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My grandfather and the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima

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I vividly remember a photograph hanging in my grandmother’s house when I was a child, showing my grandfather standing in front of a mushroom cloud. At the time I didn’t understand what it meant, but it launched a lifelong interest in his involvement in the nuclear bomb.

As I came to understand the significance of the photo, I was haunted to know that he played a part in the horror released in Hiroshima, taking an estimated 80,000 lives in the force of a single explosion, and hundreds of thousands in the days, weeks, months and years after, as the radiation ran its course through the bodies of those who had been there that day.

My trip to Hiroshima was the culmination of years of grappling with this history, attempting to understand my grandfather and the legacy of his work. Even after Hiroshima, he chose to continue a career in nuclear weapons production. His rapid climb was halted when his mental health began spiralling in the ’60s. He spent nearly a decade in and out of psychiatric hospitals, alcoholic and suicidal, and was finally medically retired, declared “totally and permanently disabled” by his psychiatrist.

Part of my journey has been trying to grasp how his work contributed to his unravelling. I’ve spent several months of the pandemic quarantined on land outside Oak Ridge that was once my grandfather’s farm. As I watched spring, then summer, roll in on this beautiful land bought with nuclear weapons money, I thought about his contradictions — how he built bombs and planted trees, how he found his way off the farm and built a middle-class life for his family by making weapons of mass destruction.

As we approach Thursday’s 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, I’ve been revisiting the history of the bomb through the story of another man: Leo Szilard. A Hungarian physicist and Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Szilard was both responsible for the bomb’s existence and ultimately opposed to its use.

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In a moment of terrible inspiration while crossing a London street in 1933, Szilard first conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction that could make an atom bomb possible. Then, afraid of such a weapon in Nazi hands, he convinced Albert Einstein to write to President Roosevelt urging him to counter the Nazi threat by building an American bomb first. That programme became the Manhattan Project.

After Germany’s defeat, Szilard did everything he could to try to stop the bomb from being used, attempting to influence military leaders, and recruiting 155 Manhattan Project scientists to sign a petition urging President Truman to consider the grave moral implications and dangerous precedent of deploying the bomb. But it never reached the president.

I’d always thought of Szilard as a sort of tragic hero, whose good intentions to curb Nazi power unleashed a nightmare he couldn’t stop. Even afterwards, Szilard continued to fight to ensure that the weapon he’d dreamed into existence would not be the end of humanity, advocating for international arms control and nuclear truth-telling. He was a rare mix of genius, imagination and conscience, a man willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his work.

In many ways, I wish my grandfather had been more like him. In my research, I hoped to find a moment of protest or moral reckoning. But he was a man who accepted a culture of secrecy designed to quell conscience and dissent. He followed directives from above. He did his job.

And yet, there is one story that suggests he did, in the end, question the work he’d built his life on. My mother, an anti-nuclear activist, met my father’s father only once, with some friends who weren’t so concerned with gaining George’s approval. They peppered him with direct questions about the morality of nuclear weapons, and he answered, without hesitation, that no nation, not even the US, should possess them: we should disarm, he said, even if we did so unilaterally.

My mother was stunned. It was a radical position for the time, especially for someone from within the nuclear weapons industry.

I’m relieved to know that my grandfather faced, at least for a moment, the moral implications of his work. But I’m disappointed, even angry, that he didn’t speak up sooner, and publicly.

His misgivings, instead, were turned inwards. In July 1983, a congressional hearing was held in Oak Ridge to address the revelation that, decades earlier, the production of fuel for hydrogen bombs had leaked massive amounts of mercury into the local environment. My grandfather had overseen that process; a former psychiatrist of his told me he’d been tortured by guilt for his part in contaminating his home, the place he’d raised his children. George died of a heart attack six months after the hearing.

Seventy-five years ago, my country unleashed the bomb on the world. I don’t think we’ve ever fully reckoned with that legacy. Today, the United States has an estimated 3800 nuclear weapons in its military stockpiles; the world has more than 13,000.

The Doomsday Clock was designed by former Manhattan Project scientists to communicate the existential threat of nuclear weapons to the world. Every year since 1947, experts have met to determine how many minutes to “nuclear midnight” we are. At the beginning of this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the minute-hand to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been to apocalypse, citing the weakening and ending of arms control treaties by global leaders, the increasingly dire threat of climate change, and the cyberwarfare that impedes the international response to these existential threats. Our very survival depends on how boldly we can change course.

The Telegraph, London

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