by Ari Rutenberg
On August 20th, 1945 Time magazine film critic James Agee wrote a commentary on what the dropping of the atomic bomb meant for the human race. In his truly brilliant and eloquent piece, Agee discusses the potential effects of such power on the human race, and our individual souls. The writing is timeless and moving, but more importantly it asks questions about using the bomb that today we must consider when discussing torture, wiretapping, and all the new forms of power we have acrrued as our society advances.
by James Agee
August 20th, 1945
The greatest and most terrible of wars ended, this week, in the
echoes of an enormous event—an event so much more enormous that,
relative to it, the war itself shrank to minor significance. The
knowledge of victory was as charged with sorrow and doubt as with joy
and gratitude. More fearful responsibilities, more crucial liabilities
rested on the victors even than on the vanquished.
In what they said and did, men were still, as in the aftershock
of a great wound, bemused and only semi-articulate, whether they were
soldiers or scientists, or great statesmen, or the simplest of men. But
in the dark depths of their minds and hearts, huge forms moved and
silently arrayed themselves: Titans, arranging out of the chaos an age
in which victory was already only the shout of a child in the street.
With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already
profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new
age in which all thoughts and things were split—and far from
controlled. As most men realized, the first atomic bomb was a merely
pregnant threat, a merely infinitesimal promise (see ATOMIC AGE).
All thoughts and things were split. The sudden achievement of
victory was a mercy, to the Japanese no less than to the United
Nations; but mercy born of a ruthless force beyond anything in human
chronicle. The race had been won, the weapon had been used by those on
whom civilization could best hope to depend; but the demonstration of
power against living creatures instead of dead matter created a
bottomless wound in the living conscience of the race. The rational
mind had won the most Promethean of its conquests over nature, and had
put into the hands of common man the fire and force of the sun itself.
Was man equal to the challenge? In an instant, without warning,
the present had become the unthinkable future. Was there hope in that
future, and if so, where did hope lie?”