When did I hear about Hiroshima, when and where? In 1945 I was twenty, and in Beirut. The war had ended with a big bang, so it seemed, and it must have been because of Hiroshima. Some terror had finished the war, a war that for Lebanon represented an economic boom, a participation in adventure. Japan was extremely far from our daily horizon. Ten years later, in January 1955, I was landing in New York harbor, on my way to UC Berkeley. It’s in Berkeley that I found out the immensity of that ‘event.’ A debate had started about its necessity, as Oppenheimer, one of the two physicists held as most responsible for the making of the atomic bomb, was feeling guilt and speaking around the nation against that ultimate weapon. I saw my first images of the explosion in Hiroshima and the mushroom like white cloud looked to me as a human brain, adding to its terror. Then I learned that the war was already won by the Americans when they dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the indignation that I felt is still with me to this day. I remained alerted, and Hiroshima remained both real and symbolic, real as total evil, and symbolic of the over-kill that runs through the history of the United States, this happening along the years wherein the same time I was exhilarated by the discovery that my new life had become. That dichotomy also remained as a conducting thread in my inner relation to the U.S., a country I became a citizen of, and where I spent the major part of my life, and most of my happiest years. Yes, life in its richness, is made of contradictions and ambiguities.
Along the years I became aware that the U.S. has a double birth-certificate: an admirable constitution on one hand, and the absolute genocide of the Indians, on the other, to which we have to add the mass importation of black Africans for slavery.
Ever its inception, the U.S. has been one way or the other involved in war, and in domestic violence. After the Indian “wars,” there was the conquest of Mexican lands, the wars in Latin America, the Civil War, the wars in Europe, the hidden operations during the Cold War, and most recently the war in Iraq so ruthless that titled in the near annihilation of that country! Hiroshima has become, thus, the perfect achievement of Western civilization, the dream of Faust made true: the invention of a weapon that could annihilate the planet Earth (and probably change the make-up of the universe). So Hiroshima remained central to my being.
I would like to mention a reading that I never forgot. When a student in the philosophy department in Berkeley, there was a practice sponsored by the University consisting in inviting one their numerous Nobel Prize professors, to give an annual public lecture.
A friend of mine alerted me. It must have been 1955 or 1956. I went into a packed amphitheater to listen to a letter given by Edward Teller, named the “father of the atom bomb.” Those wreath years where Heisenberg’s theory of indeterminacy had shaken the world of science. The idea that absolute truth is structurally impossible, as the observer acts on the thing observed, had ruined the total self-confidence of the academic world. Teller appeared on stage, a man not too tall, deadly serious, barely looking at the crowd.
The most famous man on Earth, and a hero for some, evil personified for others, spoke of Heisenberg’s impact of his fellow scientists. He was somber and was showing the grandeur of that pessimism invading a world that had come out victorious of a world war. What is unforgettable about that lecture is that he illustrated the mood of his thinking by quoting at regular intervals and in a clear voice, a sonnet of Omar Khayyám, the great Persian Islamic poet, mathematician and astronomer of the XIth and XIIth centuries. He recited, thus, in a hypnotic way, the whole book of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, the greatest poetic experience I ever heard. That lecture still resonates in my ears.
Some twenty years later, my friend Robert Del Tredici, after much research, wrote a book, The Making of the Atom, part of his life-long denunciation of the use of the atomic bomb on two major Japanese cities. Among his section made of interviews, there’s his interview with Edward Teller. He asked the Hungarian-born famous physicist if he regretted the making the bomb. Teller said that he didn’t. And when Tredici asked him if he was aware that the next atomic war could annihilate the planet, Teller said yes, that it could, and added “So what? The world will end anyway, it’s Armageddon, it’s in the Bible”!