May 24, 2013
Hiroshima Day: America Has Been Asleep at the Wheel for 64 Years
Posted on Aug 5, 2009
My father had been a highway engineer in Nebraska. He said that highway walls should never have been flush with the road like that, and later laws tended to ban that placement. This one took off the side of the car where my mother and sister were sitting, my sister looking forward and my mother facing left with her back to the side of the car. My brother, who came to the scene from Detroit, said later that when he saw what was left of the car in a junkyard, the right side looked like steel wool. It was amazing that anyone had survived.
My understanding of how that event came about—it wasn’t entirely an accident, as I heard from my father, that he had kept driving when he was exhausted—and how it affected my life is a story for another time. But looking back now, at what I drew from reading the Pentagon Papers later and on my citizen’s activism since then, I think I saw in the events of August 1945 and July 1946, unconsciously, a common message. I loved my father, and I respected Truman. But you couldn’t rely entirely on a trusted authority—no matter how well-intentioned he was, however much you admired him—to protect you, and your family, from disaster. You couldn’t safely leave events entirely to the care of authorities. Some vigilance was called for, to awaken them if need be or warn others. They could be asleep at the wheel, heading for a wall or a cliff. I saw that later in Lyndon Johnson and in his successor, and I’ve seen it since.
But I sensed almost right away, in August 1945 as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated, that such feelings—about our president, and our Bomb—separated me from nearly everyone around me, from my parents and friends and from most other Americans. They were not to be mentioned. They could only sound unpatriotic. And in World War II, that was about the last way one wanted to sound. These were thoughts to be kept to myself.
Unlikely thoughts for a 14-year-old American boy to have had the week the war ended? Yes, if he hadn’t been in Mr. Patterson’s social studies class the previous fall. Every member of that class must have had the same flash of recognition of the Bomb, as they read the August headlines during our summer vacation. Beyond that, I don’t know whether they responded as I did, in the terms of our earlier discussion.
And we were set apart from our fellow Americans in another important way. Perhaps no others outside the project or our class ever had occasion to think about the Bomb without the strongly biasing positive associations that accompanied their first awareness in August 1945 of its very possibility: that it was “our” weapon, an instrument of American democracy developed to deter a Nazi Bomb, pursued by two presidents, a war-winning weapon and a necessary one—so it was claimed and almost universally believed—to end the war without a costly invasion of Japan.
Unlike nearly all the others who started thinking about the new nuclear era after Aug. 6, our attitudes of the previous fall had not been shaped, or warped, by the claim and appearance that such a weapon had just won a war for the forces of justice, a feat that supposedly would otherwise have cost a million American lives (and as many or more Japanese).
For nearly all other Americans, whatever dread they may have felt about the long-run future of the Bomb (and there was more expression of this in elite media than most people remembered later) was offset at the time and ever afterward by a powerful aura of its legitimacy, and its almost miraculous potential for good which had already been realized. For a great many Americans still, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs are regarded above all with gratitude, for having saved their own lives or the lives of their husbands, brothers, fathers or grandfathers, which would otherwise have been at risk in the invasion of Japan. For these Americans and many others, the Bomb was not so much an instrument of massacre as a kind of savior, a protector of precious lives.
Most Americans ever since have seen the destruction of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary and effective—as constituting just means, in effect just terrorism, under the supposed circumstances—thus legitimating, in their eyes, the second and third largest single-day massacres in history. (The largest, also by the U.S. Army Air Corps, was the firebombing of Tokyo five months before on the night of March 9, which burned alive or suffocated 80,000 to 120,000 civilians. Most of the very few Americans who are aware of this event at all accept it, too, as appropriate in wartime.
To regard those acts as definitely other than criminal and immoral—as most Americans do—is to believe that anything—anything—can be legitimate means: at worst, a necessary, lesser, evil. At least, if done by Americans, on the order of a president, during wartime. Indeed, we are the only country in the world that believes it won a war by bombing—specifically by bombing cities with weapons of mass destruction—and believes that it was fully rightful in doing so. It is a dangerous state of mind.
Even if the premises of these justifications had been realistic (after years of study I’m convinced, along with many scholars, that they were not; but I’m not addressing that here), the consequences of such beliefs for subsequent policymaking were bound to be fateful. They underlie the American government and public’s ready acceptance ever since of basing our security on readiness to carry out threats of mass annihilation by nuclear weapons, and the belief by many officials and elites still today that abolition of these weapons is not only infeasible but undesirable.
By contrast, given a few days’ reflection in the summer of 1945 before a presidential fait accompli was framed in that fashion, you didn’t have to be a moral prodigy to arrive at the sense of foreboding we all had in Mr. Patterson’s class. It was as easily available to 13-year-old ninth-graders as it was to many Manhattan Project scientists, who also had the opportunity to form their judgments before the Bomb was used.
But the scientists knew something else that was unknown to the public and even to most high-level decision-makers. They knew that the atomic bombs, the uranium and plutonium fission bombs they were preparing, were only the precursors to far more powerful explosives, almost surely including a thermonuclear fusion bomb, later called the hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb. That weapon—of which we eventually came to have tens of thousands—could have an explosive yield much greater than the fission bombs needed to trigger it. A thousand times greater.
Moreover, most of the scientists who focused on the long-run implications of nuclear weapons, belatedly, after the surrender of Germany in May 1945 believed that using the Bomb against Japan would make international control of the weapon very unlikely. In turn that would make inevitable a desperate arms race, which would soon expose the United States to adversaries’ uncontrolled possession of thermonuclear weapons, so that, as the scientists said in a pre-attack petition to the president, “the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.” (In this they were proved correct.) They cautioned the president—on both moral grounds and considerations of long-run survival of civilization—against beginning this process by using the Bomb against Japan even if its use might shorten the war.
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