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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The uneasy search for our atomic history

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