Friday, July 19, 2013

A Los Alamos Diary: "We May Eventually Comprehend More of this Sea of Words"

Kathy and I have been staying for a week in an RV court in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A couple of days ago two new people pulled in next door to our rig. They are retired engineers. The husband worked for many years designing and testing munitions for the US Navy. 

Yesterday I rode with the husband to Los Alamos, which is an hour’s drive from Santa Fe. There we spent hours in the Bradbury Science Museum. It has extensive displays about the Los Alamos Laboratory, which is now the size of several university campuses; the Manhattan Project, which was centered there during World War II; J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Laboratory’s original director; and the role of nuclear weapons in WWII. There are life-size duplicates, which I photographed, of “Little Boy” (the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima) and “Fat Man” (the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki).

As I expected, I found all of this fascinating and deeply troubling. I have always worried that the US has been taken over, to a large extent, by an imperial agenda that expresses itself through military interventions whose true cost to our people and those we intervene against is staggering and is seldom dealt with by us. WWII, which developed from imperial rivalries in which we actively engaged beginning with “opening” Japan and occupying the Philippines in the nineteenth century, is no exception to this pattern. The questions about whether we were justified in using Little Boy and Fat Man in the way we did, are just one aspect of this long and difficult story.

An entry from President Truman’s diary which the exhibit quoted says that he instructed Secretary of War Stimson to have the nuclear weapons dropped on military targets only, not on “women and children.” I wonder whether Stimson heard Truman say that; and what about the fire bombings, etc. Of course, a museum exhibit wouldn’t normally explore such fine historical details as these.

A separate exhibit put together by several veterans’ groups spoke rather defensively about Truman’s decision to drop the bombs. The only alternative to the actual bombing which it considered was an invasion of Japan’s home islands by US troops, which would undoubtedly have cost a very large number of American lives. It seems that a group at Los Alamos did discuss a possible “demonstration” of the destructive power of the nuclear weapons, against a target not involving civilians. A group led by Leo Szilard at Los Alamos asked Truman not to use the weapons at all. The weapons had been developed in the fear that Nazi Germany might develop them first, but Germany had been defeated by conventional weapons (and it turned out that Germany had not in fact made serious efforts toward developing nuclear weapons).

The whole issue is very complicated, particularly when you ask what other options the US might have pursued from the nineteenth century onward. Trade, fears, “power vacuums,” “geopolitics”…. All that we actually know is what actually happened.

During our fairly extended conversation, and despite having been a lifelong Navy employee, my neighbor endorsed President Eisenhower’s warning about the undue power of the “military-industrial complex.” I could have hugged him when he said that.

Robert Oppenheimer himself became embroiled in the political and moral emotions of the 1950s, when he lost his security clearance due to associations he had had with a few American communists in the 1930s. I’ve known a few communists myself, and have been attracted to Marxism because of the cogent observations it makes about imperialism and other aspects of capitalist societies. 

Reading the biographies of important Manhattan Project people, I was strongly affected by the bio of Hans Bethe. Bethe spent his later years at Cornell University, where I studied. He campaigned continuously for nuclear arms control and disarmament, and was a serious poet. Reading his little bio, which didn’t even mention his poetry, I choked up with emotion. Thinking about this, I realize that Bethe represents to me the unity of nature, morality, art, and spirit. I am always touched by people whose lives reach across these divides.

This morning I dreamed that I was reading the early pages of Hegel’s Science of Logic again, but now it seemed much more like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, a sea of words and phrases that only occasionally conveyed something intelligible. We were a group, a class no doubt, working on the book by skipping through it. Eventually it was indeed Ulysses after all. Our guide, who seemed like my former professor Terry Irwin, advised us to mark and reread a major passage, in which we could see some guidepost phrases. We were happy that we could come back to them at the next class and perhaps grasp more of what they contained.

I think this dream is a comment on (especially) my experience yesterday at Los Alamos. The factual and moral complexity of twentieth-century history; the moral difficulties faced by individuals from Truman and Oppenheimer to my Navy employee friend; all of this boggles my mind. It’s like the “sea of words and phrases” in the dream. It would be too easy to simply condemn everyone who has been in any way involved (including myself, as a US citizen and taxpayer). It would also be too easy to simply absolve us all. My instincts lead me to try not to dwell on these difficult issues, and I don’t think it’s useful to obsess about them, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to ignore them, either.

The dream says that this history is like a sea of words that only occasionally convey something intelligible. I should mark and reread major passages, in which I may eventually grasp more of what they contain. That is, I should keep my eyes open to these facts and issues, rather than hiding from them, and I may eventually be able to understand them and speak to them in a more adequate way. It was good to go to Los Alamos and confront these events and people, rather than staying away from them because of the difficult emotions they inspire.