In early 1962, I went to Hiroshima with my wife, and the first thing I learned there was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Here was an enormous, tragic turning point in American history–the first use of nuclear weapons on human populations–but seventeen years later no one had yet studied the overall social and psychological effects of those bombs. So the first lesson I learned is that the more important the problem is, the less likely it is to be studied. Indeed, the most important problem–nuclear weaponry–is the problem we cannot bear to face.

Exposed to the first atomic bomb, for a split second in time, the people of Hiroshima experiences what I’ve come to call a permanent encounter with death. And that encounter with death can be understood in four stages. The first stage, right after the bomb fell, was the overwhelming sight of grotesque scenes of death and dying all around. At that time, as they told me again and again, people imagined that they would die but what impressed me most was their feeling that the whole world was dying. As one man, a physicist put it, “my body seemed black, everything seemed dark, dark all over–then I thought the world was ending.”

The second stage occurred a few days or weeks later, sometimes months later, and often in people who seemed physically untouched by the bomb. Many people began to develop strange and grotesque symptoms. Bleeding from all of the body orifices, bleeding into the skin as well. Severe bloody diarrhea, extreme weakness, high fever, anorexia, and, when they could be taken, very low white blood cell counts. This, of course, was the constellation of symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. Because it was completely unknown to people there, many rumors spread throughout Hiroshima in the second stages; but the one that was most telling was that from that day on, the city would be unable to sustain vegetation of any kind. No trees, grass, or flowers would ever again grow in Hiroshima. And the meaning of this rumor, I believe, was that nature was drying up altogether. Life was being extinguished at its source. This was an ultimate desolation that encompassed human death but went beyond it.

The third stage of this life-long immersion in death occurred not weeks, but years later. Those who ad been significantly exposed to the bomb began to suffer increased incidences in virtually all the major forms of cancer, including first cancer of the thyroid and later of the uterus, the ovaries, the stomach, and the lungs. There began to develop in the people who survived the bomb the sense that it was something left behind in your body, in your bones, that might strike you down at any time. Survivors also became increasingly concerned about the effects of radiation on later generations. It is now known that radiation can cause harmful genetic effects, and it has been established that there are increased genetic abnormalities in second generation Hiroshima survivors. But when I returned to Hiroshima just a year ago, people were asking about the third generations. And nobody–neither scientists nor physicians–can guarantee them that the effects won’t continue over further generations.

The fourth, or final stage, is the identity of the atomic bomb survivors. The explosion affected people with what I called an identity of the dead. Survivors feel as if dead. They can’t separate themselves from the dead. So there is a lot of survivor guilt. People ask, why did I survive while he or she died? The feeling may be illogical, but it’s a consistent survivor experience, and a very painful one.

Survivors are also victimized or discriminated against in terms of jobs and marriage. The logic behind the discrimination is that survivors are not good bets because they are permanently threatened by radiation after-effects. They are poor prospects for marriage, having healthy families, and holding jobs. But underneath this reason is the suspicion that survivors were somehow tainted by their disaster, People want to stay away from them.

When I finished my book on Hiroshima, I called it “Death in Life” because that phrase seemed to epitomize what I found in survivors–I looked upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a last chance, a nuclear catastrophe from which one could still learn, because the bombs had been dropped but the world was still there. Now I still feel that way. But of course when one speaks of Hiroshima, one knows that this experience can’t in any way represents what would happen if we were to drop our bombs now, which we all know have a hundred times, a thousand times, the explosive power of that baby bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet we have from Hiroshima and Nagasaki a vivid picture of the totality of destruction in a nuclear age, of the unending lethal after-effects, of that sense of being victimized by a genocidal instrument that threatens the whole human species.

But we must guard against the illusion that knowledge of what would occur might protect us. To know, to expect, is enormously helpful if we’re expecting a tornado, or something we can prepare ourselves for. But there is no preparation for nuclear disaster. That’s what we, as doctors, are saying. Don’t count on us. We’re not going to patch you up. For one thing, we’ll be dead, and so will you, and for another thing, that tiny band of survivors, if indeed there are any, won’t be able to be healed. Hiroshima was destroyed as a city by that one tiny bomb, but it could be reconstituted as a society and community, even as a city, over the years. Why? Because there was an outside world to help. But if we use nuclear weapons in a significant nuclear exchange, there will be no outside world. There will be no outside energy to rebuild whatever has been destroyed, because the outside world will e destroyed as well, or else so inundated with radiation that nobody will be able to help anyone and few will be live to even try. And that is why when people like Edward Teller start describing how we can start, fight, and win a nuclear war, they are making psychological assumptions that are dead wrong.


IN 1945, there came into the world a new image–the image of exterminating ourselves with our own technology. Of course, H.G. Wells has already suggested such ideas, but now everybody was having them. This imagery of extinction, as I call it, is based mainly on the existence of nuclear weapons, though it is also involved with our capacity to destroy our environment, with our sense that the earth’s life-sustaining resources will dry up and be lost to us forever. But we have only just begun to ask what this imagery of extinction does to us now–without the bombs being used, by their merely being abroad in our world.

One effect has been on the whole notion of human continuity, the sense we require of being connected with those who will go beyond our limits, individual life spans. This is what I call a symbolization of immortality, and we sustain it through four modes. First, we like the sense of living on in our children and in their children, in that endless biological familial line that extends for generations. Second, we cherish the sense of living on in our work, however great or small it may be. Third, we also value the sense of living on through our religious institutions, though being part of a religious or spiritual movement that is larger than ourselves. Finally, we identify with nature, we feel we are part of nature, and that nature will survive our individual deaths. This is a mode all cultures in some way offer us.

Now, all these symbolizations of immortality are threatened. How can we be certain of living on in our children, or in our works, or in nature, when a nuclear was could destroy them all? Even in the spiritual mode, we must be able to imagine that some people live after us to continue our religious institutions, With all these modes cast into such uncertainty that they may no longer work, we have recently become preoccupies with a fifth mode–a state of mid so intense that time and death disappear. This is the mode of experiential transcendence, the classic mode of the mystics. This kind of experience is now desperately sought, both because it has been largely suppressed in advanced industrial cultures, and because it helps replace the loss of our other odes of achieving symbolic immortality. Drugs, cults, mystical movements, journeys to the east–all these can be explained, in part, by our living in the nuclear age.

Several years ago, a former research assistant of mine, Michael Carey, now in his mid-thirties, did a study of the people of his generation who underwent the nuclear air-raids of the 1950s. Every school, everybody from age five to about eighteen, had to go through them. During the drills, children were told that there was a “big bad thing” out there, the atomic bomb, but that with American know-how and cooperation, we could defeat it. We could save ourselves. And the way to do this was to put your head under a desk, or even to put a piece of paper over your head–because that way the fallout couldn’t drop on you.

Of course, most children were much too shrewd to believe that. Instead they were simply confused by the situation, and by their sense that authority figures were lying to them. Carey found that there was a regular sequence in their feelings: they shifted from a send of anxiety, with nightmares, to a kind of suppression, what I call “psychic numbing” that usually lasts for years, or forever. It is the culture that tells us we have to be numb. As Carey found, our culture all too readily calls those who scream about the dangers of nuclear weapons “crazy,” and those who perpetuate the gigantic stockpiles of nuclear weapons “rational.”

Carey also found that after this suppression or numbing has set in, there are times when fears and anxieties return. Any little thing can recall the nuclear threat: undergoing a loss, being separated from the people one loves, not being promoted at a job. Nuclear fears and the terror of extinction are always present, waiting to rise into our consciousness.

There are certain themes, then, that we can use to characterize the nuclear age. One is a loss of the distinction between ordinary death, which is part of the rhythm of human existence and grotesque, massive, absurd death from nuclear weapons. Just when children are learning, or trying to learn, the difficult lesson that death is final, they are exposed to the idea of nuclear death, the imagery of cosmic annihilation.

A second theme has to do with our sense of craziness, madness, absurdity. Much of the absurdity and mockery that characterized people’s attitudes in the sixties and early seventies was in fact the only appropriate tone in which to address life in a nuclear age. To put it mildly, loss of faith in authority, in government, is the inevitable legacy of those air-raid drills. There is, in this generation and in all of us, a deep, instinctive sense of the irrationality of our culture.

Third, there is the sense of the transitoriness of everything. This is the new ephemeralism. Who can be certain of anything lasting? This is the psychology of the “me” generation. As a number of surveys show, many adolescents actually doubt whether they will live to die a natural death before the next war, nuclear war breaks out.

The consequences of this doubt are pervasive. You can see them, for example, in attitudes toward work. In the late sixties and early seventies, many formerly unquestioned kinds of work were devalued. Now, there is another switch: everybody wants to be a lawyer or a doctor. But both trends are part of the same social process, the confusion about what lasts, about what really has value. You see the transitoriness elsewhere, too. It is present, for example, In the psychology of the survivalists, those whoa re digging bombshelter, stocking them with food, getting ready for Armageddon. Deep down, some of these people may identify with the bomb and actually desire to see it go off. They can’t take the uncertainty any longer.

Finally, there is the double life we al lead. For we do all lead a double life. On the one hand, we know very well that in a moment everything around us, everyone we love, everything we live by, everything we struggle to create and be part of, could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. And yet we have to go about on a daily basis with business as usual! The cost to us is increased psychic numbing, an inability to feel in many parts of our lives, a widening gap between knowledge and feeling. This numbing, as I think about it, seems more important to talk about than “repression” in the classic, psychoanalytic sense. Numbing means the inability or unwillingness to feel what we know–what happens at the receiving end of nuclear weapons. We block what images we have, and then to a large extent we have no images at all. None of us has experienced anything like a nuclear attack–which is one reason why Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now so important to us. They help us see and know just hoe terrible nuclear weapons are.

But the most malignant disease our time is what I call “nuclearism”–the worship of the weapon. For nuclear weapons have become deities of a sort. They can destroy everything. They are as powerful as gods. Therefore, we think to ourselves, they must be able to create as well. This is why so many of us tend to think of the bomb as a kind of solution. Thirty years ago, it was Robert Oppenheimer who said that the bomb will teach us that we can no longer make war. Well, the bomb didn’t teach us anything of the kind. And now we are depending on nuclear weaponry to do things it cannot do, that only human effort can do. Most frighteningly, we are depending on it to keep the peace. Indeed, this is the most dangerous of all human games. It’s a disease of power and of technology that has led us to depend on the very agents of potential annihilation to keep the world going. And so we are reassured by our leaders, “Yes, you can sleep well tonight, we’ll have bigger and better bombs, we’ll be number one and you’ll be safe.” Not so. The more weapons you have, the more insecure you are, and this has never been so true as today, when advances in the technology of nuclear weapons bring us ever closer to war.

Only a joke can capture the absurdity of our situation. It’s about a man who comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. He pick sup a gun and puts it to his head. “What are you doing?” his wife cries. “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’re next.”

That’s our nuclear weapons policy.

So where, in the nuclear age, can we find hope? Only, I think, in our willingness to confront the situation we’re in. It’s as if there were two, parallel trains running. One is the bomb-makers and those who stay numb, those who want us all to stay numb; that train is speeding with great power towards oblivion. The other train is the one we’re trying to get on; it’s moving toward awareness, toward confrontation with the reality of the danger. The only avenue toward hope goes through danger through despair, through hopelessness.

We see the beginnings of fragmentary awareness all around us. We see it in movements of doctors and lawyers and other professional groups. And this, I think, is a terribly important step. What we need is nothing less than mass movements, because only the people can take away the bomb. What we need is a deepening of our awareness so that it informs our every action–our world view, our political and ethical decisions, everything we do.

For whether we see it or not, there is a real conflict now. On one side there is the tendency toward numbing, and on the other there is the need for tension, for anxiety. No one alive today should feel secure and comfortable and psychologically at ease. We have to move toward awareness, which means opening ourselves to pain or fear. We must recognize this conflict and we must take sides in it, otherwise there won’t be any more conflicts to face.

Perhaps the renewal of hope in the nuclear age can best be expressed with a joke, though there aren’t many jokes in the subject itself. This is the story of a Jew who is the only survivor of a pogrom in Russia. The Jew is brought before the Czar, who says to him, “Look, you seem a nice fellow, even though you are a Jew, and as a gesture of leniency I’m going to give you a choice of how you wish to die.” The Jew thinks about it for a minute and says, “Well, as an expression of gratitude for your leniency and to save everybody a lot of trouble, I choose old age.”


Originally published in the December 1981 issue of Boston Review