History and the bomb

PHOTO: Left to right — U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H.P. Blandy, his wife, and Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry cut a cake made in the shape of a mushroom cloud at a reception for Operation Crossroads (November 6, 1946). More information about the “atom cake” scandal can be found here. An extract from the Washington Post a week later details reactions to the photo in the Soviet press can be accessed by clicking here.

It should probably be said that I am personally in favor of nuclear energy, though I’m fully aware of the risks or dangers involved. Nuclear waste is a major problem, one for which no adequate solution has yet been found. Obviously, if any safer and more efficient energy source were to be discovered that might replace nuclear power, I would be in favor of that instead.

The following passages are excerpted from two texts by the German sociologist and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and pertain to the problematic fact of atomic warfare in a philosophy of history envisioned as the progress of human freedom.

Bikini atoll copy


No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.

— Theodor Adorno, Negative
(1966), pg. 320

It is not my task…to enter into the detail of the way in which history is constructed. Even so, I believe that, if we are to treat certain fundamental questions of the philosophy of history, we cannot ignore such matters entirely; and I believe further that the knowledge of historical matters is in the first instance a question of distance. If we approach details too closely and fail to open them up to critical inspection, we will indeed find ourselves in the proverbial situation of not seeing the wood for the trees. On the other hand, if we distance ourselves too much, we shall be unable to grasp history because the categories we use themselves become excessively magnified to the point where they become problematic and fail to do justice to their material. I have in mind concepts such as the progress of freedom, about which I [have] offered some critical comments…

So I would say that we need to keep a certain distance. This will enable us both to dissociate ourselves from a total theory of history and equally to resist the cult of the facts which, as I have explained, have their own conceptual difficulties. We can illustrate this by saying, for example, that we cannot really speak of something like progress in general, as indeed I have already argued. Incidentally we shall take a closer look at this concept towards the end of the section in which we discuss the philosophy of history.

But you should also be aware that there is always something dubious about the talk of individual examples of progress that have allegedly occurred in the course of history. This is because, in the society in which we currently live, every single progressive act is always brought about at the expense of individuals or groups who are thereby condemned to fall under the wheels. Thus because of their particularity, because they disregard the organization of society as a whole, each of these progressive events means that there are always groups who are their victims and who legitimately doubt their value.

Nevertheless, we may say — and I believe even the severest critic of history would not simply dismiss this view — that we can speak of something like progress from the slingshot to the atom bomb. It is not by chance that I am willing to apply the concept of progress to something as terrifying as the atom bomb, something that is so completely inimical to the progress of freedom, to the advance of the autonomy of the human species. There is a good reason for this, or rather it has a very bad and indeed catastrophic meaning. The simple fact is that particularity will be the mark of all historical movements as long as there is no such thing as what we might call a human race, that is to say, a society that is conscious of itself and has its fate in its own hands. As long as that remains true, all progress will be particular, not just in the sense that progress will always come about at the expense of groups who are not directly involved in it, and who have to bear the brunt of progressive changes, but in the sense that progress has a particular character by nature.

— Theodor Adorno, Lectures on History
and Freedom
 (1964-1965), pgs. 11-12

3 thoughts on “History and the bomb

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