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Orwell's 5 greatest essays: No. 4, "You and the Atomic Bomb"

November 05, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Mushroom cloud rises from the South Pacific atoll of Elugilab during the 1952 "IVY MIKE" test.
Mushroom cloud rises from the South Pacific atoll of Elugilab during the… (US Dept. of Energy )

For anyone interested in the politics of left and right--and in political journalism as it is practiced at the highest level, Orwell's works are indispensable. This week, in the year marks the 110th anniversary of his birth, we present a personal list of his five greatest essays. 

Published a mere two and a half months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Orwell's "You and the Atomic Bomb" is notable as one of the first efforts to divine the social and political implications of a new weapon of previously unimaginable power. Its fame arises from Orwell's coinage of a new term for the permanent standoff the bomb would foster between two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union: the "cold war."

The social and political aspects of nuclear weapons had been debated for a year by physicists working on the Manhattan Project, though even most of them--thanks to the requirements of secrecy within the project--were unaware of how far the overall work had progressed until the bombs were dropped on Japan. With the blasts, the issues were thrown open for public debate.

Orwell places the bomb properly within the historical continuum. "It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons," he writes. "Ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak."

As for the cold war, that infinite "peace that is no peace," Orwell foresees that it will not be long before the Soviets join the Americans as sole possessors of the bomb's secrets. 

"From various symptoms one can infer that the Russians do not yet possess the secret of making the atomic bomb; on the other hand, the consensus of opinion seems to be that they will possess it within a few years. So we have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them."

In at least one regard, Orwell's vision was no more farsighted than anyone else's in 1945: What happens when one of those super-states collapses? 

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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