The Atomic Age

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There are a few anniversaries of major historical events at this time of year. A couple of weeks ago we had the anniversary of humankind’s first landing on the Moon. That commemorated a momentous occasion. Speaking on CBS News, Robert Heinlein called the Moon Landing the “greatest event in all the history of the human race up to this time.” “This is New Year’s Day of the year one,” he continued; if we don’t change the calendar, certainly others in the future will change it for us. Heinlein saw in the Moon Landing the very survival of our species. “The descendants of all of us will be in colonies elsewhere, the human race will not die. Even if we spoil this planet, the human race will not die. It will go on and on and on…”

Even if we spoil this planet, the human race will not die. That’s a theme he returned to in his writing; it’s not true as of yet, but it may well be true in the future. It was a hopeful moment.

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Yesterday was the anniversary of a less hopeful moment but one that probably had a far greater impact on day-to-day life in much of the world. Not the dawn of the Atomic Age precisely, but it was the day that the world at large learned that the Atomic Age had begun. It’s likely the reason that the survival of the human race was foremost on Heinlein’s mind mere moments before Armstrong took his first step onto the Lunar Surface. August 6th is the day the United States dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima.

It’s hard to overstate the changes that came about as a result of the Atomic Age. The Soviet Union detonated its own “device” on 29 August 1949. The Cold War followed, as did nuclear proliferation, civil defense drills, duck and cover, the red scare, proxy wars, and fall-out shelters.

Asimov’s Foundation is one of those Science Fiction series that, as much as anything else, deals with the long sweep of history. While we were preparing for our next episode of The Stars End Podcast we realized that the story for the episode appeared in the first issue of Astounding that was published after that initial atomic bomb and John W. Campbell dedicated his monthly editorial to the event and we chat about it a bit on the podcast. It’s not every day that you run across a primary source of this salience.

Why? Well as Campbell points out, unlike the general public who were learning about nuclear energy for the first time, the SF community had been thinking about it for years. It’s a major plot point throughout the Foundation series for example; Asimov uses it as a metaphor for modernity. Campbell mentions three short stories specifically, two by Heinlein and one by Lester Del Rey. All three of these stories were published in Astounding, “Blowups Happen” in 1940, “Solution Unsatisfactory” in 1941, and “Nerves” in 1942. All three were prescient. “Blowups Happen” and “Nerves” foresaw the possibility of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima while “Solution Unsatisfactory” preconfigured the debate about the United Nations’ role in preventing this use of Nuclear Weapons.

Here’s the editorial in its entirety. This issue went on sale on 16 October 1945, so I’d guess this was written in mid to late August. It’s a fascinating read, mixing common-sense proposals with a realistic fatalism about what’s possible before the people are ready for it. It reminds me of the debates about taking COVID precautions vs. reopening the economy and it reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. “For where I live the game to play is compromise solution… well now, what can a poor boy do, ‘cept to sing in a rock-n-roll band?”

The Atomic Age

by John W. Campbell, Astounding Science Fiction, November 1945

There’s a considerable lapse between the time Astounding goes through make-up and the time it appears on the newsstands, as you are well aware. We are not, nor have we tried to be, a news magazine. This time it made a difference, of course; not knowing beforehand when the news would be released made us a little behind the times for a change.

The atomic bomb fell, and the war was, of course, ended. During the weeks immediately following that first atomic bomb, the sciencefictioneers were suddenly recognized by their neighbors as not quite such wild-eyed dreamers as they had been thought, and in many soul-satisfying cases became the neighborhood experts.-Perhaps they’ve been able to do some good — give the people near them, who had no intellectual forewarning of what was coming, some idea of what it means. I recommend, as most salutary little lessons, the stories “Nerves”, “Blowups Happen” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” — particularly the latter. It is of some interest that, at the moment, there is considerable agitation toward the idea of a world peace force, a United Nations set-up, using the atomic bomb as a weapon to enforce peace. The precise proposal made by “Solution Unsatisfactory”.

It might work as a stopgap, and, at the moment, all we can hope for is a stopgap. The troubles to come have their roots in two factors, factors already quite evident in the world today.

People do not realize civilization, the civilization we have been born into, lived in, and been indoctrinated with, died on July 16, 1945, and that the Death Notice was published to the world on August 6, 1945.

The second factor is this: it is a basic characteristic of people that they refuse to accept change when it arrives.

On that latter point, which is, of course the most important, you can readily observe by the various newspapers and magazines that the Socialists go on being socialists, and see in the atomic bomb and its consequences the opportunity to spread and enforce socialism. The Communists see in it the final proof of the necessity of being communist. The Anarchists naturally see it as the perfect way of obtaining the annihilation of all government. And, of course, the reactionary sees it as the way we can finally teach those blasted revolutionaries to behave themselves.

People simply go on trying to be just what they were before, with the same old viewpoints, the same demands, the same prejudices and intolerances. Each sees the atomic bomb only as a way of enforcing more violently his own particular will.

The natural result is that they are trying very hard to patch up the old civilization. It won’t work, of course. The chicken has been beheaded; it still runs squawking across the world, acting very much alive, and not yet knowing it is dead. But you can’t sew the head back on, no matter how hard you try. You can’t simply outlaw the atomic bomb, and expect, thus, to thrust it back into the limbo of undiscovered things.

Civilization — the civilization of Big Power balances, of war and peace and bad international manners, of intolerance and hates, of grinding poverty and useless luxury — is dead. We are in the interregnum now, the chaos of moving our effects, our ideas and our hopes from a blasted edifice into a new structure. If we can make it in one move, we are an extremely wise, sane, and fortunate race. Probably we will require about three to six moves, from one unusable structure of world order to another before we find one that can work.

Each time we move — as in moving from one house to another — we will leave behind a few more things that we find we don’t need, can’t use, or were even responsible for the ills we knew in the old place.

The interregnum is beginning now, and we do not have a Hari Seldon to predict the ways in which sociopolitical psychology will work out. What structure the new culture will have, we can’t imagine, because we know too little of what atomic powers can be made to do. It’s conceivable that we might discover, in a period of a few brief weeks, the secret of the force-wall — something that can establish an absolutely impenetrable barrier. In that case, rather minor modifications of our culture would be possible.

If we do not — and I do not expect it — cities are impossible. At least until such time as the human race has learned to get along without intolerance, without hatred, and without their inevitable concomitant — vigorous, even violent, proselytizing.

What the world most needs is a breathing spell long enough to permit the peoples of the world to absorb the basic facts that we of science-fiction have at least a fair appreciation of. Too many people see the atomic bomb as simply a Bigger and Better, New-Type Bomb. There is only one appropriate name for the atomic weapon: The Doomsday Bomb. Nothing known to man can stand against its power. Some writers have proposed that this will mean “cities of the future, if they are to be safe, must be underground” — which is sheer balderdash. It’s a perfect acknowledgment that the writer doesn’t even vaguely know the score. The man who says any such thing is blatantly admitting that he believes that mere mechanical strength of material can defeat the power of the atomic bomb.

Of course, part of the reason for that misapprehension is that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first ever made. They were the weakest, crudest, least effective atomic weapons that will ever be used. Those who have followed the discussions of atomic power and atomic weapons in Astounding will certainly recognize that the United States Army, in applying its available atomic arsenal to the purpose of forcing the Japanese to defeat, consciously and carefully selected the least damaging, gentlest application of the terrible agency at their disposal. Then that manifestation of the weapon — the simple energy bomb — was applied in the least damaging possible manner; it was set off in the air, not on the ground.

Talk of cities safe underground is nonsense for the very simple reason that atomic powers are such that, if the rock is solid enough to resist the titanic blow of atomic detonation, the delicate isostatic balance of the Earth’s crust can always be upset. If the city can’t be reached directly, it can be destroyed by earthquakes.

Personally, I’d prefer being above ground, a long, long way from any target of sufficient concentrated value to merit the attention of the atomic bomber.

Everyone knows that the first atomic bomb was the death of the city of Hiroshima.

It would probably save a lot of lives if they would recognize that it was, equally, the death of every big city, the death of an era, and the death of a cultural pattern based on a balance of military power, controlled exclusively by big and wealthy nations.

Atomic war is as suicidal as a duel between two men armed with flame-throwers in a vestibule. Neither party can have the slightest hope of surviving.

The atomic weapon is, to nations, what the revolver was to the men of the old West — the Equalizer. It didn’t make any difference how big you were; the gun makes all men the same size. The atomic bomb makes all nations the same size.

And, just as the revolver produced an era of good manners or sudden death, the atomic bomb must, inevitably, force upon us an era of international good manners and tolerance — or vast and sudden death.

When the peoples of the world fully — both intellectually and emotionally — realize that, we may get somewhere.

THE EDITOR

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A Flag for the Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

We’ll begin in our usual way. To mark the occasion this year, we’re flying the “Bunker Hill Flag” which is a bit different from our usual July 4th flag; its not one of the variations of the stars and stripes. It’s famous for flying at the Battle of Bunker Hill the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War, except that it isn’t. I’ll explain. It’s a story reminiscent of the history of the Bennington Flag.

The Bunker Hill Flag, so named because many believe it was flown by the colonists at its eponymous battle, has a blue field with the red St. George Cross on a white background in the canton. In the upper left hand corner of the canton is a pine tree which to the colonists symbolized liberty.

There are no contemporary accounts of this flag being flown at the battle and most likely the colonists flew what is known as the colonial flag; a red ensign with a pine tree shown in the canton. Both of these flags are modeled on British flags with only the addition of a pine tree because at the time, many colonists still believed that reconciliation with Great Britain was possible.

The evidence that the blue Bunker Hill flag was flown at Bunker Hill consists entirely of a painting done by Jonathan Trumbull, an eye witness to the battle, and an interview of the daughter of a veteran of the battle.

But the daughter’s account only said that her father claimed to have raised a blue flag at the battle while an earlier version of Trumbull’s painting showed the blue flag colored red; that painting is considered to be evidence that the Continental Flag was used.

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There’s one piece of direct evidence that the Bunker Hill Flag was actually flown at the battle, a book published early in the 19th century. The book contained a picture of the flag but the description described it as red rather than blue. This is generally considered to be a printing error.

Despite it’s questionable origins, the Bunker Hill Flag became a symbol of both the Revolution and of New England. It remains in use as a flag of New England today.

This seems fitting. Despite Bunker Hill being the original objective of both the Americans and the British, most of the fighting occurred a third of a mile south on Breed’s Hill. Some even cal it “The Battle of Breed’s Hill.”

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Adding the Stars and the Stripes

Happy Independence Day! We’ve made it a tradition to begin flying a historic American flag on each July 4th. In 2018, it was the “Betsy Ross” flag. Last year it was the Bennington Flag. This year we’re flying the only American Flag to have anything other than 13 stripes.

The original United States Flag act was passed on 14 June 1777 and established the familiar 13-stars and 13-stripes that are still recognizable today.

But then, Vermont joined the Union as the fourteenth state in 1791 and Kentucky followed suit the following year. Two years later, the United States changed its flag for the first time, adding both a star and a stripe for each of the new states.

That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.

The United States Flag Act of 1794
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But this flag is notable for more than merely the number of stripes. Also known as the “Great Garrison Flag,” it is this version of the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

It was seeing this flag both before and after that battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry which, when sung to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven became our national anthem in 1931. And that gave this flag its far more famous name, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If you’d thought Vermont and Kentucky waited a long time to be included on the U. S. Flag, the flag wasn’t changed again for another 24 years.

In the meantime, Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), and Mississippi (1817) had joined the union. Tennessee had to wait for nearly a quarter-century for their star to officially be added. That seems strange to me. For Vermont and Kentucky, there was an existing national flag with established symbolism. Now the precedent of including new states had been established; the public responded with a variety of unofficial flags that added stars and frequently stripes, like this version with 17 stars and 17 stripes. It and an assortment of other flags from this time can be seen at the Zaricor Flag Collection.

You might be wondering what our flag would look like if we’d continued to add stripes as well as stars. So did Michael Orelove of the Portland Flag Association. He went a step further and had one made; it looks kind of cool. It’s interesting, but it’s very pinstripey. Joanne’s reaction was that it “messes with my astigmatism.” On the PFA blog, Scott Mainwaring points out that it would look pink from a distance. There are disadvantages, but in the era of printed flags, making such a flag is feasible. I can’t imagine trying to make such a thing by sewing red and white strips of cloth together.

It wasn’t until after the War of 1812, that the congress finally got serious about updating the flag when Peter Wendover, a representative from New York proposed forming an exploratory committee to find “an unessential variation” to the flag. He suffered the fate of many who proposed creating a committee; he was put in charge of it.

Wendover consulted Samuel Reid, “a privateer and naval hero of the War of 1812.” Reid was the first to propose maintaining 13 stripes on the flag. He designed three flags, a people’s flag with 20 stars in a “great star” pattern, a governmental flag for federal use, and a “Standard of the Union” for use at celebrations. Congress settled on the first version, with 20 stars and 13 stripes. Invoking the founders, Wendover argued, “In their memory, and to their honor, let us restore substantially the flag under which they conquered, and at the same time engraft into its figure the after-fruits of their toil.”

An Act to establish the flag of the United States.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.

And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

The United States Flag Act of 1818

The 1818 Flag Act did two things that were smart. It limited the number of stripes to 13, and it established that the flag would change on July 4th after each new state joined the union. It remains in force today.

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