer was 15 August proposed as a ringing in of peace, but as the beginning of a new age of terror. As such it now behooves us to consider the legacy of VJ Day—the ticking of the atomic clock, the spiral of retaliatory actions, and the fallacy that a war well waged could end all wars.
After all, we are still “in it together. . . .”