No Headstone, No Regrets

How do you survive the ordeal of executing the killing of some 140,000 people and counting. Perhaps, by counting on facts and figures to counter or discount any accounts of fatality and disfigurement; by recounting to myself, for decades to come, that I could not be held accountable, having merely carried out orders as someone to be counted on; or by counting the praises bestowed upon me by those of my countrymen I would be pleased to encounter, for having been instrumental in ending a war that, without my precise handling of the instruments, might have ended the lives of countless more.

Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, whose idea of a loving tribute was to name after his mother the B-29 out of whose womb “Little Boy” dropped onto the roofs of Hiroshima, insisted that he had “no regrets” about the outcome of his mission, that he slept “clearly every night.” Clearly, he won’t be counting sheep, or charred bodies, tonight. Mr. Tibbets, the world took note, died today at the age of 92.

When I came across that announcement, I was reminded of “14 August,” a radio play by poet-journalist Norman Corwin (previously discussed here to mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day). With it, Corwin sought to assure Americans that “God and uranium” had been on their “side,” that the “wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,” and that it was “worth a cheer” that the “Jap who never lost a war has lost a world; learning, at some cost, that crime does not pay.”

Broadcast on VJ-Day, “14 August” asked listeners to remember those Americans “dead as clay” after defending “the rights of men,” after “fighting for “people the likes of you.” No mention was made of the Japanese whose lives were turned to ash in the streets of Hiroshima; no words uttered to suggest that achieving peace at such “cost” might, too, be considered a “crime” for which someone other than the dead might have to pay.

I am reminded, too, of the aforementioned radio writer-historian Erik Barnouw, who, upon learning that the US government had “seized and impounded” reels of film shot in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) by Japanese cameramen (headed by Akira Iwasaki), the reported return of which to Japan in 1968 led Barnouw to produce the documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970). Reviewing the long-suppressed footage, Barnouw commented (in Media Marathon [1996]):

The material we saw had been organized in sequences, which included “effects on wood,” “effects on concrete,” “effects on internal organs,” and so forth, as though scientific questions had determined the shooting. Other sequences showed grotesque destruction of buildings and bridges.

Finding only a “few sequences of people at improvised treatment shelters,” Barnouw was “troubled” by the “paucity” of what he referred to as “human effects footage.” Who could be counted on to tell the stories so often unaccounted for in the records of history?

The Allies’ fight against the Axis was a worthy cause; what is unworthy of those who lost their lives on either side is a victor’s sweeping dismissal of any consequences other than victory and the suppression or outright erasure of documents suggesting trauma rather than triumph.

VJ Day was hardly an occasion to show compassion for the defeated enemy, you might say, and that it is understandable that relief about the end of the war expressed itself in levity (as heard on the Fred Allen Show from 25 November 1945, a clip of which is featured in the above video [since then removed]). To consider it appropriate, some thirty years later, to restage the Hiroshima bombing for a Texas air show; to insist, another thirty years on, that it is a “damn big insult” to acknowledge the sufferings of those who were killed for however worthy a cause, as Mr. Tibbets has done, strikes me as a failure to rival the inhumanity that is the success of Hiroshima.

Having long refused to draw attention to the death of thousands, Mr. Tibbets decided to make his own farewell a gesture of self-erasure. He had the foresight to request that no headstone be placed on his burial site, predicting that his contempt or disregard for others might tempt those ignored by him to turn his final resting place into a stage for protest. Mr. Tibbets, it seems, was one to shun debate. Perhaps, a remarkably headstrong patriot like he deserves nothing more than our respect for his final wish: a vanishing act in keeping with a life of denial, a grave as unmarked as those of the victims unremarked upon.

“No regrets.” It is these words, and the words of those who call resolve what is a lack of compassion and an unwillingness or inability to countenance doubt, that we must mark, lest we are prepared to mark the occasion of another Hiroshima . . .

On This Day in 1945: An "Undecided Molecule" Becomes a Matter of Radio Activity

Well, if I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Maybe I should say it a thousand times more and keep on saying it. Recently, the British equivalent of the destructive piece of ill equipment now installed at the White House managed to revive what might very well put an end to civilization: nuclear energy. As I looked across the fields at the green hills of Wales, some of which vistas are spoiled by clusters of wind farms, I thought what I would do if an atomic power station were to rise there. I don’t suppose leaving behind the deceptive serenity that is our garden (pictured above) would be forceful enough a statement, since moving would not bring about any change for the environment that is going to suffer at the greedy hands of narrow minds who think that today’s economy is more important than the ecology of tomorrow.

I can and will get passionate about nuclear energy, and, in this one matter, I accept neither counter-argument nor levity. That is why I fail to get much of enjoyment out of “The Undecided Molecule,” a “rhymed fantasy concerning dangerous developments among the elements” that was presented on US radio on this day, 17 July, in 1945. With a cast including Groucho Marx, Vincent Price, and Sylvia Sidney, it was given a lavish production by Columbia Presents Corwin under the direction of its author, Norman Corwin—the very man who just a few days ago offered me further advice regarding my writings about .

“The Undecided Molecule” is a courtroom drama, of sorts. At the center of it is X, the titular molecule charged with endangering the universe by failing to find its place in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. At the suggestion of the Defense, the representatives of each kingdom are called forward to assist X in making up its mind.

Now, the play is a charming piece of nonsense, nonsense of the kind made meaningful and literarily respectable by Victorian poet Edward Lear. To call it utter “nonsense,” in short, does not in any way belittle such joyful wordplay. And yet, I feel that Corwin’s play is belittling a matter of life and death. To do so was not his intention, as he assures readers of one of his anthologies of radio plays, in which the script of “The Undecided Molecule” was published.

“The atomic bomb was several weeks east of Hiroshima when this was first broadcast,” Corwin pointed out; “so it wasn’t that which got me writing about Mr. X.” Yet the testing of such nuclear might in New Mexico was already a thing of the past when the play went on the radioactive air. However they were conceived or intended, these cheerful lines are burdened by a history of destruction:

Oh, dear! Oh, dear!
The cosmic alarm!
Which means, I fear,
Some woeful harm
Is afoot or awing
In the universe.
Some deplorable thing,
Some active curse
Like a falling sky
Or a new star-cluster,
Been banged up by
A cluster-buster.

Thus cries Corwin’s Vice President in Charge of Physiochemistry when the alarm is sounded that the order of the universe has been disturbed. It is a wake-up call that might be suggesting

[. . .] a dried-up sea
Or another Ice Age for a spell,
Or maybe it’s only a freezing hell.
On the other hand it might possibly be
That Hitler is alive and well.

Hitler, of course, was good and dead. Two months earlier, Corwin had invited Americans to dance around his grave. It was in this atmosphere of relief that the Atomic Age was welcomed and the trifle of Uranium comically exploited. Soon after, this new instrument of horror and psycho-terror would inaugurate the cold war with a blast some believed could end all wars. How disillusioned many who fought the Second World War must have felt when they realized that there was no end to destruction, the preparation, prevention and clean up of which is such lucrative business. I was reminded of this last night, watching the post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives. I am reminded of it now, as I look out into the fields, in awe of molested molecules that might decide our future or what there is of it.

In “The Undecided Molecule,” things turn out all right for the kingdoms of nature; but the matter is rather too heavy to be made light of in this way. With nuclear trouble mounting, it seems dangerous to make a molehill out of a molecule.

"The Island of Death," the Radioactive Sea, and the Legacy of U235

Well, I wasn’t aware of it when I moved here. Not that such knowledge would have prevented me from moving; but it might have made me more doubtful about my seemingly pristine environs—or about picking the catch of the day from the menu of a local restaurant. The Irish Sea, I mean, and the nuclear waste it contains. Research suggests that the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from my present home of Wales, is the most radioactive body of salt water on this planet.

Growing up in cold-war Germany, I could conceive of nothing more terrifying than atomic power. My earliest nightmare, which continued to plague me in my pre-pubescence, was of a gigantic bomb. An enormous cannon ball of mass destruction, it was surrounded by a shadowy group of scientists whose proximity to this ominous orb had, to my childish mind, already proven them to be beyond trust and reason. It was a tableau right out of Dr. Mabuse, or some such German spy-fi horror, reconstructed in the feverish imagination of a troubled child. I have never learned to love the bomb—and never doubted that splitting the atom was nothing short of abject, indefensible madness.

There is no need to conceive of scientists as fiendish or sinister to realize the destructive force of nuclear energy. Whatever the nature of their tamperings with nature, the madmen of melodrama, figures like H. G. Wells’s Doctor Moreau help us cope with our anxieties about scientific experimentation by rendering the unfathomable so grotesque as to classify it as something entirely unrealistic and thus safely distant in the realm of futuristic or fantastic fiction.

On this day, 28 April, in 1947, for instance, one of Moreau’s lesser cousins appeared on US radio’s long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, luring a group of sideshow “freaks” on his remote “Island of Terror” to serve as the guinea pigs for his secret experiments, a study designed to show that the “glandular defects” of his subjects “produce psychological alterations.” As Holmes endeavored to prove in this decidedly unexceptional piece of run-of-the-mill hokum, truth is “stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Truth is, however, that fanciful ideas may become physical fact, as the inquisitive minds of the few force man-made realities upon the suffering bodies of the many.

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, little was known as yet about the long-term effects of radiation, of the cancers and mutations to threaten future generations. Radio dramatist Norman Corwin was among the first to address the tremendous legacy of the Enola Gay and its deadly mission. “Do not smile, do not smile as though knowing better,” he admonished the nonchalant in “Set Your Clock at U235,” a monologue read on 29 October 1945 by Paul Robeson (pictured above, on the cover for a recording of another radio performance).

Corwin asked Americans the uncomfortable question of what was to become of their “dear-bought, blood-begotten, towering, and grave victory”:

The secrets of the earth have been peeled back, 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.

Perhaps, Corwin had rather too much trust in mythological figures, in those “angels” on “patrol.” He believed—or at least suggested—that the “chemicking that could destroy us, together with our pots and pans and allies, can also do as bidden by us: outperform whole teams of genii: be servile to the meek: reform our wayward systems peacefully.”

The nuclear disasters of the 1970s and ‘80s should have convinced us that the genii do not feel in any way obliged to “do as bidden by us.” Here, science must be content for once to play itself out on paper. To keep those determined to doctor with or deal in that most lethal of Promethean sparks enchained on the rocks of common sense is our debt to future generations. It’s “elementary.”

How About a Cup of Freshly Mined Uranium?

Well, we’ve all pulled stunts the memories of which are best pushed back into the farthest recesses of our cranial database—unless, of course, such anecdotal evidence of our dimwittedness might serve some educational purpose or is just too temptingly absurd not to be passed on for a few laughs at our expense. Ever tried walking on water? I sure did—and very nearly drowned in the realization that slipping your feet into a pair of water wings won’t do the trick.

Some folks, myself included, never entirely grow out of this awkward—and at times perilous—stage of rationed rationality, a protracted dizzy spell during which life unfolds as a series of trials by misfire. How comforting it is then to find one’s preposterous self in fictional characters—and to find oneself outdone by them in folly and futility.

At a period in not-too-distant American history—the Great Depression of the 1930s—when formerly secure or relatively well-to-do folks were suddenly forced to live by their wits and found them wanting, radio was a reliable purveyor of reassuring fall-guy tales, stories of crazy schemers like Lum and Abner, proprietors of the Jot-Em-Down Store in the imaginary backwoods community of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

Never quite satisfied to run their unassuming store, Lum and Abner were always in search of a sure-fire get-rich-quick venture, whether it meant digging for oil or running a matrimonial bureau. Their common sense did not match their ambitions, creating plenty of opportunities for quacks and swindlers.

On this day, 27 April, in 1942, for instance, they were dreaming of real estate, a mighty complex of “Wonderful World Apartments,” for the erection of which they were promised, free of charge, a contractor who, they had not reason enough to doubt, had been responsible for the construction of the Empire State Building.

During the lean years of the depression and the time of personal sacrifices that was World War II, Lum and Abner’s antics were occasionally rendered relevant by drawing attention to a particular need or service, be it the demand for scrap metal or the benefits of local bookmobiles.

Shortly after the end of the war, however, such built-in public service announcements and dramatized propaganda seemed out of touch with listeners who had been told to do without (or do with less) for too long. Freed from the constraint imposed upon them during the war, the creators of radio entertainment could once again be unabashedly escapist and thoroughly commercial.

The dropping of the atomic bomb—a drastic act of getting it done and moving on at last—was greeted as the dawn of a new era: a peaceful one, it was hoped; but certainly one of renewed and indeed unprecedented consumerism, of wish-fulfilment and instant gratification. Rather than being rendered dreadful and threatening, radioactivity was sold to the public as a boon, the very fount of ready-made enrichment.

Barely a month after V-J Day (14 August 1945), Lum and Abner believed themselves to be in possession of this new and most magical source of energy—uranium. If only their neighbor, Cedric Weehunt, had not attempted to boost his own strength by having a sip from the cup supposedly containing “that uranium stuff.” In one of the serial’s ostensibly comic cliffhangers, Lum and Abner assume their friend to have been transformed into a dog as a result of imbibing the substance.

Such clowning around, such Enola Gayety, was a heavy-handed attempt at making light of an incredible burden. Even if the long-lasting effects of radiation were not fully grasped for some time—a horrifying discovery exploited in the sci-fi thrillers of the 1950s—the trivializing of uranium so shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki now comes across as a distasteful act of raising a cup to nuclear fallout, of toasting the loss of thousands of civilians.

Totalitarian Vistas, Orwellian Dystopias, and the Myopics of Chernobyl

Well, are you ready for United 93, the movie dramatizing the experience aboard one of the planes hijacked on 11 September 2001? New Yorkers were the first to view the film, which premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it is being screened alongside sequels and remakes like Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon. Are the popcorn-littered, digital surround-sound blasting multiplexes the most appropriate places to remember the past and commemorate the dead? Having lived in Manhattan during the terror and aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks—days of fear, frustration, anger and uncertainty—I am doubtful that any traditional film narrative, whether somber of sensational, could deepen our understanding of terrorism, let alone supersede the horrific images that continue to replay in our minds.

Our desire to see for ourselves is sometimes best left unsatisfied, unless the act of seeing—and of not finding—drives home that we must probe not elsewhere, but differently. However impressive, suggestive or manipulative, pictures cannot show us our thoughts that, at best, they can merely provoke. More often, they become too overwhelming or altogether numbing, leaving us in a state of stupefaction in which complex ideas become dim and indistinct, a state quite advantageous to propagandist efforts. I am reminded of the description of the movie theater experience in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a devastating portrait of an insensate mind:

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise [. . .]. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman [ . . .] sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself [. . .]. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause. [. . .]

Orwell’s dystopian fiction proved highly useful during the Eisenhower years, when it was appropriated for the purpose of demonizing communist ideals and socialist ideas that, in the depression-stricken period of the FDR administration, had been widely embraced, sanctioned, and partially implemented. A radio adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four that aired on this day, 26 April, in 1953, underscored the timeliness of Orwell’s “prophetic reporting of the future,” by casting newscaster Kenneth Banghart in the role of the narrator.

“Perhaps you’re wondering why a newsman is appearing in a Theatre Guild on the Air dramatization,” Banghart introduced himself and the play.

It’s because George Orwell’s great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, deals with the most terrifying subject in the news today: the threat to all free men of communism or totalitarian domination in any form. In fiction, Orwell creates for us a picture of what life might be, should the totalitarian forces succeed with their plan to become the earth’s masters.

It was a masterplan that—according to the disposable logic of America’s emerging consumer culture—was the due course of communism itself.

Thirty-three years after this broadcast—on 26 April, in 1986—the iron curtain was still firmly in place, keeping much from view and leaving more to the imagination of cold-war stirred westerners. It did not keep the radioactive cloud from moving westward, however well guarded the secret of the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl—or of its extent, at any rate—might have been. The boundaries we create in our minds, those we mind, and those we mindlessly accept, are no hindrances to the invisible force of destruction unleashed by hubris, ignorance, and greed.

Being pointed to it by someone who is generally a purveyor of visual treats, I took a virtual tour of the wasteland that is the area around Chernobyl today: a ghost world that will remain uninhabitable for generations to come. Not surprisingly, what renders these images—and the video clip above—most profound is what we do not get to see, what becomes tangible only to our receptive minds: the hazards of the half-life, the sorrow of lives lost, and the misery of life’s blind ambitions.

An X-ray Visionary for the Atomic Age

Magic is the fishiest of arts; so, it seems quite appropriate that, over at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, illusionist David Blaine attempts to wow onlookers by stepping into a tank of water and staying submerged for a week. I’m not sure whether such aquatics qualify as superheroics, but Gotham Citizen seem more likely to embrace Blaine’s antics than cynical Londoner, who may have cheered Tom Cruise at the Mission Impossible 3 premiere today, but who were less-than-impressed by Blaine’s 2004 out-of-lunch box stunt. After all, the USA are the birthplace of latter-day superheroes such as the 20th-century graphic arts creations whose cinematic offspring keep populating (or perhaps quelling) our imagination, an army of X-Men among whom, the charm of Tobey Mcguire notwithstanding, Superman still reigns supreme.

Although rather fond of comic books as a child—and still partial to the exploits of Tintin and Snowy—I have never been much intrigued by those super-powered, larger-than-life action figures. Indeed, I have always been suspicious of such secular saviors, avenging angels whose awe-inspiring wrath seems to demand the belief that worthy ends—ends worthwhile for you and your kin—justify violent deeds, that trust in some higher power will take care of the alien, the evil, or the merely inconvenient and, for that matter, of everything else amiss in the western-centric universe.

On this day, 25 April, in 1941, the Superman of the airwaves—the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet original having been cloned nearly as often as Santa Claus—was still dealing with comparatively trifling substances like nitrate; four-and-a-half years later, he was facing far more dangerous and destructive forces, personified by the insidious Atom Man. Let’s make that Atom Mann. Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, there was nothing more daunting than a nuclear weapon—unless, of course, that weapon was wielded by a runaway Nazi.

Until the Communists could be trusted to take over, after an appropriate period of vilification, the Nazis remained very much alive in American culture as mythical figures of evil incarnate. That they had considerably less political prowess after VJ-Day only made them all the more suitable for seemingly innocuous, a-political thrills, for which purpose they were transformed into characters akin to the wicked stepmother in Grimms’s fairytales.

Outage by nuclear power is what threatened the man of steel in the fall of 1945. As the announcer of the radio serial “Superman vs. the Atom Man” summed up (in a script published by Watson-Guptill),

Henry Miller, the Nazi Atom Man [ah, that Henry Miller], threatened to destroy every man, woman, and child in Metropolis by drowning! While all police authorities, aided by the army, guard every inch of the city’s waterways, and Superman hover high in the heavens, searching for the deadly foe who has twice brought him close to death, Miller, unseen by anyone, is slipping through the dark woods in the hills above Metropolis, bent on shattering the dam holding back the water in the city’s gigantic billion-gallon reservoir, and engulfing Metropolis!

That atomic power was capable of doing far more lasting harm, such as the fallout still studied and debated in Chernobyl, was apparently deemed too frightening for the listener—and too inconvenient for the serial writer.

In his radio dis-incarnation, Superman may have enjoyed the endorsement of psychologists (as claimed by the contemporary magazine article above); but his presence was nonetheless contaminating the air by spreading the notion that there is always someone out there to put things right—right for the good citizens of a certain nation that believes itself vulnerable enough to be in need of long-range missiles and short-order mythologies.

Trivializing History Is a Dangerous Assignment

Well, I have always been somewhat of a ham, even though my own life has remained the only long-running drama in which I have had the good fortune to play a sizable part. Yesterday, the cured meat was of the smoked variety. I spent the weekend, it having been a sufficiently dry one, at last, watching our gargantuan compost heap go up in flames (or smolder, at any rate). As the plumes wafted over the fields, I was reminded of the invisible cloud that, back in April 1986, made its way westward across Europe. I am referring, of course, to the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power station, the fallout and immediate aftermath of which I well remember as I saw polluted playgrounds being closed in Germany, pharmacists profit from outbreaks of hysteria, and toxic milk vanish from supermarket shelves (to be shipped, in powered form, to apparently immune consumers in the Middle East). It was a disconcerting experience worth recalling today, as oil prices in the West are rising nearly as fast as concerns about emerging nuclear powers in the East.

Is there any drama equal to the times in which we live? Is it in need of fictionalization? Can—and should—our fears—as far as they are felt by those who prefer to numb their pain or ignore its sources—be melodramatized and acted out for us in order to bring distant terror home and to render vague anxieties concrete?

During World War II, the mass media of radio and film tried to do just that—letting the home front see and vicariously experience what was at stake overseas. Such blatant propaganda would hardly be Hollywood-endorsed or swallowed whole today, be the objective ever so unobjectionable to the many.

I thought about this again last night, when I caught the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce thriller Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), which was shown on the British cable channel UK Drama. In it, the wireless becomes a tool used by the enemy—my ancestors from Germany—to instill fear and doubt in the British people. The air is contaminated by the less than subtle influences of a demoralizing force not unlike that exerted by the infamous Lord Haw Haw.

The thriller sought to counter this terrifying voice by giving the speaker a face, by turning fascism into a concrete figure—and a single one at that. As ideas become flesh, they not only seem more readily conquerable, they very nearly vanish altogether behind the mask created for the purpose of propaganda. Melodrama operates by processing the abstract—the tangled roots of a problem—into a visible, tangible entity. What makes melodrama unlike life is not that it offers a happy ending—not all melodramas end happily, no matter how strongly our viewpoint might be enforced—but that it embodies and thereby obscures what is most potent and problematic in its disembodiment: the war of ideas.

Melodrama does not encourage its audience to perceive the ideological bases of any problem. It deals in specifics, thereby encouraging us to believe a problem to be solvable if only its manifestations can be overcome. Instead of making us question the sources of our fears—which may well be our own ignorance—melodrama provides more or less ready answers, for which reason it is the idiom of propaganda, used by politicians the world over with considerable success.

What has this to do with Chernobyl, you might ask. Well, the atomic age got under way by creating the illusion that nuclear power is safe as long as it is in the right hands—which means, of course, our own. It was a belief instilled in western minds ever since the dropping of the bomb that ended World War II. Popular storytelling, whether overtly propagandist or not, has assisted in selling atomic power as a safe source of energy and in justifying the nuclear arms race of the cold war.

On this day, 24 April, in 1950, for instance, Steve Mitchell (portrayed by Brian Donlevy) went on another Dangerous Assignment (in a US series of episodic radio thrillers so titled), this time in search of a missing nuclear physicist. A few weeks earlier, Mitchell (pictured above, in one of his TV adventures) had been sent to the Middle East to prevent a uranium-enriched sheik from creating an atomic bomb. The peril, such fictions insisted, lay not in the substance, but in its possessor.

As I shall explore in subsequent essays, the airwaves carried a great deal of such propagandist fiction into US homes during decade following the end of the Second World War; some of these stories trivialized uranium in everyday American life while most others demonized foreigners with a hankering after atomic might.

“God and Uranium”: Corwin, VJ Day, and the Disorientation of American Culture

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, Norman Corwincommemorated 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!

[Cannon.] 

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 believed to be a ringing in of peace, but 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. . . .”