“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. . . .”

Anodyne Thrills, Abject Thraldom: Broadcasting “fear itself”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted in his 1933 inaugural speech. These days, as bombs are going off again in London (and, for that matter, in many other places east and west) and as people are being victimized both by terrorism and the measures taken to control it, this famous aphorism seems particularly poignant. What is to be feared, certainly, is the abject thraldom of fear, the suspicion it breeds, and the potential it has to quell the spirit of humanity, to diminish our ability to act within reason and with understanding. As is the case with all epigrams, however, FDR’s becomes shorter on wisdom the longer it is pondered.

What might this be, “fear itself”? Is fear not always a reaction, whether reasonable or not? As a response to stimuli or surroundings, it is neither to be feared in “itself” nor as part of our being. The avoidance of conditions potentially harmful to us is an instinct it would hardly behoove us to conquer in our efforts to become more civilized, less primal. I lived in New York City when the World Trade Center towers crumbled in a cloud of asbestos-filled dust. What impressed me most during the immediate aftermath was that those living in fear and trembling were reminded of their mortality, encouraged to examine their everyday lives in order to find ways of making themselves useful to others. Even heroes were publicly shedding tears.

While often admired, warriors who prefer fight over flight are often less civilized than the worriers who respond to threats by trying to avoid them or void them with circumspection. In any case, fear is hardly the “only thing” to be dreaded, no matter how dire the situation. Recklessness and heedless indifference of dangerous consequences beget more horrors than caution, awe, or diffidence. What is to be feared most, perhaps, is fearmongering—the deliberate provocation of fear, the manufacturing of fear for profit or political gain. The media are open, the masses vulnerable to such designs. Yet when the fears are real and not sensed keenly enough, imagined terror may assist in making true horrors apparent.

The 7 December 1941 broadcast of Inner Sanctum Mysteries‘s “Island of Death” suggests just slow the radio industry was to react to the terror that had finally hit home. The show, however inappropriate, had to go on, for the sake of the sponsors. The titular island is not, of course, Hawaii; but it is doubtful that either this “strange and terrible tale” of black magic or the sponsor’s product, “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” (the “best friend to your sunny disposition”) could do much to get people’s minds off the topic of the day or alleviate the anxieties the news—or lack thereof—must have produced.

The government could not afford radio drama to remain escapist. Within a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear became a weapon aimed at mobilizing the homefront. In Arch Oboler’s “Chicago, Germany,” for instance, listeners were confronted with the dystopia of an America annexed and governed by the Nazis. With nightmarish fantasies like these, the Treasury hoped to raise millions for defense.

It is too simplistic to argue that audiences then were more gullible or less sophisticated than today’s consumers of popular culture. Certainly, the 1940s, when millions of civilians perished or faced irreparable losses as the result of global warfare, were not “innocent” times, as those pining for nostalgia might opine. They were times of uncertainty like any “now” any time, times of suffering, hardship, and frustration—times during which those tired of threats or numbed by pain needed to be reminded that a present free from fear might bring about a future without freedom, that to stop fearing might well mean to stop living.

The weekly blood-and-thunder anthologies were deemed particularly suitable to the awakening of real terror through imaginary thrills. Underlying the tension of such melodramas, wrapped up neatly within less than 30 minutes, were the anxieties of war, which were often driven home with a final curtain call appeal. Even shortly before the end of the war in Europe, when those listening to the tales of The Mysterious Traveler were invited to rejoice as ”Death Comes for Adolf Hitler” (24 March 1945), a mere month prematurely, they were cautioned that the dangers of Nazism were still very much alive. So, rather than being purely escapist, the terror of the airwaves provided anodyne thrills to impede abject thraldom.

Today, the uses of fear are well understood by the terrorists, that new breed of indiscriminals holding the world hostage; but the weapon that once was the thriller is too rarely being honed to prepare us for them.