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Children Of The Manhattan Project
Published on Sunday, August 6, 2000 in the Contra Costa Times
Children Of The Manhattan Project
by Robert C. Cuddy
 
IN A SENSE, WE all are children of the Manhattan Project. The project's final product, the atomic bomb, changed everything for all of us for all time. "We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world," President Harry Truman wrote. Project director Robert Oppenheimer, when the first blinding explosion lit up the New Mexico desert sky in 1945, recalled thinking of a line from the Bhagavad-Gita" "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The United States dropped two bombs on Japan, to end World War II and save American soldiers who, U.S. political leaders believed, would have died had the U.S. invaded Japan.

The debate continues today over whether the bomb was militarily necessary, and the question will no doubt be argued again this week, as it is every year around the Aug. 6 anniversary of the Hiroshima drop.

We will leave others to decide that question, insofar as it is open to a definitive answer.

What is unarguable is the magnitude of the devastation at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a destruction that was both unprecedented and terrible.

Richard Rhodes strings together eyewitness accounts in his Pulitzer-prize winning book, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." It is impossible to read his account of Hiroshima in one sitting; tears blind you and you must turn away from the horror and anguish.

Here is just one entry, from a grocer, quoted by Rhodes. "The appearance of people was ... well, they all had skin blackened by burns ... They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back ... They held their arms (in front of them) ... and their skin -- not only on their hands but on their faces and bodies too -- hung down ... If there had been only one or two such people ... perhaps I would not have had such a strong impression. But wherever I walked I met these people ... Many of them died along the road -- I can still picture them in my mind -- like walking ghosts ... They didn't look like people of this world."

The bomb changed not only Japan and the Japanese, but the world. It fueled the Cold War, which spread its ideological fingers into every corner of the Earth before it ended a decade ago.

The atomic bomb touched individual lives as well. Some of the scientists who worked on it had profound regrets that they had brought such a weapon into the world, "freed the genie from the bottle," to use a popular metaphor.

Others were less guilt-stricken. The Germans were working on a similar weapon, they believed, and the United States had to beat them. Still others were apolitical, motivated by the pursuit of pure science, driven by the impulse that has always led men to seek to scientific discovery, sometimes with no regard to the consequences of that discovery.

The atomic bomb has had profound effects as well on some members of the generation that followed.

Two of those people, both political activists, met by chance a few years back and discovered a common heritage: Their fathers had been instrumental in creating the atomic bomb.

It affected both their lives, although in drastically different ways. They joined forces as the "Children of the Manhattan Project." This is their story.

David Seaborg

Of the children, David Seaborg, an evolutionary biologist and environmental activist, has the more recognizable name.

His father, Glenn T. Seaborg, created the cytclotron, without which there would have been no atomic bomb, and gave plutonium its name.

The elder Seaborg won the Nobel Peace prize in 1951, when David, one of six children, was two years old. Glenn Seaborg's life was a series of accomplishments.

"He was famous for as far back as I can remember," says Seaborg of his father. He has not achieved his father's fame, although it is reasonable to ask, how could he possibly?

Nevertheless, "fame was an issue for me," Seaborg says. "Scientists in general like recognition." When it eluded him, "it was easy to fall into the feeling that nothing was ever good enough, so why even try."

Seaborg has tried to move past the feeling. "It's not healthy. Fame is an improbable thing."

His father's fame was only one effect of the Manhattan Project. It also "gave me an awareness of the threat of nuclear war," he says. He recalls the bomb shelters of the 1950s and 1960s and, partly because he and his father discussed this weaponry, "I knew what a farce that (a bomb shelter) was. I had moments of terror."

Seaborg stresses that his environmental activism does not grow out of remorse or a need to atone for his father's work on the ultimate weapon. There was nothing to atone for, he feels, and his father felt the same way.

"He talked to me about his feelings," Seaborg says. "He didn't feel guilt or regret. He wanted to make the bomb. He was mostly motivated by trying to stop Hitler."

The elder Seaborg did want to drop a warning letter over Japan before deploying the atomic bomb.

Truman and his advisers rejected that idea for several reasons, among them the fear that Japan would move American prisoners of war to the projected target site.

Later in his life Glenn Seaborg worked hard to bring about the comprehensive test ban treaty and other arms control.

Seaborg's chief effect on his son's career, however, came about in a different way, one that seems almost prosaic when you consider the elder Seaborg's involvement with weapons of mass destruction: Glenn Seaborg, just like any other suburban dad, encouraged his son's interest in science.

They walked together in the woods near their Lafayette home, the scientist teaching his son. Seaborg took David to the Everglades. Encouraged by both his father and his mother, the younger Seaborg brought home pets.

"I caught snakes, frogs, salamanders as pets. I brought a gopher snake home. I was energized about snakes. I never outgrew that phase."

Influenced by his father, who spoke about the importance of both science and community involvement and lived according to his beliefs, Seaborg has been an environmental activist all his adult life.

He has an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of California at Davis, and recalls getting "hot on evironmental issues" while he was there. He was at Davis for the first Earth Day, which also happens to be his birthday, April 22.

He has a graduate degree in zoology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Seaborg is active in the World Rainforest Fund and speaks with urgency about the world's disappearing rain forests, which hold half the species in the world and cover 14 percent of the Earth's land surface.

He also is part of the Rain Forest Action Network. And he works for arms control.

Seaborg also has worked closer to home. He has set up an open space fund to buy land in Lafayette, where the Seaborgs lived for many years.

The goal is to honor his father while preserving open space. Seaborg also throws himself into other peace and environmental activities as they come along, such as the "hike-a-nation" campaign.

"My father," Seaborg says, "taught me responsibility."

Stephanie Van Zandt Nelson

It was a different story for the other member of Children of the Manhattan Project, Stephanie Van Zandt Nelson.

Her journey to the central fact in her life was more shrouded, and took far longer. She says now that "the Manhattan Project is everything to me." But until 1995, she didn't even know she had a connection to it.

Dr. Van Zandt Nelson today is a clinical psychologist with degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and San Francisco State University.

At conferences and panel discussions, she speaks about culture and the interpretation of dreams. She has sought to understand the European psyche and mass murder, developing arcane and complex theories as she does so.

That is a long way from her childhood. Van Zandt Nelson grew up in a middle-class suburb of Boston in the 1950s. But her upbringing was "very different from Dave's family," she says. There was a "state of secrecy. My family was like an Ingmar Bergman film," dark and brooding.

So close-mouthed were her father and uncles that the others referred to them as "the clams."

Understanding dreams is more than an academic pursuit for Van Zandt Nelson.

She has tried to find the connection between her dreams and her own life, as well as her family's life. In the early 1990s, she dreamed unexpectedly of the Arizona desert and mountains.

A few years later, as her father, Oscar W. Jarrell, a geologist, lay ill, she learned that he was responsible for providing the uranium for the atomic bomb. He had never before revealed that to her.

Van Zandt Nelson says it was "like you've been searching for the answer to a secret" and "a piece of the puzzle falls into place."

She recalled driving around the desert as a child with her father. And she began to understand the secrecy and dysfunction that she says characterized her family.

"They hid it," she says. "Hiroshima never was addressed as a personal family problem."

Unlike David Seaborg, who had grown up knowing up that his father was involved with the atomic bomb and was able to assimilate that knowledge, Van Zandt Nelson took the news hard.

"You think your family has nobility," she says. "Then you wake up in 1995 and find that your beloved father had found the uranium that was responsible for the deaths of thousands."

She disdains the word "atonement," but Van Zandt Nelson concedes there is a "moral imperative" behind the things she does.

She has spoken with Anne Frank's protector and talks about German composer Richard Wagner's grandson, whose family had ties to Adolf Hitler but who has himself founded an institute for peace, and speaks about his family's connection to evil.

Van Zandt Nelson says she tries "to educate through who I am."

Van Zandt Nelson and Seaborg found each other at a panel on peace and nuclear issues a few years back.

Lee Sprague, a Native American who is a common friend, told her about Seaborg. She called him, and they discovered their mutual interest in making the world a better place. More significantly, they found the Manhattan Project connection.

"Children of the Manhattan Project" is not an official non-profit group. She calls it an education group and he calls it a peace group.

They have been involved in annual symposiums and activism, with a strong focus on nuclear weapons and related questions, as well as a heavy sprinkling of Native American issues, which are a particular focus of Van Zandt Nelson.

Each year they organize an education project, in addition to the work they do individually. Seaborg's chief focus is control and reduction of nuclear weapons, as well as the rain forest, which he works to preserve through his World Rainforest Fund and Rain Forest action Network.

It's a loose, almost flimsy group, Children of the Manhattan Project.

If it were any smaller you could not call it a group. But this seemingly dissimilar pair have found a common destination, each taking a different route to arrive there.

They are earnest, sincere, and dedicated to making the planet safer. And the force that propelled them both, an odd but powerful impetus, was the defining event of the 20th century: the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb.

Van Zandt Nelson and Seaborg are not the only children of the bomb. But they may be the most dedicated, and they are unquestionably the most fervent.

Cuddy is editorial page editor of the Valley Times/San Ramon Valley Times.

Copyright 2000 Contra Costa Times

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