Roger Rosenblatt

Witness: The World Since Hiroshima

VTR Date: July 20, 1985

Guest: Rosenblatt, Roger


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Rosenblatt
Title: “Witness: The World Since Hiroshima”
VTR: 7/20/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When today’s guest last joined me on my other weekly program, The Editor’s Desk, he had the pleasure of talking with Elie Wiesel, who referred to the Holocaust as “the memory of a memory.” Now Roger Rosenblatt, Time’s superb essayist, in his magazine and in a new Little, Brown boo, has us Witness: The World Since Hiroshima. And I wonder if to him Hiroshima too is, in a sense, the memory of a memory. What do you say Roger? Is it just the memory of a memory? And I don’t mean to demean it by saying “just”.

ROSENBLATT: No, it seems to me to be everything. It’s certainly that, but it’s our lives now. In a way, everybody lives in Hiroshima and has lived there since August 6, 1945. One of the…This is the most interesting thing I’ve ever tried to understand, and I certainly didn’t come close in my own judgment. But everything we do is colored by that event, the dropping of that bomb. Certainly life in Hiroshima was touched by it. While that was the most impassioned and heartbreaking result of the bomb, it was in a sense the least important consequence.

HEFFNER: There? Or in the rest of the world?

ROSENBLATT: For the world and for history. After that politics changed, culture changed, behavior changed, conduct of lives changed, our thoughts about the future changed in that one act. I don’t know if people at the time fully realized what that act would do, but we looking back know. So it’s more than the memory of the memory. It’s the memory of the future.

HEFFNER: You say, “The memory of the future,” and you talk about its importance. When Dr. Lifton did another program with me, he said “Hir-OH-shima”, and I started to say, “Hir-OH-shima.” And I’m going to join with you with “Hiro-SHI-ma”; it comes more naturally. He too talked about impact and impact upon our thinking upon the bomb. And he talked about our negative attitudes, increasingly negative attitudes toward the nuclear arsenal, and was rather hopeful that that negative attitude toward nuclear armament would have positive results. When you talk about impact, where is the impact in terms of our political as you describe political effect? Where is it? Is it seen in terms of our staying away from nuclear armament? Clearly no. Where?

ROSENBLATT: You mean where is the, how did the bomb affect the history of political development since, or how do we look at the world now, the political world?

HEFFNER: How do we look at the world now differently in terms of national rivalries, given the presence of the bomb?

ROSENBLATT: Well, as you know, in this Time story my source for such information is Richard Nixon. Nixon may have seemed an unusual choice, but as it turned out I don’t think one could have done better. He not only was he one of eight Americans in history to have charge, personal charge of nuclear weapons, but he’s been in politics practically the whole time period that we’re talking about. And in Congress in 1947 and through the presidency which he resigned in the ‘70s. For 14 of those 40 years he was either second in command or in command of those weapons. And when I asked him the question you asked me, what he said, in effect, was, “the world has now become a more interesting place as a result of nuclear weapons. That nuclear diplomacy, which started out in a kind of faltering way when the United States alone had the bomb, changed a bit when the Soviets go it in 1949, but since we had more of the bombs we could use them more as a stick in nuclear diplomacy, and we did in Suez and other places, Korea.” There’s a counter-theory to this, but Nixon’s is that. And Nixon’s, to my mind, seems persuasive. And this obtained all the way through the early ‘60s into the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened, and there was your most dramatic confrontation and the most dramatic use of nuclear diplomacy, the nuclear stick. Kruschev backed off, but Kennedy backed off too. We took our, we took weapons out of Turkey. There was a tacit agreement for Kennedy to stop supporting the anti-Castro forces in the United States. And Kuznetzov, the Deputy Foreign Minister, told John McCloy during or just after Cuba, “You have done this to us now, but you will never do this to us again.” Which turned out to be true. From that point on, as you know, the soviets built up their arms, not to a thousand as we had anticipated, not to a thousand antiballistic missiles, but more than that. And created, in fact, or began to create the missile gap that was not a fact when Kennedy drew on those words during the ’60 campaign but became of started to become a fact by the time Nixon became president in ’69. “Then,” he says, and proves in his talk, “the world became interesting.” As I said, because then as soon as you have a near balance as we’ve got now in nuclear arms, then you have a stalemate. Then suddenly you have to deal with the world on other means than nuclear weapons. So from Nixon’s perspective nuclear weapons did some good in the world for two reasons. One, there has not been a world war, though there have been over a hundred what we call “little wars.” And I don’t mean to trivialize them by saying it. But at least no world war as a result of these weapons. And two, and the most interesting thing to me, he said that the existence of this weapon brought the United States into its own. Meaning for him where he would want to see it, as a world player, not an isolationist country. As a nineteenth century European power.

HEFFNER: One of the most interesting things to me about your book and about the Time piece, you say the president said nuclear war power made the situation interesting. Is the way in which you made him so interesting, in the way in which you reported what he had to say with a, I thought, something of admiration, respect certainly; and I wonder if this notion of interesting isn’t a rather strange and strained concept? And I found myself surprised a little in my reaction to him and now in my reaction to what you’re saying.

ROSENBLATT: I can’t tell if it’s strained. It certainly didn’t seem strained or strange to me. And I really was a tabula rosa when I went in there on this subject. Nobody can meet Richard Nixon as I did for the first time then without lugging in a whole set of presumptions and fears, all of which I had. But on this subject here’s a, it seemed to me at any rate, a remarkable intelligence and somebody who really is a duck in water on this, that this is where he wants to live. That at least, and what we know of the lighter side of his terms as president, of the better side, this is where his strength was, and it’s still there.

HEFFNER: If you had your druthers, given how interesting international life has been made and America’s position has been made by the presence of nuclear power, would you have it or would you do away with it?

ROSENBLATT: Well, nuclear power and nuclear arms is…

HEFFNER: No, I meant nuclear arms. I’m sorry.

ROSENBLATT: Okay. I don’t know if I’m equipped to say it. Certainly one thing you learn by investigating such a subject is history has its own truth and it’s impossible to translate yourself into another period. One of the questions that you raise is should we have dropped the bomb. That becomes a terribly difficult question to answer, because it depends on what perspective you’re taking, and all the perspectives seem valid. I would say looking back one could build a case, yes, it’s a good thing we had nuclear weapons because it has caused a standoff between the two world powers, and therefore may have the likelihood of preventing a world war between those powers. But then the conventional wisdom is maybe that world war won’t start between those powers. Maybe it’ll start with somebody smaller or a terrorist who can get a bomb down to a very small size and blow it up in Chicago, or by accident all these things. So my guess is that the world has simply upped the ante in both extremes. It is at once much more dangerous because the consequences of danger are more severe; and it is safer because history has proved in retrospect we haven’t had a world war.

HEFFNER: It’s that kind of proof that becomes or seems to reside in that wonderful category of famous last words. I hope they’re not. But they frighten me when I recognize the degree to which in your book, in your Time magazine piece too, you were taken with this point of view, very much taken.

ROSENBLATT: Maybe I could turn it around, since you were more familiar with the world of the Second World War than I.

HEFFNER: Go ahead. Talk about my age. Go ahead.

ROSENBLATT: No, I won’t talk about it directly. Do these times seem more perilous to you than in the late 1930s?

HEFFNER: Oh, my gosh, yes.

ROSENBLATT: And why is that?

HEFFNER: Because…Who’s doing the questioning here, Roger? But I’ll answer the question and then ask you what your own feelings are. Because of the presence of a power that has to seem to most human beings, it seems to me, to be overwhelmingly devastating in its potential. Do you think not?

ROSENBLATT: Oh, of course I think so, that it’s devastating in its potential. I just don’t know whether one can, whether it feels more – I mean, that’ why I asked the question. I didn’t mean to turn the tables entirely. But I don’t know how one compares living under a threat which is potential to living under a threat such as that of Germany in the ‘30s which was real and resulted in the kind of world war which at least under the conditions of these weapons now seems unlikely.

HEFFNER: I’m not terribly impressed – you’ll forgive me – by this business of: For 40 years now, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can agree on that, there has been no major confrontation. But Korea, if one numbers men killed and maimed, Korea and Vietnam and many, many, many other smaller encounters have still been war.

ROSENBLATT: They’ve all been wars. And at one time there were 47 wars going on in the world at the same time. And I mean, nobody’s making an argument; we’re actually talking around something here too as well as specifics. We’re not only talking about the political consequences of human activity; we’re talking about basic human nature.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Basic human nature?”

ROSENBLATT: Well, let me finish one thing before I get to another.

HEFFNER: Go ahead. Go ahead.

ROSENBLATT: The total number of dead from the Second World War now is nothing compared to the numbers killed in that war. The number killed in that war was so much more than was killed in the First World War. If one went to a projection from the First World War to the Second World War to a third, the numbers would be staggering if there were people around, anybody around left to count. But I think it would be proportional. Sixteen million in the First World War, 55 million in the Second World War, due largely if not totally to the idea that civilians were part of targets, that civilians were to become targets.

HEFFNER: Where did you learn this calculus? Because it is a strange, interesting kind of calculus.

ROSENBLATT: Oh, all I mean is that when in just a historical fact in the First World War you had a war fought on fronts, on a front. The Second World War you had wars fought in Coventry, in London, in Berlin. The concept of fighting a war had changed, had the emphasis on the strategic bombing of civilians becoming part of the war then.

HEFFNER: And today living with the threat of annihilation we have not experienced such a huge conflagration? Is that what you’re saying?

ROSENBLATT: That’s right. And that the establishment of the strategic bombing of civilians, that is terror bombing, rather than nuclear war, it was the premise on which nuclear war becomes dangerous.

HEFFNER: I like you so much, Roger, I’m going to turn away from this subject because I can’t deal with it, I can’t deal with this comparison or this calculus of danger. What I want to turn to is what you, what is the fourth part of your fascinating account of the impact of the dropping that bomb 40 years ago. And you say, “What the people saw,” that’s what you call it. And you write, “People realize that the remarkable bomb was not going to be a gift without a price. So we were wary, we were warned, we were concerned.” Who was? Where do you see around you, where do we see around us today very, very many truly concerned persons?

ROSENBLATT: Well, I think we saw people concerned right from the start, but I don’t know how that concern was manifested directly. One of the things that I’ve tried to discuss is the progression with which we were able to deal with this experience. Once you saw what happened in Hiroshima it didn’t take much intelligence to see this in a vision of the future, not simply historical act. And certainly once the Soviets got the bomb and once we got the bomb, once we started to develop the hydrogen bomb and the acceleration that followed, you knew the world was going to be imperiled, when you knew you were the world. The interesting thing about that whole process was the public imagination really had to go to work because most bombs and things that have to do with weapons are developed in secret. And what are secrets to governments are mysteries to people. And people deal with mysteries in various ways. One of the ways I think we’ve dealt with it right from the start was to create a kind of popular culture in which we would look at the bomb sideways, indirectly. Characters, Frankenstein movies, the Dracula movies that were popular in the ‘30s when they came out and terribly popular and became part of the folklore in the ‘50s, I think had to do with observing death and life. People walking around without any attachment to the world. Being able to spread a death of life is these characters’ worth. All the science fiction movies of the ‘50s, Japanese science fiction movies particularly, irradiated creatures coming out of the sea or from the sky. Then there was a kind of an interim period in which we weren’t sure whether we wanted to look directly or indirectly at the bomb. And in the last years, to answer your question as to what evidence does one see now, there seems to be almost no intellectual activity as commanding as looking at the bomb. You have books coming out by the dozens, and probably I’m minimizing it, nonfiction books on nuclear weapons, nuclear plans, strategies for the future. There are fictional books, Fiskadoro and others, images of the wasted world. Television movies, The Day After and so forth. The bishops, the American Catholic bishops come out with a letter that addresses the thing directly. We want to look at the subject now. Dr. Lifton and others have been looking at the subject directly for a long time and now come into their own in a sense in a world that’s ready to look. Not to mention all the freeze movements, the antinuclear movements, the various protests that have been going on in this country and elsewhere. I’m not sure how much this direct apprehension of the bomb is a way of avoiding it too in some way, but I know that it seems to me at any rate to be a statement on the part of the public that we are ready to handle this issue or that we are ready to confront it in some way, even if you don’t know specifically how.

HEFFNER: Roger, how do you think it has impacted upon the way we think about ourselves, about other people, about things?

ROSENBLATT: I think it’s hard to say. I’m not equipped to say. Because certain things get in the way. On the one hand, you could build a case that the bomb, being a demonstrable, palpable threat to end your life anytime without you knowing about it would affect almost everything that you do, that you and I do. That we would feel a sense of dislocation, a feel of aimlessness, a feel of purposelessness, a feeling of why should we move for the future; or on the other hand, maybe a feeling of hedonism and why not take advantage of every moment. We might feel desirous of developing closer ties with the people we love. We might feel desirous of breaking those ties and starting a new life not knowing when the old life was about to end. But every one of the attributes that I simply listed becomes almost a cliché in modern psychology for other things that are also happening in the modern world that might have nothing to do with the bomb. These feelings of dislocation, aimlessness, loneliness are all the perils of modernity that you and I would recognize without the existence of the bomb, that probably existed before the bomb, the consequences of various discoveries that people are making about themselves, the bomb aside. So what I would come out to say would be that the bomb abetted, undoubtedly encouraged feelings that are normally attached to modernity, but did not create those feelings.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. Why do you want to embrace that idea? Why do you not want to say this is what the bomb does? There’s no evidence, true…

ROSENBLATT: No, it’s a very good question. I haven’t thought of why would I want to say, why would anyone want to say this. And I’ll just offer parenthetically, I feel like a student, a new student at this subject, not somebody who is any way to be confused with an expert on it, but somebody who is self-interested in it. I guess I’d want to say it because I can’t believe that the bomb is, except in its capacity to destroy, generically different from anything else that people do in order to demonstrate their normal propensities to kill one another. It is something that people do. We don’t like it, we work against it, we develop laws to contradict it, we have moral standards that we hope will mollify it, but it is what people do. History has proved it. The invention of the bomb was a logical consequence of such activity. People who invented the bomb regarded it s that. Even the scientists who should have known better and did know the numbers dead couldn’t tell, talk about the radiation and the aftereffects of the bomb at the time. But it still seems to me within the normal range of categories of the things that people invent that show their essential weakness or their essential asocial characteristics that accompany all the strengths and all the social characteristics.

HEFFNER: so you think it’s a logical or illogical extension of what went before, but that it hasn’t created something new?

ROSENBLATT: I don’t think it’s created something new. I think, as I said before, that it’s intensified the old questions.

HEFFNER: Not to the degree that quantitative changes have become qualitative changes?

ROSENBLATT: I don’t know enough to know that, and maybe nobody knows yet about that. But it doesn’t seem to me now to be such, that it is a great danger, it is the great danger. But how do you and I know that it’s the ultimate weapon? We talk about it being the ultimate weapon because that’s as far as we’ve gone. Every new technology has produced new weaponry. We don’t know what new stage of technology is going to come.

HEFFNER: Maybe that’s the difference in our age, because having been around at the time of the dropping of the bomb, really around, my sense that here it was potentially, here it could be, this would be it, one could almost measure as the question when they tested the bomb, you remember, there were the scientists who said, “If we do this at all, it may not stop. We may start the explosion that doesn’t stop.” And Oppenheimer made the decision to go ahead. It didn’t calculate that way for him. I think most of the rest of us thought that there was always that potential and remains that today for the unending explosion.

ROSENBLATT: The potential is human. The reaction is within individuals. If the United States hadn’t developed the bomb somebody else would have. The Japanese were working on a bomb. They chose the wrong neutrons and slowed it up. But if they had chosen the right neutrons we might not be talking now.

HEFFNER: Oh, sure. I mean, you make that point. The Japanese could’ve, the Germans certainly would have.

ROSENBLATT: That’s why we went and developed it.

HEFFNER: And we did. And it was fortunate that we did for us rather than that they did. But doesn’t that become a little bit irrelevant when today we’re confronted with this question of what the impact is of an all-encompassing weapon? I don’t happen to disagree with you. I think you’re probably right that it hasn’t impacted so much upon us. But then, you know, I was reading in Dr. Lifton’s In A Dark Time, in that edition of comments relative to man’s capacity to destroy himself, and there were these quotes from Lou Thomas’ late-night thoughts on listening to Mueller’s Ninth Symphony, “How can they keep their sanity,” talking about the young in the face of the knowledge of this potential weapon. “If I were very young, 16 or 17 years old, I think I would begin perhaps very slowly and imperceptibly to go crazy.” And he said at another point in the same book, “If I were 16 or 17 years old and had to listen to that again, the story of what we might be faced with, or read things like that, I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking of new kinds of sounds different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.” And I wondered whether you hadn’t felt that that was one of the cultural impacts.

ROSENBLATT: I don’t feel it, but it’s not my nature to feel it. And there may be others who have other predispositions. To me, all 16 and 17-year-olds are crazy, quite irrespective of whether the bomb exists. And certainly I was at 16 or 17. But it seems to me both untrue that people are incapacitated forever by the existence of this weapon. You’ll either be killed by it or you won’t. And it seems to me unwise even if it were true to proceed along those assumptions since there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. I was just thinking as you said that back to the turn of the century and wondering whether in this country, whether anyplace in the world there were any counterparts, as you sort of think that this is a logical or illogical extension of what was before. I don’t think one could have said that in the early 1900s.

ROSENBLATT: No, one couldn’t have said that one would be destroyed by such a weapon in the early 1900s. But the fears of technology, as you know, in the mid-nineteenth century were terrible. And people were writing poems and jeremiahs about how the world was going to be destroyed because of various engines and mechanical discoveries. And Darwin came along and proved that people weren’t the center of the universe, as Copernicus had, as Freud would, and people got all scared by that. It seems to me the bomb is in that category of insult, if you will, to…

HEFFNER: Not injury; just insult?

ROSENBLATT: Well, if it were injury we wouldn’t be talking. So for the moment at any rate, potential insult to human self-esteem. And human self-esteem is at the center of this business. We’re the ones who made the bomb.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s so interesting you said and you made references like this before today, “Well, if it were injury we wouldn’t be here talking.” That’s almost dismissive on your part. “Well, don’t worry about it. We’re not going to be around to…”

ROSENBLATT: I’m not giving you the subtitle to Dr. Strangelove. I’m not saying that we should love the bomb. I’m just saying…

HEFFNER: No. I understand.

ROSENBLATT: I’m just saying that given the impotence that we have in relation to the bomb, as we do to other theories or things in our lives that have come, in our lives, I mean human life, that have proved that we are on shaky ground, then one only proceeds to deal with the shaky ground.

HEFFNER: Well, you say you’re not saying to love the bomb, but you’re almost saying to ignore it.

ROSENBLATT: No, I wouldn’t say that, and I also wouldn’t want to have the extension of what I’m saying now spin off into any form of accidental contempt for those who are for the freeze movement or for disarmament or a variety of other things. From my own view I think the freeze movement is naïve and unlikely to achieve anything, and that disarmament is absolutely impossible. So from my own, the only distinction I’d wish to make is that I admire the people who want to do something about it, even though what they, because they are doing something about it, the definitions that I gave you before, but it wouldn’t be the kind of things that I would do. I would much, what I would choose to do, given the world the way it is, is to confront myself as ardently as I would, spend the same time worrying if my house was going to be blown up tomorrow.

HEFFNER: And our children?

ROSENBLATT: I don’t find, you know, I don’t find in children what I read people find in children. I certainly don’t find it in my own children, that they live a life of perpetual head-gripping about worrying about the bomb. They seem to me to have the problems of children of any age.

HEFFNER: I admire your point of view. I don’t share it. I’m impressed with the degree to which you seem to feel it relates to what President Nixon, his posture, his realism.

ROSENBLATT: Yes. I mean, I’m sort of surprised with that myself. But culturally and psychologically I would apply those areas to what h e defined politically. And I think the bomb, since you can’t do anything about it now, does make the world more interesting.

HEFFNER: Roger Rosenblatt, thank you for joining me today.

ROSENBLATT: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”