Albert Camus’ first thoughts on the atom bomb, written in the days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, published in a special edition of Combat, August 8, 1945, p. 1

The French version of the essay below was republished by l’Humanité on 2015/08/05, and was originally published in Combat on 1945/08/08.

The journal Combat was an underground daily publication of the French resistance during the Second World War. It continued to publish afterwards until 1974.

Camus’ essay is remarkable in that he perceived right away, even before the second bomb had dropped on Nagasaki, the fundamental questions about nuclear power that are with us still: will it be used by its possessors to terrify and dominate the weaker nations, or will it, “in the face of the terrifying prospects opening up to humanity,” make us “see more clearly how peace is the only fight worth fighting”? Seventy-four years later, the answer to both questions is both yes and no. The nuclear powers have obviously used their arsenals to intimidate and dominate, but at the same time the nuclear powers have deterred each other from realizing humanity’s worst nightmare, and there has been no repeat of the massive, industrial land invasions and occupations that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. We live in a netherworld between annihilation and peace. The physicist Irwin Schrödinger might have said the cat, or the human, is in an indeterminate state, both dead and alive, awaiting determination by an observer. It certainly feels that way as we continue to live under nuclear threat and look back on the post-war era and consider the crimes against nature, the “low-intensity” conflicts, the millions killed in the Third-World War (commonly known as the Cold War, which never really ended), “humanitarian” interventions, deadly economic sanctions, and the everyday structural violence of life.

camus-combat-1945-08-08

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Albert Camus (1913-1960), August 8, 1945

Translated by Dennis Riches on 2019/08/05

The world is what it is; which is to say, not much. We all know this as of yesterday, thanks to the formidable chorus that radio, newspapers and news agencies broadcast on the subject of the atomic bomb.

They told us, effectively, in the midst of a host of enthusiastic commentaries, that any average-sized town can now be completely leveled by a bomb the size of a football. American, English and French newspapers were flooded with elegant dissertations on the future, the past, the inventors, the cost, the peaceful vocation and the martial effects, the political consequences, and even the unique qualities of the atomic bomb. We can sum it up in one sentence: mechanistic civilization has come to its final phase of savagery. A choice must be made, in the fairly near future, between collective suicide or the intelligent use of scientific conquests.

In the meantime, one may think it somewhat indecent to celebrate such a discovery, the first use of which has been to unleash the most powerful destructive rage that man has witnessed in centuries. In a world subjected to all forms of heartrending violence beyond any control, indifferent to justice and the simple happiness of humankind, undoubtedly no one—except with unapologetic idealism—would think of being astounded that science has consecrated itself to organized murder.

These discoveries should be recorded, described for what they are, and announced to the world so that humankind can have a real idea of its destiny. But it is intolerable to surround these terrible revelations with picturesque or humorous literature. Already no one was breathing easy in this tortured world, and now a new anguish is being offered to us, which may possibly be the last. Humanity is undoubtedly being offered its last chance. Though this event may be the reason for this special edition, it should more properly be the subject of some reflection and much silence.

Moreover, there are reasons to have reservations about the desired narrative being proposed by the newspapers. Faced with this great chorus, and seeing the diplomatic editor of Reuters Agency announce that this invention renders treaties obsolete, or even makes the Potsdam agreements outdated, and seeing him remark that now it does not matter that the Russians are in Königsberg [Kaliningrad] or the Turkish at the Dardanelles Strait, one cannot help but wonder about the intentions hiding behind much scientific disinterest.

Let us be clear about this. If the Japanese capitulate through intimidation after the destruction of Hiroshima, we will rejoice. However, we refuse to take anything from such grave news other than the determination to plead even more fervently for a veritable international society, where the great powers will not have greater rights than those of small and medium-sized nations, where war—a plague made into a reality solely by the application of human intelligence—no longer depends on the appetites or doctrines of one state or another. In the face of the terrifying prospects opening up to humanity, we see more clearly how peace is the only fight worth fighting. It is no longer a prayer but an order which should rise up from the people to governments, the order to definitively choose between hell and reason.

Version Française. The French version was republished by l’Humanite on 2015/08/05, originally published in Combat on 1945/08/08

Albert Camus (1913-1960), 8 août, 1945:

Le monde est ce qu’il est, c’est-à-dire peu de chose. C’est ce que chacun sait depuis hier grâce au formidable concert que la radio, les journaux et les agences d’information viennent de déclencher au sujet de la bombe atomique.

On nous apprend, en effet, au milieu d’une foule de commentaires enthousiastes que n’importe quelle ville d’importance moyenne peut être totalement rasée par une bombe de la grosseur d’un ballon de football. Des journaux américains, anglais et français se répandent en dissertations élégantes sur l’avenir, le passé, les inventeurs, le coût, la vocation pacifique et les effets guerriers, les conséquences politiques et même le caractère indépendant de la bombe atomique. Nous nous résumerons en une phrase : la civilisation mécanique vient de parvenir à son dernier degré de sauvagerie. Il va falloir choisir, dans un avenir plus ou moins proche, entre le suicide collectif ou l’utilisation intelligente des conquêtes scientifiques.

En attendant, il est permis de penser qu’il y a quelque indécence à célébrer ainsi une découverte, qui se met d’abord au service de la plus formidable rage de destruction dont l’homme ait fait preuve depuis des siècles. Que dans un monde livré à tous les déchirements de la violence, incapable d’aucun contrôle, indifférent à la justice et au simple bonheur des hommes, la science se consacre au meurtre organisé, personne sans doute, à moins d’idéalisme impénitent, ne songera à s’en étonner.

Les découvertes doivent être enregistrées, commentées selon ce qu’elles sont, annoncées au monde pour que l’homme ait une juste idée de son destin. Mais entourer ces terribles révélations d’une littérature pittoresque ou humoristique, c’est ce qui n’est pas supportable. Déjà, on ne respirait pas facilement dans un monde torturé. Voici qu’une angoisse nouvelle nous est proposée, qui a toutes les chances d’être définitive. On offre sans doute à l’humanité sa dernière chance. Et ce peut-être après tout le prétexte d’une édition spéciale. Mais ce devrait être plus sûrement le sujet de quelques réflexions et de beaucoup de silence.

Au reste, il est d’autres raisons d’accueillir avec réserve le roman d’anticipation que les journaux nous proposent. Quand on voit le rédacteur diplomatique de l’Agence Reuter annoncer que cette invention rend caducs les traités ou périmées les décisions mêmes de Potsdam, remarquer qu’il est indifférent que les Russes soient à Koenigsberg ou la Turquie aux Dardanelles, on ne peut se défendre de supposer à ce beau concert des intentions assez étrangères au désintéressement scientifique.

Qu’on nous entende bien. Si les Japonais capitulent après la destruction d’Hiroshima et par l’effet de l’intimidation, nous nous en réjouirons. Mais nous nous refusons à tirer d’une aussi grave nouvelle autre chose que la décision de plaider plus énergiquement encore en faveur d’une véritable société internationale, où les grandes puissances n’auront pas de droits supérieurs aux petites et aux moyennes nations, où la guerre, fléau devenu définitif par le seul effet de l’intelligence humaine, ne dépendra plus des appétits ou des doctrines de tel ou tel État. Devant les perspectives terrifiantes qui s’ouvrent à l’humanité, nous apercevons encore mieux que la paix est le seul combat qui vaille d’être mené. Ce n’est plus une prière, mais un ordre qui doit monter des peuples vers les gouvernements, l’ordre de choisir définitivement entre l’enfer et la raison.

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