The destructive power of explosive material to rip apart buildings and human bodies was brought home in the most visceral way this week. As we watched it replayed on our televisions and phones, the staggering scale and force of the detonation in Beirut took the breath away. Many watched the mushroom-shaped cloud that formed and compared it to an atomic bomb.
But this explosion was not like the atomic bombs that the US Air Force dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the mornings of August 6 and August 9, 1945.
The blast in Beirut, the ignition of a reported 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, caused a huge 2.7 kiloton explosion, which destroyed lives and homes in an instant. The smaller of the two bombs visited upon Japan at the end of the Second World War caused a 13-kiloton blast that obliterated the city of Hiroshima; the larger, dropped on Nagasaki, yielded a 23-kiloton explosion. An estimated 129,000 to 226,000 people were killed by the two bombs.
It changed the world as we know it.
Yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, artists Es Devlin and Machiko Weston revealed a new artwork commissioned by the Imperial War Museum. It was intended to be shown on the giant 45-metre screen in Piccadilly Circus at the time the bombs were dropped, at 8.15am on August 6, and 11.02am on Sunday, but both screenings were cancelled out of respect for the tragedy in Beirut.
Instead, on a black screen, split in half horizontally by a glowing white line, suggesting the moment of explosion, I Saw the World End was shown at the museum itself. Lasting ten minutes, the powerful video features an orchestral score and the unsettling drone of bombers, and comprises of sentences which form and dissolve above and below the line, giving two very different perspectives of the event – in the top half of the screen, quotes from scientists and writers, tracing the origin of the atomic bomb (read by Devlin); and on the bottom half, eye-witness accounts of the attacks, read in Japanese by Weston, with simultaneous translation into English.
Weston, 39, was born in Japan, and has worked with Londoner Devlin, a theatre and tour designer, for 12 years, helping to create mind-blowing arena-scale sets for Kanye West, Beyoncé and Adele, and stage sets such as the one for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in 2015.
Their different backgrounds enabled them to approach the central problem of depicting the world’s first and so far only atomic bombings: namely the event’s vast, geopolitical, planetary significance and the individual human-scale suffering that it caused.
Both worked only with existing texts. Devlin, 48, traced the event back to its inception, in the pages of science fiction, as HG Wells imagined a new weapon from “a source of power so potent that a man might carry in his hand the energy to light a city for a year” in his 1913 novel The World Set Free. The physicist Leó Szilárd read Wells’s book in 1932; in 1933 he conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction. In 1939, Szilárd and Albert Einstein wrote a joint letter to the American president, Franklin D Roosevelt, warning that Germany might develop atomic bombs and suggesting that the United States should start its own nuclear programme. It led to the birth of the Manhattan Project.
Weston concentrated on unearthing the accounts of survivors of the weapons that were created, from sources written in Japanese, such as Sueko Hada’s, from Hiroshima: “I saw a young mother running with a headless baby on her back… I saw terrible things.”
Immersing herself in these first-hand accounts weighed heavily on Weston. “I did struggle to find what we could say in this piece, because people are still suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they are still heavily traumatised by it.”
The disjunct between the survivors’ stories and the traditional western narrative that Devlin had been exposed to as a child was stark. “I actually interviewed my mum about it, and my dad. Always what I had heard growing up through the Seventies and Eighties was that it was a terrible thing, but it had to be done… You never heard Nagasaki without Pearl Harbor.”
One disturbing element that emerged in the background in their research of the decision to use the atom bomb on Japan, was the racism that had been expressed by the new American president Harry S Truman – who took the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan. He had been in power for less than four months in August 1945. The death of Roosevelt, Devlin believes, may have been a significant factor in the decision to inflict death from above at a point in the war in which Japan’s defeat was already inevitable.
Truman’s grandparents had owned slaves, and as a young man he developed “an abiding belief in white supremacy”, wrote author William Leuchtenburg in 1991. In the piece, Devlin reads from a letter Truman sent in 1911 to his future wife. “(Uncle Will) does hate Chinese and Japs,” Truman wrote. “So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.”
“This really led us to the question, would this bomb have been dropped on the Germans?” Devlin says. “Would it ever have been dropped on Germany?
“There was a lot of debate between us and the Imperial War Museum because they felt it was unfair to include any of that [letter], because it was from 34 years prior… but we were keen to bring up this subject of race.”
Of course, the racism of the Japanese in the Second World War is also well-documented. In 2008, Tokyo-born US historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa wrote of how “racial superiority was an overriding psychological motivation that governed Japanese conduct from the top policymakers down to the soldiers on the ground” resulting in “an especially brutal character in Japanese imperialism”.
The heinous treatment of Allied prisoners of war – more than 27 per cent of them died, seven times the death rate of prisoners even of the Nazis and Italian fascists – was a direct result. And there were powerful forces in the Japanese military opposed to surrender at any cost, making a long attritional land war probable.
Weston experienced first-hand what may have been a racist attack in New York in March.
“The coronavirus had just started. I was walking in a lunch break along the street, holding a coffee, when a tall guy walking by suddenly kneed me in the stomach, and I folded up in two, and dropped everything. When I looked up, there were people sitting on a bench right next to me, shrugging, nobody tried to help me or anything.”
Did she believe it was a response to the coronavirus because she was identified by him as Asian? “I’ll never know, but that same night I heard about the boy who was attacked in London.” A student from Singapore was beaten up by thugs, one of whom reportedly yelled, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”
“I think it would be far too simple to say [the bombing of Hiroshima] was a racist act,” Devlin says. “I think it was very, very many things converging at a point of history. But I do feel that it was interesting to explore the racism that was certainly bubbling underneath.”
To learn more about I Saw The World End go to iwm.org.uk/history/i-saw-the-world-end