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George Orwell > You and the Atomic Bomb > Essay

You and the Atomic Bomb


Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the
next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as
might have been expected. The newspapers have published numerous
diagrams, not very helpful to the average man, of protons and neutrons
doing their stuff, and there has been much reiteration of the useless
statement that the bomb 'ought to be put under international control.'
But curiously little has been said, at any rate in print, about the
question that is of most urgent interest to all of us, namely: 'How
difficult are these things to manufacture?'

Such information as we--that is, the big public--possess on this
subject has come to us in a rather indirect way, apropos of President
Truman's decision not to hand over certain secrets to the USSR. Some
months ago, when the bomb was still only a rumour, there was a widespread
belief that splitting the atom was merely a problem for the physicists,
and that when they had solved it a new and devastating weapon would be
within reach of almost everybody. (At any moment, so the rumour went,
some lonely lunatic in a laboratory might blow civilisation to
smithereens, as easily as touching off a firework.)

Had that been true, the whole trend of history would have been abruptly
altered. The distinction between great states and small states would have
been wiped out, and the power of the State over the individual would have
been greatly weakened. However, it appears from President Truman's
remarks, and various comments that have been made on them, that the bomb
is fantastically expensive and that its manufacture demands an enormous
industrial effort, such as only three or four countries in the world are
capable of making. This point is of cardinal importance, because it may
mean that the discovery of the atomic bomb, so far from reversing
history, will simply intensify the trends which have been apparent for a
dozen years past.

It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the
history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery
of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been
pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions
can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found
generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or
difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the
dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance.
Thus, for example, thanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently
tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades
are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong
stronger, while a simple weapon--so long as there is no answer to it--
gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age
of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and
before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly
efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be
produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the
success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular
insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day.
After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively
complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and
it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most
backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or
another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans--even Tibetans--
could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But
thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State
as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the
backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power. Already, in 1939,
there were only five states capable of waging war on the grand scale, and
now there are only three--ultimately, perhaps, only two. This trend has
been obvious for years, and was pointed out by a few observers even
before 1914. The one thing that might reverse it is the discovery of a
weapon--or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting--not
dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.

From various symptoms one can infer that the Russians do not yet possess
the secret of making the atomic bomb; on the other hand, the consensus of
opinion seems to be that they will possess it within a few years. So we
have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each
possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a
few seconds, dividing the world between them. It has been rather hastily
assumed that this means bigger and bloodier wars, and perhaps an actual
end to the machine civilisation. But suppose--and really this the
likeliest development--that the surviving great nations make a tacit
agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they
only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to
retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only
difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that
the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more

When James Burnham wrote THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION it seemed probable to
many Americans that the Germans would win the European end of the war,
and it was therefore natural to assume that Germany and not Russia would
dominate the Eurasian land mass, while Japan would remain master of East
Asia. This was a miscalculation, but it does not affect the main
argument. For Burnham's geographical picture of the new world has turned
out to be correct. More and more obviously the surface of the earth is
being parceled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut
off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise
or another, by a self-elected oligarchy. The haggling as to where the
frontiers are to be drawn is still going on, and will continue for some
years, and the third of the three super-states--East Asia, dominated by
China--is still potential rather than actual. But the general drift is
unmistakable, and every scientific discovery of recent years has
accelerated it.

We were once told that the aeroplane had 'abolished frontiers'; actually
it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers
have become definitely impassable. The radio was once expected to promote
international understanding and co-operation; it has turned out to be a
means of insulating one nation from another. The atomic bomb may complete
the process by robbing the exploited classes and peoples of all power to
revolt, and at the same time putting the possessors of the bomb on a
basis of military equality. Unable to conquer one another, they are
likely to continue ruling the world between them, and it is difficult to
see how the balance can be upset except by slow and unpredictable
demographic changes.

For forty or fifty years past, Mr. H. G. Wells and others have been
warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own
weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over.
Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at
least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift
for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the
reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but
for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James
Burnham's theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet
considered its ideological implications--that is, the kind of
world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would
probably prevail in a state which was at once UNCONQUERABLE and in a
permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbors.

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily
manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged
us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the
end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state.
If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult
to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale
wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a 'peace that is no peace'.

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