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January 1, 2008

The Manhattan Project

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 16:00
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A friend of mine (Bebo White) drew my attention on the “Manhattan Project” book[1], which turned out to be really interesting. It is not yet another history book on the Manhattan Project, but rather a compilation of eyewitness accounts, of texts of those who had written on the subject, and even extracts of fiction that used the Manhattan Project as a background. Despite its nature the book it gives a good overview of what happened and, because it is a compilation of sources, it reflects the sometimes conflicting opinions on the more controversial issues.

In some ways, the last two chapters of the book (“Reflection on the Bomb” and “Living with the Bomb”) were the most interesting for me. The chapter on reflections shows the enormously diverging views on the issue whether the US was justified or not to use the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are 13 different texts there, and almost 13 different views… In some ways, the short text written in 2005 by Gar Alperovitz sums up the situation the best: “One might think that by now historians would agree on all fundamental issues. The reality, however, is just the opposite. All the major issues involved in the decision are still very much a matter of dispute among experts.” I must say I did not realize that before.

The last chapter (“Living with the Bomb”) is even more discomforting. I personally grew up in a World when the A- and H-bombs were the constant subjects of political discourse. However, since the end of the Cold War, this issue has pretty much disappeared from the collective psyche, as if the problem had gone away. Far from being true… The book cites two articles that were published about a year ago: a paper written by a number of US politicians from both sides of the aisle[2] and another one written by Mikhail Gorbachev[3], both arguing that, well, the issue is still very much alive (to say the least) and that major powers should make decisive steps towards a complete elimination of those weapons. And it is not comforting at all that none of these papers were discussed publicly (not being a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal I did not hear about them until now). The recent turmoils in Pakistan, i.e., the danger of an A-bomb falling into the hands of a completely chaotic and disorganized political leadership is just a reminder of the danger…

Good book. Worth reading it.

[1] Cynthia C. Kelly. The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses and Historians. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2007

[2] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2007.

[3] Mikhail Gorbachev, The Nuclear Threat, Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007

December 26, 2007

Very deep is the well of the past…

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 16:53
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“Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

This is how the prelude of Thomas Mann’s wonderful novel “Joseph and his brothers” begins. I remembered this sentence while reading Lin Yutang’s novel “Moment in Peking”. Published in 1939, the novel is a typical “family novel”: it traces the history of two Chinese families in Beijing, Hangzhou, and elsewhere in the first half of the 20th century. History against the background of tumultuous and tragic events in China, starting by the boxer rebellion until the Japanese wars in 1937-38.

Why that quote? Because books like this may be essential in trying to understand a country. The ups and downs of today’s China cannot be understood without understanding the history of the past 15-20 years, both within and outside of China. But for that one should have a clear idea of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of the abyss of Mao’s reign. However, it would be way too easy to explain those years by referring to one person, or even to a small clique of persons only. No, understanding that requires an insight into what happened in the first part of the 20th century, how a reign of corruption and chaos followed the collapse of the traditional, imperial China at the turn of the century, a system that tragically outlived its time; how the opium trade ravaged part of the country, or how the Japanese armies were the responsible for indescribable horrors during their invasion of China. And, of course, one should go back in time, understand the 19th century and the 18th,… Indeed, very deep is the well of the past.

Nobody can claim to have a clear view of all history, not even those whose profession is to understand it. But books like the “Moment in Peking” are at least of some help to get a glimpse into that well. A long book, but if you are interested in the history of China (but even if not particularly…), it is well worth reading it.

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