This has been a year of major anniversaries: the fall of Viet Nam ten years ago last April, V-E day 40 years ago last May. But no event has had as profound an impact on all our lives as the birth of the atomic age in the summer of 1945, and TIME felt it demanded special treatment.
To tell the story of what happened then and, more important, of how we have been affected since, Senior Writer Roger Rosenblatt set out on a 20,000-mile journey that took him from Los Alamos in New Mexico to the Pacific island of Tinian and to Hiroshima. The assignment was very different from his award-winning TIME cover story of Jan. 11, 1982, on "Children of War." That unique exploration of the thoughts and feelings of children growing up on the world's battlegrounds was the writer's own invention. But the Hiroshima story, says Rosenblatt, "is a historical event, seen differently by practically everyone." After researching the project for nearly three months, Rosenblatt decided to tell his story from four points of view, ranging from that of an individual Hiroshima survivor to the collective experience of all citizens of the atomic age.
Rosenblatt found his first perspective in May, when he met Yoshitaka Kawamoto, the director of Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum. "He had been in the city during the bombing," says Rosenblatt. "He had a deep sense of the experience and could express it in poetic language. For the next five days, I stayed with him as he revisited all the sites of his early life and provided his account of the bombing."
In San Diego, Rosenblatt found Harold Agnew, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "He had been in the instrument plane that accompanied the Enola Gay to Hiroshima, and he had also watched the first atomic chain reaction in Chicago in 1942. He was a witness to the whole progress of the atomic age."
For a political and historical perspective, Rosenblatt interviewed former President Richard Nixon. "He might seem an odd choice," says Rosenblatt, "but he has a historian's mind and an extraordinary understanding of the world since the 1940s. And for 14 of the 40 years since Hiroshima, he had the authority to use nuclear weapons or was second in command."
The final point of view is everyone's: How do we live with the threat of nuclear annihilation? In answering this question, Rosenblatt notes, analysis must supersede emotion: "Kawamoto's recollection is the most heartrending, but as the story's scope broadens, the effect becomes one of dispassionate understanding." The end result is an enlightening, deeply moving and at times frightening chronicle of 40 years with the atom. John A. Meyer