Context — May 27, 2016, 12:29 pm

Fifty Years Under a Cloud

The uneasy search for our atomic history

Published in the January 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Fifty Years Under a Cloud,” reflects on the half century following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946. Subscribe to Harper’s and receive our print edition delivered to your door each month—plus instant digital access to our entire 166-year archive.

To truly understand the weight of Paul Tibbets’s bitterness, one must imagine him in the cockpit of the Enola Gay, sitting on a runway on the island of Tinian on that August morning in 1945. He is at the controls of a B-29 Superfortress, the latest development in aviation, the most powerful plane ever built. It has taken the construction of a virtual city in an American desert, two billion dollars in government funds, and years of intense work by an army of scientists and technicians to create, produce, and deliver a single bomb to his plane’s specially reconfigured bomb bay. The new weapon represents the very latest development in the long history of destructive technology.  

The journalists, movie cameramen, and photographers swarming around the bomber at the behest of the Department of War are uncertain of exactly what they are recording, but sense that they may be close to the final moments in a global war already brought to its triumphant conclusion in Europe. Tibbets, who has spent the last year commanding the 509th Composite Group, has been assured in secret briefings that this mission will help end the grim war in the Pacific expeditiously.  

Although we cannot know what he is imagining, he is certainly well aware of the honor roll of airpower pioneers whom he might soon join. They are his history, as are the heroes of the Argonne, San Juan Hill, Gettysburg, Bunker Hill, and the frontier wars against the Indians, who brought his nation to this possible moment of ultimate triumph. He has every reason to believe that, if success is his, his plane, his crew, and his exploits will someday be part of a glorious story of the Air Force, as well as of a larger national tale of triumph that his children and theirs will invoke with pride.  

As the Enola Gay lifts off from the specially lengthened runway built for it on Tinian, it carries not only a bomb weighing more than four metric tons but the full weight of American optimism, of the sense that life has progressed for untold millions of years from the primordial soup to this moment: that tens of thousands of years of development have taken Man from the discovery of fire to the mastery of flight; that hundreds of years of expanding freedoms have led from the Magna Carta to a prospective U.N. charter; and that from the first tentative landings on a new continent, more than three hundred years of American history have led to this potential prelude to an American century. tial prelude to an American century.

But something happened to American society when the Enola Gay dropped its payload. As the bomb detonated and a fireball incinerated Hiroshima, Tibbets made a long-practiced sheer turn away from the destruction. And there, in the sky over Hiroshima, at that largely unacknowledged disjuncture in history, the American frontier—the one that remained deep in the national imagination—truly closed.

Read the entire essay here.

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More from Tom Engelhardt:

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From the January 1996 issue

Fifty years under a cloud

The uneasy search for our atomic history

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In the Nadirland of today’s children’s books

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Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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Good Bad Bad Good·

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Life after Life·

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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