On August 24th of 1945, weeks after atomic bombs decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American writer Malcolm Cowley sent a letter to his friend, the philosopher and poet Kenneth Burke.
August 24, 1945
It’s my birthday and a slow cold rain is falling and in general it’s a good day to write a letter, except I haven’t much to say. The atom bomb. We can’t keep it out of our minds. It gets worse as time goes on and we learn more about its effects. The Japanese say, of course they may be lying, as today’s radio announcer piously suggests, but then again they may be telling the truth, and they say that people in the Hiroshima area continue to die from radioactivity, they lose their red corpuscles and peg out—and the Japanese say they can’t afford to send their doctors to Hiroshima for fear of losing them too—and they say that people just a little burned by the bomb found the burns growing worse as time passed, and pegged out, so that the death toll (what a horrible phrase) was 30,000 in the first week and 30,000 more the second week—and you get a new picture of the way radioactivity will wipe out the world not in a good healthy smash, as you pictured it, with a new sun appearing in this constellation, but rather in a slow leukemia, the world simply made uninhabitable. Some people will certainly get so frightened by this picture that they’ll go off into the jungle of the mountains and live by raising roots, in the hope that when the next war comes it won’t be worth while wiping them out. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred will want never to use the atom bomb again, but there’s always one bad apple in the barrel, always one mad scientist or mad dictator, and in the long run I don’t see much hope—but in the short run we’re living in the great imperial republic of the twentieth century, we’ll be rich, we’ll all have three automobiles, we’ll have to have them, by law, whether or not we want to sleep with Mae West, we’ll have to sleep with her, we’ll have to eat too much and then take expensive cures to be slenderized, we’ll have to eat extensively denatured food expensively renatured with expensive vitamins, we’ll have to have a good time, by God, so we might as well grit our teeth and eat, drink, and be expensively merry, for tomorrow we’ll be blown sky high.
I’m more disturbed by certain moral qualities in the American world at present than by the triumph of capitalism. I mean the sudden ending of Lend-Lease, though it means breaking up the machinery by which Europe has been supplied with a little food, and I mean the curt words with which Truman dismissed the French newspapermen. There are a lot of other signs like that, all pointing to the want of sympathy and the want of imagination that are coming to distinguish this country. But we had goddamn well better have sympathy and imagination, for now we’re on top of the heap and all the envy of an envious world is going to be directed toward us—and the world will whoop when the first atom bomb falls on New York. Ah, we have triumphed, we have given the Germans and the Japanese lessons in cold-blooded, abstract, self-righteous cruelty, in the names of freedom and democracy. But people who triumph in this world don’t last long.
And me, as ever,
Today’s letter features in The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981, edited by Paul Jay.
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