Books, Bombs, and Ethical Situationalism

During my junior year of high school, my AP American History teacher called my grandfather evil. He had worked tirelessly for years with a team of chemical engineers to develop plutonium, which would then be used in the Little Boy atomic bomb. For years I had been proud of my grandfather’s role in American history and cherished a picture of me next to his name in a Smithsonian exhibit, but my teacher’s words had instantly transformed that sense of family honor into shame. For years, I weighed the question: Was my grandfather the brilliant and kindhearted man everyone describes, or did he wear the blood of innocent bystanders?

My family book club recently read Lessons In Chemistry, which explores the trials and tribulations of a female scientist in the 1960s. My mom and her sisters discussed their father, uncle, and grandfather’s contributions to chemistry in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. My mom lost her father at a young age and found herself pondering aloud how he must have felt about his work and his legacy.

My older aunt chimed in that she had once asked their father that very question. His response had been, “Chemicals can cause destruction, but they can also be additive and used for good. It depends on who is using them, and for what purpose.”

“Science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; between ambition and passion; and between arrogance and conviction – in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.”

Henrich Rohrer

The battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been very costly in terms of US and Japanese casualties and, at the time, there was a wide consensus in support of the decision to strike. Truman and his advisors did not believe the US could win the war without the bomb. That is to say, the historic event would have happened with or without my grandfather’s involvement.

In August 1945, my grandmother received a letter from her husband. She now, for the first time, understood the nature of her husband’s work. His pride and joy are palpable each time I read the letter. He and his colleagues did what they felt to be necessary to protect their country and their loved ones. They were looking forward, towards a new tomorrow.

Hearing that my grandfather had acknowledged that the sword he wielded was capable of both offense and defense, of both creation and destruction, put my mind at ease. He understood the ramifications and had weighed the situation before taking part. From his vantage point, it was not a matter of right and wrong, but of life and death.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare

I once read a theory about how we make the most reasonable decision based on the information available to us at each point of inflection. These decisions are not inherently “good” nor “bad,” but instead based on what made sense rationally or emotionally at the time. Looking back on my own foolish decisions, I believe that to be true. Therefore, I try to give others the benefit of the doubt when their motives seem questionable. With age and experience, I’m learning that fog of war isn’t limited to the battlefield.

When asked about potentially harmful chemicals, my grandfather had responded: “It depends on who is using them, and for what purpose.” I can’t help but consider how this same logic applies to nearly all areas of life. Along with weapons, our words and our actions can also serve to build up or destroy, depending on their application.

I keep returning to Shakespeare’s words. Nothing is inherently good nor bad. It’s our own judgements that give shape to an otherwise benign object or situation. The human mind, without mediation, is quick to form baseless opinions, so we must be mindful to consider multiple angles before marrying a conviction.

“Whatever you do, good or bad, people will always have something negative to say.”

W.H. Auden

A Gallup poll conducted immediately after the bombing in 1945 found that 85% of Americans approved of Truman’s decision, whereas a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that the share of Americans who believe the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was justified has fallen to 56%. Information, perceptions, and narratives shift over time. What is good? What is bad? Can we ever reasonably differentiate the two?

That American History teacher was mistaken. In addition to contributing to the development of the atomic bomb, my grandfather patented dozens of useful, life-changing inventions that made people’s lives easier and better. While I never had the chance to know him, I believe my grandfather to have been the brilliant, funny, kind, and devout man his wife, children, and friends have portrayed him to be. His intentions were pure; he was recruited to save his country and build a better future for his children. And, whether “good” or “bad,” he accomplished just that.

You can find more from me on my personal blog:

22 thoughts on “Books, Bombs, and Ethical Situationalism

  1. You raise a challenging question, Esoterica, and display not a little courage in raising it. While we should put ourselves in the other’s shoes before judging, without living in that time and place we cannot. Yet, we must judge some actions nonetheless or we would have a society where everything can be justified and law would not exist.

    To be placed in a position where whatever we do costs someone their life must be some version of hell. There is is a marvelous, little known movie named “Abandon Ship” with Tyrone Power from the late ’50s. Find it if you can. Another moral dilemma presenting a choiceless choice.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your comment, Dr. Stein. It is a challenging question, and I wasn’t sure how this post would land, as I think everyone here is of the “do no harm” mindset. I’m open to the criticism, if it comes. However, it’s worth venturing into uncomfortable territory to consider those impossible choices and the drivers behind the final decision. You make a great point–while it’s valuable to put ourselves in another’s shoes, there are some moral non-negotiables, including (under most circumstances) causing harm to another. They grey, murkier areas are so difficult to navigate, though.

      My grandfather died from a heart attack at a young age, and I can’t help but wonder if he secretly carried that heavy burden of being partially responsible for loss of life. I am certain that if I were put in that position, I would have a hard time living with myself.

      I just read the overview of “Abandon Ship” and I appreciate the recommendation. The phrasing of a “moral dilemma presenting a choiceless choice” is keen, because sometimes that is exactly what one is faced with–nothing but losing options. As an outsider, it’s probably impossible to understand what the decision-maker must be feeling when facing several undesirable options.


      1. Thank you, Esoterica. My experience with such posts is that questions of the kind you have posed trouble most readers. They wish to think they would make the “right” choice, where no sure “right choice” exists. They also look away, finding the everyday world troubling enough without wishing to deal with something as alarming as moral dilemmas.

        In my experience, the average person wants to believe he and everyone he cares about would survive any such moral “test” with their best self intact. History, including the recent behavior of many of our fellow citizens, suggests otherwise.

        For what it is worth, my maternal Uncle, a man I loved dearly, was in training for the invasion of Japan when the tragic and horrifying bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred. The predicted death toll of such an invasion would have been overwhelming on both sides. To contemplate the world in which those bombs were not dropped, I also have to realize my Uncle might have perished and, with him, any chance to know him and his children, my cousins.

        I do not know the moral calculus required to do this. Such is the world we live in.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Your pride and admiration for your grandfather comes through, Erin. Thank you so much for sharing and for bringing in the ethical/moral dilemmas that run alongside this fascinating piece of your family history. I appreciate the quote you included from Rohrer (which was new to me)…science walking a tightrope…between ambition and passion…arrogance and conviction. I feel that. And I echo Dr. Stein’s comment about your courage and the notion of ‘choiceless choices’. 🤍

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Vicki. The Rohrer quote was new to me, but it immediately struck me as true. It’s so easy to equate science to progress, but there are often two sides to the coin. AI is exciting, but those I know working in AI are terrified of it’s implications–it could be used for good, or quite the opposite.

      The notion of “choiceless choices” really is something to chew on. We all have to make hard choices in life, but I suspect most of us have never been put in a position where another’s life hangs in the balance. I can’t even begin to fathom the weight of that kind of decision.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m with you, Erin…especially in high-stakes, wartime situations. I just read what you shared above in reply to Dr. Stein about your grandfather passing away very young, leaving you to wonder about the burden he carried. Brilliant and tortured are characteristics that often flow together, and I can’t begin to imagine, as you said, what that felt like for him. Hugs to you. 💕

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Some very profound thoughts about a man who almost surely faced a dilemma to accept this challenge or walk another path. I can’t begin to imagine the moments when these scientists fully realized that their work was going to be used to strategically end a horrific war, and the realization that more horror was to come. While no one likely knew of or even began to speak about the trauma that probably caused (in what we now would surely term PTSD) I’m sure everyone within any level of that project carried it with them always. I see no good or bad within this post Erin, just facts of a time that many of us have never, and hopefully will never, have to live through. If people choose to judge that decision or your words then I think we also have to judge millions of other moments in history where there was no winning outcome. How does one individual do that unless perhaps they have walked through a similar life-altering dilemma of their own? Only they may be the ones to truly place judgment, but certainly the only ones to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point, Deb. Thank you, also, for your empathy and understanding. ❤️ I know that the Manhattan project was siloed, so those involved may have known only of the specific silver they were working on. Did they even know the greater implications of their work? Prior to working to develop plutonium, my grandfather was working with the George Eastman (or Eastman-Kodak) on color film development, hoping to offer everyone the ability to capture memories for pennies on the dollar. It seems like such a jarring and unnatural transition, so I imagine it must have felt like a necessity at the time.

      My grandfather died young from a heart attack, so I now wonder whether the trauma of what he had been involved with weighed heavily on him. It must have. Whatever the circumstances, I imagine anyone without psychopathic tendencies would carry that burden of responsibility and “what ifs” for the rest of their lives. Like you, I hope none of us here are ever faced with such a decision.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is so true that some things can be used for good or bad. I think AI falls into that category today and ChatGPT. I met someone whose husband worked on the Manhattan Project. It was my husband’s Aunt’s best friend who was married to the mathematician. He had passed away so I never met him, but spent a Fourth of July at the wife’s home. She was very proud of the work he had done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree complete, and I think AI is a comparable modern example–it’s fun and novel, but what are the implications if it ends up in the wrong hands? Those that worked on the Manhattan project was a smart bunch from numerous different background, with different focuses within the realm of scientific research. I think she had every right to feel proud of her husband’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think writing gives us such a great opportunity to work out many of the different angles of a subject. Add to that posting which gives us the chance to collectively contribute to that process. This post has both a fascinating topic as well as great writing and I’m grateful that you trusted us enough to share it.

    Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man and you make great points about the perception of the war effort at the time and Deb makes a great point about the other damage war was doing in terms of things like PTSD.

    What is most interesting to me is how the AP History teacher made you feel, knowingly or unknowingly. I would think a teacher of history would be able to understand both sides. Moreover, vilification doesn’t usually help have an open and honest conversation about what we can learn. To me, that’s what you do well with this post and your history teacher would do well to learn from you!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, I absolutely agree, Wynne. Writing is such a powerful tool for understanding, and then sharing and engaging in dialogue is force multiplier. Thanks to you, Wynne, and this entire community for creating an environment in which I could feel comfortable sharing. It’s such a gift to be here. ❤️🙏

      Hearing that comment from my teacher was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It felt like my life had been turned upside-down in an instance after learning a dark secret about someone I admire. While I understand and respect where she was coming from, I fully agree with you that the best thing we can do it help facilitate open and honest conversation about the hard things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is such a gift to be here and I’m grateful for you, Erin! 🙂 ❤ I'm sorry about that painful moment in that class years ago. Amazing how those things stick with us.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “Science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; between ambition and passion; and between arrogance and conviction – in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.” – This quote is very timely in today’s world! Heartfelt post – nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fascinating glimpse into your grandfather. Good and bad seem like they don’t go deep enough or are nuanced enough to cover what happened. I cannot imagine how I’d have handled his situation but I think that in every war there are morally dubious moments that must weigh forever on anyone who was there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ally, you’re I think you’re hit something–there’s more depth and complexity than can be captured by “good” or “bad,” and history is full of ethically shaky situations where it must have felt impossible to know what what right.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Which Manhattan Project site did your grandfather work on? I’m asking because my most recent happy place (to live) was in Oak Ridge, TN. You can imagine how much the reason for and result of the Project are a subject for discussion there!

    For most people, Oak Ridge is still The Secret City, though I doubt that you are among those. If you’re interested, more info about why I loved living there, including some its most fascinating aspects, can be found on my blog. I wrote a few posts on this subject. Here is the first one

    Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He primarily worked “under the stadium” at the Met Lab at the University of Chicago, but also at 300 Area at Hanford, WA. I don’t know much about Oak Ridge, TN so I appreciate the share. I never considered that the project had originated in Manhattan, NY and hence the name.. so interesting!


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