“They think they are interested about the atomic bomb but they really
are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting.” Gertrude Stein
With the GOP House and Senate leaders, including some Democrats, set in September to vote against President Obama’s Iran nuclear program deal and with
the 70th anniversary (August 6, 1945) of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima just passed, the Steiny Road Poet thinks it is time to review what Gertrude Stein wrote in 1946 about the atomic bomb. Scholars say this was her last piece of work before she died July 27, 1946.
THE MACHINES OF DESTRUCTION
Within the confines of 384 words,
Stein went on record (though this uncharacteristically short essay was not published until December 1947) to say that if an atomic bomb kills everyone and few are left on earth, then how could anyone be interested in such destruction. What she understood, given what happened in Japan, was that the A bomb was “just a little more or less destructive than other things” because plenty of people in the world were unharmed by this event and by the following nuclear bombing of Nagasaki
on August 9, 1945. She also noted that the invention of the atomic bomb was no more interesting than other machines of destruction.
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD BOMB?
With experience of atomic bombs scanning first and second grade memories of sitting on the floor head tucked to knees in the dark hall of the John Eager Howard
elementary school (P.S. 61) in Baltimore that was across the back alley from her great-grandmother’s row house (circa 1953-1954) and a visit in the 1980’s to the Atomic Energy Commission in Paris when she was employed by the United States Department of Energy, Steiny feels perfectly in synch with Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement—“ there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not
interesting.” This means that the enormity of my city (the Nation’s Capital, no less) being hit by an atomic bomb is surreal to the degree that Steiny cannot wrap her mind around the possibility.
Yet when I read the recent Washington Post column “Five Myths: Dropping the Atomic Bomb,” I was viscerally taken aback—my stomach was in knots. Really! How could Truman broadcast of a coming “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth” without demonstrating the cataclysmic consequence to Japan by detonating one of those two A bombs on an uninhabited island? Surely, Japan was already in position to surrender, especially with the surprise entry of Russia against Japan on August 8, 1945, and even if the Japanese were quibbling over Emperor Hirohito not being treated as a war criminal. The horror of what happened to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is every bit as inhumane and unthinkable as what Hitler and his Nazis soldiers and scientists did to the six million Jews (and other persecuted minorities) killed in the European theater of World War II.
THE PROBLEM WITH SECRET WEAPONS & COMMON SENSE
So Stein comments that she likes reading detective and mystery stories but not when they involve “death rays and an atomic bomb.” Worse though, she says, are those stories about secret weapons. And yes, the atomic bomb was Truman’s secret weapon, so secret that unlike
the regular bombing done by the allies in WWII, the citizens of targeted cities received no drop of leaflets warning to evacuate immediately. Stein concludes, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
And so it is, that the United States Congress has the opportunity to tamp down nuclear bomb making in Iran but may not approve this deal because not enough
concessions have been made. Let Steiny see…she wonders if it would help if Congress had the opportunity to see the 2013 Swedish film The 100-year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. It’s a sickly hilarious tale about a man who has solved various problems during the length of his long life and the lives of others by detonating bombs, including one outrageous scene where he advises the scientists testing the A bomb in New Mexico that they need to use dynamite
to make the atomic bomb work.
Here is Gertrude Stein’s text in its entirety. See if you think Stein really means “This is a nice story.”
They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it.
I like to read detective and mystery stories. I never get enough
of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about. If they are not as destructive as all that then they are just a little more or less destructive than other things and that means that in spite of all destruction there are
always lots left on this earth to be interested or to be willing and the thing that destroys is just one of the things that concerns the people inventing it or the people starting it off, but really nobody else can do anything about it so you have to just live along like always, so you see the atomic [bomb] is not at all interesting, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what
they do, so why be interested. I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb, I just couldn't any more than in everybody's secret weapon. That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it's the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction. Alright, that is the way I feel about it. They
think they are interested about the atomic bomb but they really are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting.
Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose
their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story.
Gertrude Stein, 1946
[first published in Yale Poetry Review, December 1947 ]