On August 19, 2003, the Washington Post carried a front-page story and picture headlined “Enola Gay, Waiting in the Wings No More: Restored A-Bomb Plane Unveiled at Dulles.” The story stirred emotions I was already feeling during August, the month of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Enola Gay was identified as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that “helped end the war when it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, killing an estimated 140,000 Japanese.” That grim statistic stated, the article proceeded to highlight the plane’s meticulous restoration and to announce that it would be among the main attractions at the National Air and Space Museum’s new facility at Dulles International Airport in Virginia when it opened in December. How, I wondered, could the Enola Gay be displayed with such apparent pride? Though it is a symbol of triumphant technology and has come to stand also for the end of World War II, the triumph came at a morally unacceptable price, in my view. Thus I regard the Enola Gay and its sister plane, Bock’s Car, which bombed Nagasaki, as symbols of repressed American guilt and shame. For we have never acknowledged as a nation that it was wrong to incinerate the populations of two cities.
August 6 and 9, 1945, were cataclysmic days not only for Japan but for the United States as well. Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered losses of tens of thousands each when “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped by U.S. planes on their people without warning. Thousands more suffered and died from radiation sickness or bomb-related cancer, or lived with horribly disfiguring burns, as the cities gradually rose from the ashes. Within hours of the first detonation President Harry S Truman announced that the bomb had saved up to a million U.S. lives which would have been lost in the invasion of Japan planned for November. This became, and has remained, the official story. When evidence was brought forward that Japan’s surrender was near before the bombs were dropped, the journalists and historians who mentioned it were labeled anti-American or unpatriotic. The process of what psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton calls “psychic numbing”—the inability to feel pain, guilt, and sorrow— had begun. So had the cover-up, as photographs and documents of the indescribable destruction and suffering were declared top secret and kept from public sight for decades. Thus I believe that those August days were as disastrous for the United States in moral terms as they were for Japan in flesh and bone.
Lifton and co-author Greg Mitchell open their book, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, with this categorical statement: “You cannot understand the 20th century without Hiroshima. . . . Fifty years later, Americans continue to experience pride, pain, and confusion over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. . . . It has never been easy to reconcile dropping the bomb with a sense of ourselves as a decent people. Because this conflict remains unresolved it continues to provoke strong feelings. There is no historical event Americans are more sensitive about. Hiroshima remains a raw nerve.”
Amen to that! I find that my strong feelings of guilt and shame are countered by people who defend the official story, i.e., that they or their loved ones might otherwise have been killed in the invasion. As a result, so much about Hiroshima has been hidden that, as early as 1946, writer Mary McCarthy called Hiroshima “a hole in human history.”
Why was the bomb built in the first place? During World War II there was a real fear that Nazi Germany might develop the bomb. Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a letter expressing this worry. Undoubtedly many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to make this monster of a weapon joined the effort for that reason; but before the test bomb was exploded in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in mid-July, Germany had surrendered. In fact, according to James Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe on August 6, 2002, the United States had discovered in November 1944 “that Germany’s atomic program was embryonic.” A number of the scientists, awed by the dazzling, dreadful power of that first bomb, sent a petition to President Truman cautioning him about its use against Japan. To be the first nation to use the bomb would carry a heavy moral responsibility, they said. An atomic attack on Japan could not be justified unless Japan were first given a chance to surrender, with the terms made public.
Foreseeing the arms race between “rival powers,” they warned that U.S. cities as well as those of other nations would be “in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.” According to Martin Harwit in his book, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay, Harry Truman never saw this petition.
But Secretary of War Henry Stimson had made the same points in briefing Truman on April 25, less than two weeks after Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s swearing in. Roosevelt had not told his vice president about the super-secret Manhattan Project. So it fell to Stimson to inform the new president about the new weapon which would soon be at his disposal. After their meeting Stimson wrote a detailed memorandum covering what he had told the president. He was remarkably prescient, foreseeing that this weapon was unlikely to remain the exclusive possession of the United States, and that Russia would likely be the next nation to produce it. He also foresaw the moral dilemma posed by the enormous destructive power of the bomb and pointed to the fact that, with technical development ahead of “moral advancement,” the world was in peril of destruction. Anticipating the arms race, he foresaw the difficulty of control. Stimson did not advise Truman to use or not to use the bomb.
Was its detonation necessary to end the Pacific war, which had started with Pearl Harbor and included the atrocities of Bataan and Corregidor? No, according to historian Guy Alperowitz, who wrote in “The Fire Still Burns” in Sojourners, July/August 1995, that the prevailing belief among experts is that the Japanese would have surrendered before the invasion planned for November. And Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, wrote that Hanson Baldwin, military analyst for the New York Times, said that the Japanese military was in a hopeless position by the time the Potsdam declaration for unconditional surrender was made on July 26. Did Truman know that the bomb was not needed to end the war? Historians believe that he did. The Japanese had one condition for surrendering, i.e., that they be allowed to keep their emperor.
Why, then, was the bomb dropped—on not just one, but two, Japanese cities? The decision, says Guy Alperowitz, was to give the Japanese no other way to surrender. Another factor was attraction to the powerful diplomatic implication of being the sole possessor of this catastrophically destructive weapon. The United States was worried about the ability of the USSR to spread Communism. Truman noted in his diary, after being informed that the bomb had been detonated in Los Alamos, that it was a good thing that the Nazis or the Russians didn’t discover the bomb. In the period leading up to the decision to use the bomb Secretary of War Stimson stressed the significance of the bomb in a postwar power struggle with the Soviet Union and the danger of an atomic arms race. How prophetic he was! A British scientist, Joseph Rotblat, left the Manhattan Project after hearing General Leslie R. Groves, who oversaw its work, state that subduing the Soviets was “the real purpose of the bomb.” For Philip Morrison, another scientist on the Manhattan Pro-ject, Hiroshima was “‘a crime and a sin’ not because it was the last event of World War II but as the first event of a future that’s intolerable.” Other scientists with misgivings were Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Rabinowitz.
We are left, then, to contemplate the death by incineration or radiation of well over 200,000 Japanese people in order to frighten the Soviets and keep them in line. No wonder so much of the truth in photographs and documents was marked top secret for decades! Hiroshima and Naga-saki are indeed raw nerves. It is too painful to look at what was done in our name.
Several years before 1995, the 50th anniversary year of the bombings, Martin Harwit, director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, began work on an exhibit that was to include the recently declassified documents mentioned above: Einstein’s letter to FDR, the scientists’ petition to Truman, and Stimson’s memorandum after his April 25 meeting with Truman, along with pictures of the bomb’s victims. A veritable storm of protest broke from veterans’ groups, outraged that the end of the war and U.S. soldiers’ sacrifices should share space with pictures of the bomb’s victims and its aftermath. This resulted in the cancelation of the exhibit in January 1995, and later in the resignation of the museum’s director. Congress, the president, and the media were also hostile to exhibiting anything that questioned the official story.
To me this failure to look at the dark side of our history was, and continues to be, deeply disappointing. One would hope that now, after almost 59 years, the truth could be faced in a time of commemoration of the tremendous sacrifices made on both sides of the conflict. Greg Mitchell wrote in “A Hole in History” in The Progressive in August 1995: “To commemorate is to combine memory and ceremony, to remind or be mindful—to witness again.” If not in 1995 or 2004, when will we be ready to come to terms with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
In the 59 years since those first mushroom clouds and their terrible consequences on the ground, Americans have been alternately attracted and repelled by the bomb. The bomb sent the United States on a power trip of threat and, soon, counter-threat by the Soviets and a growing number of other nations joining the nuclear club. While many acknowledge that the bomb is too dreadful to use, we have never rejected it for the diabolical thing that it is. During the almost 50-year Cold War, one of the many strategies declared in an attempt to claim the bomb was under control was called Mutually Assured Destruction: MAD. What an appropriate name! Is there not a similarity between our affair with the bomb and that of fatally attracted lovers who ultimately destroy each other? Although there are individuals and groups working to disengage from this destructive affair, our national leadership embraces the bomb. President George W. Bush has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty, and Congress has passed a bill calling for further research on nuclear weapons. If we don’t plan to use this terrible weapon, what is the point of further research?
In the mid-1960s a group of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) visited several cities, including Peoria, Illinois, where I lived at that time. After recounting their personal experiences of pain and loss in that holocaust, they said, “We forgive the past,” but declared that the bomb should never be used again. Their words echo down the decades, calling us to destroy the bomb before it destroys us. I agree with Greg Mitchell that as long as the official version of Hiroshima persists, with Americans defending and justifying its precedent, there is risk that we will make the fateful decision again. Instead of listening to the Japanese and learning from the horror and terror of their experience with the exploded bombs, we are in danger of embarking on a new arms race and a future too dreadful to envision. President Bush stated more than a year ago that nuclear war was one option in the conflict with North Korea. The earth penetrator, or bunker buster, that he wants to build is 70 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. If we don’t reverse course soon, we could well be headed for disaster.
In August 2003, a group of U.S. administration representatives met at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, to plan a new generation of so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons. Both the time, August, and the place were ironic, since it was that month in 1945 that the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, which were both built at that base.
The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) recently called for building “a global coalition of ordinary citizens to demand an end to the madness (of U.S. nuclear policies) and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Pressure must be brought to bear not only on the handful of nuclear states, but also on the rest of the world’s non-nuclear governments. Only the combined efforts of citizens and supportive non-nuclear governments can persuade the nuclear powers to choose a better future.” We have a choice to make, they say: for a future too horrible to contemplate, in which nuclear weapons are a threat to everyone on Earth, or for one in which the threat to use them is “proscribed by international treaty and enforced by the world’s international powers.”
The choice, as I see it, is between life and death.
A quotation from Roman philosopher Seneca resonates with me:
“Power over life and death—don’t be proud of it. Whatever they fear from you, you’ll be threatened with.”