LETTER FROM GROUND ZERO : Manhattan

By Schell, Jonathan | The Nation, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

LETTER FROM GROUND ZERO : Manhattan


Schell, Jonathan, The Nation


New York, the city in which I was born and grew up and have lived all my life, and in which my children were born and have now grown up, was also the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The first practical steps toward building the bomb were taken at Columbia University, where the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, among others, did preliminary experiments demonstrating that a chain reaction of nuclear fission could be initiated.

Even in the first days of the nuclear age, Szilard, who, after helping create the bomb spent the rest of his life agitating to get rid of it, understood right away that the makers of the bomb could one day be its victims. In 1945 he wrote, "The position of the United States in the world may be adversely affected by their existence.... Clearly if such bombs are available, it will not be necessary to bomb our cities from the air in order to destroy them. All that is necessary is to place a comparatively small number in major cities and detonate them at some later time.... The long coastline, the structure of our society, and the heterogeneity of our population may make effective controls of such 'traffic' virtually impossible."

The next stop on the road to the bomb was Chicago, where, under the Chicago University sports stadium, the first chain reaction was loosed; and then it was on to Los Alamos, where the bomb was built, and to the Valley of the Journey of Death, where, on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was detonated. Still, the New York origins of the bomb were preserved for history in the name given to the enterprise: the Manhattan Project.

Now it's fifty-seven long years later. A lot has happened--among other things, acquisition of the bomb by seven other nations, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet collapse and September 11. But humanity is still toiling through the Valley of the Journey of Death, currently with a burden on its collective back of 32,000 nuclear weapons. Not until this year, however, has Szilard's prophecy returned to disturb the sleep of New Yorkers. Time magazine recently disclosed that in October federal officials received a plausible report that a nuclear attack on New York by terrorists was in the works--perhaps with a ten-kiloton weapon they were told was missing from the Russian arsenal. "It was brutal," an official said of the experience. Meanwhile, we learned that the Bush Administration had set up a "shadow government" of officials hidden away in underground bunkers to keep the government operating in case of a nuclear attack on Washington.

The alarm proved--thank God!--to be false. But everyone knows that the next time it could be real. The news has prompted new mental exercises. A full-scale nuclear holocaust does not invite much detailed thought. Everything will be gone. What is there to think about? The reported peril from one bomb to New York is a different matter. Thought and imagination, tutored by September 11, got more specific--more visceral, more tactical. At Hiroshima, I knew, survivors on the outer edges of the sphere of anni-hilation directed their steps into the countryside. There would be no such luck for the injured of sea-girt Manhattan, escapable only by a few bridges and tunnels. The psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton has quoted the description by a Hiroshima grocer of the people fleeing the city: "At a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back. …

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