Summary and analysis of Orwell’s You and the atomic bomb

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  • Post last modified:December 7, 2019

George Orwell’s You and The Atomic Bomb: Summary & Analysis

While many people have written about the Atomic Bomb and its effects on world peace and unity, Orwell’s essay tackles the subject from a different angle. The essay is sarcastic as well as analytical and highlights some serious issues related to the possession of an atomic bomb.  Critics consider ‘You and the Atomic Bomb’ a background to Orwell’s famous novel ‘1984’. This fantastic essay highlights the devastating power of the Atomic Bomb and discusses how it could change the balance of power and the future course of humanity. Rather than seeing it just as a menace to people’s lives and states’ sovereignty, Orwell considers it a threat to world peace and order. Even if the bomb could not be mass-manufactured, its possession merely was a major threat and for whatever end they used it, the loss was always going to be double. The idea of the atomic bomb was devastating in the sense that whether it was for war or to extract peace, it was going to make humanity suffer in every way.  In a way, he highlights that the destructive power of the Atom Bomb had been miscalculated and misunderstood. The world’s picture was not the same as it was before the dropping of the atom bomb. Orwell’s work was published in the Tribune in 1945 within two months of the dropping of the atom bombs by the U.S. on Japan. Orwell had already written a lot about the bomb but this article contained excellent insights on how devastating this idea could be and how it was the biggest human-created suffering. He marveled at the little coverage of the bomb by media despite the potential of devastation it held.  He asks if the world map and course of humanity’s future had not changed already with Japan bombings.

Considering how dangerous a weapon the atomic bomb was, it had failed to rouse the kind of discussion it must have. Orwell notes that the information and diagrams the newspapers had published including that of protons and neutrons and how atomic bombs worked were of no meaning to the common man. There had been a lot of useless reiteration of the same statement that the atomic bomb instead of being under the control of a nation must be controlled by an international body. However, the one question media and others had purposefully avoided was that how easy or difficult it was to make these bombs. Orwell notes that governments and media were raising questions unrelated to the main topic. The public was either misguided or confused over the topic and this could cause more fear and confusion. Whatever little information people had was by virtue of President Truman’s decision to keep secrets from USSR.

Some months earlier than America dropped the bomb on Japan, there were rumors that physicists had split the atom and a devastating weapon was soon going to be within every nation’s reach. People thought it would be easy to produce one and some lunatic could blow the entire civilization any time and then have a laugh in some lonely corner as if he had lit off fireworks.

If any of these rumors were true, the bomb was going to change the course of civilization forever. It was not just going to blur the distinction between small and large states because every nation that owned the bomb was powerful, but it could also weaken the control states exercised over people. Truman said that producing the bomb was an expensive affair and very few nations in the world were capable of making it. Orwell notes that this is the most important point because, in this manner instead of changing the course of history, the weapon was only going to add momentum to the dangerous trends that had been growing intense for the last dozen years.

Another important problem that Orwell highlights in his work is that the atomic bomb was never going to empower the people. He cites examples from history where simple weapons have empowered the weak but the more complex weapons have mainly helped the strong. He cites the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie. Even if people can cite a few exceptions, one can easily tell that the ages in which the dominant weapon is complex, tends to be an age of nepotism. Common people get a chance when the dominant weapon is simple. In this way, the modern weapons of warfare like planes, bombs, and airplanes are fundamentally tyrannical whereas crossbows and muskets are fundamentally democratic. This was in the sense that the weapons that are out of the reach of the common man tend to weaken him and his control over his own affairs. So while the making of the atom bomb meant the emergence of new loci of power, it also meant control leaving the hands of the common people. The increased power of the states has decreased the control common man held in the state of affairs and his ability to wage a war for his freedom. 

As Orwell further clarifies in the next paragraph, advanced military technology took power and control from people’s hands to the hands of state and government. It always left people with no power and control. Before the recent advances in military technology, things were simple and people used simple weapons to wage a war for freedom against their oppressors. Increased efficiency of the military structure has always given people less space to mind their affairs freely. He makes it more clear in his novel 1984 that a powerful military state could mean little or no freedom for the common people. It was the musket that made the American and French revolutions a success. Even the breech-loading rifle that came afterward was complex yet helped Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans — even Tibetans to wage a war for their independence many times to a large extent of success. However, all the developments in the military technique that followed afterward have favored the military against the people and industrialized nations against backward ones. The locus of power has kept shifting and by 1939, there were just five nations with the capability to wage a large scale war. There are now just three (by 1945) or maybe only two. Some observers had highlighted this trend even before 1914.

There was no other way to reverse it but make a weapon or method of fighting that did not depend on industrial plants. Orwell was trying to indicate a dangerous trend that was making people surrender all their personal control and bargaining power to state agencies. Since a few states controlled large industries and war, weaker states stood no chance. This was a dangerous imbalance creating a kind of gap that common people will not be able to fill at any cost unless as he pointed out, a method to fight back was found which did not need large investment, mass production, and industries. While Orwell could see that the Russians yet did not have access to the atomic bomb, they were going to gain access to it in a matter of years. Atomic bomb offered each nation a kind of power that nothing else did. Each of these monstrous nations that possessed this weapon having the capability to not murder but wipeout millions off the face of the earth in a matter of seconds will be considered a center of power. Orwell’s essay keeps getting interesting and engaging but frightening. Especially because Orwell has highlighted all those hidden concerns that multiply the destructive strength of the atomic bomb which did not just have the capability to end an entire civilization but whose mere presence on the earth was a threat to peaceful coexistence on earth. The main concern was how weakened it will leave the poor. In such circumstances, if two nations decide not to use it against each other but against them who do not possess an atomic bomb, it will mean hope shifting away from weaker nations. There will be no change in the situation except that oppressed classes will grow even hopeless.

Orwell points some facts about Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and that many of its predictions failed but one. It seemed Germany was going to lead Europe and Japan was going to master East Asia. Even if Burnham had miscalculated a few things, the geographic picture he drew was correct.  Orwell writes about three great empires ruling the earth and each of which is controlled by a self-elected oligarchy. The confusion over where to draw their frontiers was going to continue for some time, while the third of the empires, China was not a real picture by then, there was an unmistakable drift happening and it was gaining pace with every new scientific discovery. So, what Orwell is trying to point out is that the scientific discoveries expected to take humanity ahead were taking it backward.  He makes this point clearer in the last three paragraphs. While it was roughly easier to imagine where the world was moving, the atomic bomb had blurred the picture of a beautiful future. Before the dust could settle in Hiroshima, it was known that a demon was born which will control the focus of power in the future.

With the coming of the airplanes, it was understood that frontiers were abolished. However, these same weapons created new and dangerous frontiers with their devastating capabilities. Radio was no more the means of cooperation but insulated one country from the other. Erosion that began with these advancements became complete with the release of the atomic bomb and now there were no more frontiers to be scaled. The bomb had ripped the exploited classes of their power to revolt and at the same time, those who had the bomb brought them on a level of equality in terms of military power. Orwell’s predictions may seem pessimistic to some. However, too much military power confined in the hands of few can be dangerous. Orwell has highlighted this several times in his essays. Technological advancements have changed things a little worldwide but the fundamental picture Orwell and Wells drew remains true and became obvious in the case of Iraq and Tibet.

It is not difficult to imagine that man can cause his devastation to the extent that some other species will take over the world. This notion does not seem so unfamiliar when you visit the ruins of those German cities. H. G. Wells kept trying to warn people against this phenomenon for long. Orwell too highlights these scientific and technological advancements as a double-edged sword that whichever end you handle it from or whatever it achieves, whether war or peace, will not be beneficial. In the end, he writes, that peace achieved by virtue of atomic bombs and battleships is not peace and in its shadow lurks fear. In all those years, the world had not drifted towards anarchy but towards the reintroduction of slavery. Those slave empires of history could become a reality again. Orwell highlights the ideological implications of Burnham’s theory that this kind of world view, social structure, and beliefs which are only possible in a state that cannot be conquered and remains engaged in a  cold war with its neighbors. While the atomic bomb, if it could be mass-produced, would have taken us back to the barbaric era, on the other hand, it could have meant the end of national sovereignty and that of a centralized police state. It is a rare and costly object, it is more likely to put an end to large scale wars by the fear it induces but then the peace it can coerce is not peace but a threat bigger than war itself.

One important theme in Orwell’s essay is the erosion of power in the hands of the people. However, there are other themes too like science as a double-edged sword which  Orwell highlights and the third is the rise of a new locus of power. He keeps talking of the drift and these new trends that were being shaped by these technological advances. However, one important thing that people fail to notice is how much things have drifted from their hands with these advances whether it was an airplane, a battleship or the atomic bomb itself. Even other advancements, scientific and technological that followed benefitted government or the other large bodies, private and public but not people and society. Years later than Orwell wrote his essay, his words sound truer than ever today.


Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.