Saturday, September 5, 2009


Last month, while American consumers were being prepped and primed by media outlets and marketers for the 40th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, another anniversary was taking place at the beginning of August. I don’t want to be some kind of killjoy and take away from the nostalgic image blitz of stoned-out youth frolicking in the New England mud bathed in the electric rain of rock gods and demigods, many of whom I still worship. But, as Frank Zappa once said to me, “The world will end in nostalgia,” so it seems logical that I can’t get thoughts of August 6, 1945 out of my mind. Maybe it’s because the hills above my house have been on fire for the last several weeks, raining down ash and producing atmospheric conditions around us that resemble the smoky, yellow eclipse lit haze of some other planet. Driving back home from San Diego, I could see the giant mushroom cloud pluming over Pasadena from over a hundred miles away.

At 8:15 AM on that August morning 64 years ago, a B-29 bomber dropped a single-bomb with the charming nickname “Little Boy” over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On August 9, a second bomb called “Fat Man” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. These particular targets were chosen according to Stephen M. Younger in his book, "The Bomb: A New History", because they “had not suffered from the devastating bombing raids that had reduced Tokyo and other cities to little more than smoldering ruins. The hills that surrounded Hiroshima and Nagasaki would focus the effect of the blast, further increasing the destruction caused by the bombs.”

“Little Boy” dropped in forty-three seconds to nineteen-hundred feet above Hiroshima and exploded. The height had been chosen “to maximize the damage produced by the expanding nuclear fireball.” Its detonation created an intense flash that was called “brighter than a thousand suns.” Within seconds, an immense shock wave and firestorm swept the city destroying everything in its wake including some 68,000 buildings. Three days later, as Younger reports, “the United States demonstrated to Japan and the world that Hiroshima was not a one-off event” when it completely destroyed Nagasaki with a second atom bomb.

I heard a recent, breathless radio promo for a show called “Surviving Disaster” on Spike TV that described it this way—you have 20 seconds to cover your eyes and about 20 minutes to take cover from radioactive fallout. The promo ponderously warned, “It’s not a question of whether it will happen, but when.”

Just how the show is drawing the conclusion of inevitability is unclear, but the leap from the catastrophic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to nuclear attack as entertainment value is a mind-boggling, but not necessarily American impulse. Godzilla is not only an iconic film monster, but is held in Japan with an almost religious reverence. One reason why is that Godzilla, Rodan, and other Japanese monster movies have been seen as a symbolic, subliminal response, inspired by the Japanese experience with the atomic attacks. Godzilla awakes in the film as the result of French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Despite its grave delivery, the Spike promo is completely removed from the terrible reality of what actually occurred in August, 1945.

Estimates for the death toll from both bombings has been estimated at well over one-hundred times the casualties from the 9/11 attacks. This figure includes an estimated from sixty-six-thousand to one-hundred-forty thousand instant deaths in Hiroshima and an estimated forty-thousand in Nagasaki. We know that in the immediate five years following, one-quarter of a million more died with untold hundreds of thousands more in the decades following the bombings from radioactive related diseases. But statistics remove us from the human factor of disaster and the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is beyond human imagination.

Hiroshima has been called “the exclamation point of the twentieth century”, but two perspectives from survivors are more than enough to tattoo the pictures forever in one’s brain. Stephanie Cooke tells of one in her recent book, "In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age": “…a nineteen-year-old girl who survived reported a remarkable sight near a public garden. Amid the bodily remains, burned black and immobilized at the moment of impact, there was, she said, ‘a charred body of a woman standing frozen in a running posture with one leg lifted and her baby tightly clutched in her arms.’”

In "Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World", Tom Zoellner describes how Japanese writer, Yoko Ota, remembers the white flash as “the collapse of the earth which it was said would take place at the end of the world.”

Zoellner continues, “Even President Truman, who was famously coolheaded about the decision to use the weapon on Japan, wondered in his diary if the act he would soon authorize was ‘the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous ark.’"

When news of the successful atom bombing of Hiroshima reached the team of scientists behind its invention in Los Alamos, New Mexico, “there was a general excitement, and scientists rushed to book tables at Santa Fe’s best restaurant to celebrate the achievement. But that night’s party on the mesa was a grim affair. Almost nobody danced, and people sat in quiet conversation, discussing the damage reports on the other side of the world. When J. Robert Oppenheimer left the party, he saw one of his colleagues—cold sober—vomiting in the bushes.”

The decision to drop the atom bomb is a controversy that will remain unsettled and is examined at length by Richard Rhodes in his books about the nuclear age. One school of thought is that the Japanese doctrine of "defense at all costs" was a bluff; another indicates that they had already expressed a willingness to negotiate a cease-fire through Russian back channels. According to the Russians, the atom bomb was secondary and it was the declaration of war against Japan by Moscow that was the deciding factor in ending of the war.

In her illuminating book, "Troubled Apologies: Among Japan, Korea, and the United States", Alexis Dudden describes both US media censorship and outright fabrication about the bombing of Japan as propelling “the basic story line for Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Americans would come to cling to as history at the cost of learning what was actually going on: ‘the bombs saved lives.’…the US government and its officially placed mouthpiece at the New York Times established as a fact that no one in Hiroshima had died from radiation and that only foreign lies (British or Japanese) suggested otherwise.”

The New York Times’ science writer who was an eyewitness over Nagasaki, William “Atomic Bill” Laurence, won a Pulitzer Prize for his early, evangelical coverage of atomic weapons. His account of the event demonstrates that he was not only distant from the event by mere altitude, but close to some kind of atomic rapture:

“Being close to it and watching it as it was being fashioned into a living thing so exquisitely shaped that any sculptor would be proud to have created it, one felt oneself in the presence of the supernatural…Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”

Historically, not everyone was sold. Harvard physicist George B. Kistiakowsky witnessed the Trinity test in July, 1945 only several weeks before the atomic bombing raid on Japan and called it, “the nearest thing to Doomsday that one could possible imagine. I am sure that at the end of the world—in the last millisecond—the last man will see what we have just seen.”

John Hersey was the first to write of the human factor in his long August 1946 New Yorker essay profiling regular people on the ground in Hiroshima. The day after the Trinity test sixty-eight scientists at the University of Chicago signed a confidential letter to Harry Truman urging him not to use the device. They wrote presciently: “If after the war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of this new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.”

Leo Szilard, the scientist who persuaded his colleagues to write the letter, and the man who conceived of the chain reaction and worked on the Manhattan Project later referred to himself and other atomic scientists as “mass murderers.”

“Why did they have to go and drop another?" a wife of one of the atomic scientists asked upon hearing the news of Nagasaki. “The first one would have finished the war off.” Short of an apology, this kind of self-reflection on the part of civilians as well as the scientists—including Einstein—who were behind the creation of the Atomic Era, leads one to wonder what we can do to make amends today.

There is a long tradition—if not ritual—of apology in Asian cultures. It is one that seems to have been adopted for some time by Americans, who are now accustomed to press conference scenes where morally straying politicians apologize to the nation, their constituents, wives, and families for errant behavior. More recently, other kinds of less predictable apologies have appeared.

Last February, the Senate apologized to Native Americans for atrocities committed during the opening and seizing of their lands. On July 29, the US House of Representatives issued a resolution formally apologizing to black Americans for slavery one-hundred forty years after its abolition. After forty years of silence, at a local Columbus, Georgia Kiwanis Club on August 21, Lt. William Calley (the only Army officer convicted of the 1968 My Lai massacre), in an extraordinary and unexpected apology, expressed his “remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."

Twenty years ago, Congress apologized for the World War II interning of Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Why not Hiroshima? None other than the author of "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World" said the following in 1995: “The United States owes no apology to Japan for having dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Bill Clinton was just towing a bipartisan line.

Alexis Dudden traveled with President George W. Bush on a trip to Tokyo during 2002 on a mission, among other things, to thank the Japanese government for its support of the War on Terror and to launch plans to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of Japanese-American relations. Dudden relates that she “had an unexpected, theatrical education in one of the trajectories of Hiroshima’s history during (a) routine walk.” As she passed down the main boulevard near the Japanese Parliament and National Library, “several of the notorious black trucks popular with the country’s extreme right wing passed…with the lead van blaring the customary martial songs. This was not unusual, but the message pouring from the loud speakers stopped me flat—‘Welcome to Japan, President Bush of the United States of America! Apologize for Hiroshima and enjoy your stay!’”

She goes on to say, “Throughout the recent era of apologies all around—or maybe in spite of it—there has remained one matter on which Washington holds firm, regardless of who is in office—there will be no apology for Hiroshima or Nagasaki.”

Originally, the lowest projection of how many American lives would have been saved by avoiding a costly land invasion of Japan by using the bomb was twenty-six thousand casualties. Dudden observes, “Americans transferred what happened—the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—for an event that never took place—the proposed land invasion of Japan—to stand in for history. By the early 1950s, the imagined truth was American myth, and in 1959, President Truman wrote for the record that the bombs spared 'half a million' American lives, and that he 'never lost any sleep over the decision.' Over the years…American storytelling has come to count the number of ‘saved’ Americans as high as 1 million. (This number appeared squarely in David McCullough’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Truman, despite abundant evidence to the contrary at the time.)”

Apologies are more complicated than they appear. Dudden’s book details the way that formal apologies can be used to cloak deeper strategy to avoid restitution and financial penalties. As to the US government’s obdurate stance, Dudden concludes, “The chronic inability to confront how America’s use of nuclear weapons against Japanese people in 1945 might constitute the kind of history for which survivors would seek an apology, let alone why the use of such weapons might represent a crime against humanity, is sustained by Washington’s determination to maintain these weapons as the once and future legitimate tools of the national arsenal. It is not at all by chance that among weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—only nuclear weapons are not prohibited by international law. Were it otherwise, the likelihood that the history of America’s use of them on Japan would generate changes of attempted genocide against the United States or Harry Truman would increase exponentially.”

Last April, President Obama made strong statements during a visit to Prague about his commitment to abolish nuclear weapons. His speech called for an international summit on the subject by the end of the year. The Mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba said, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act, defining U.S. responsibility in a historical context." Akiba asked Obama to hold the summit in Hiroshima.

Our family had a Japanese exchange student staying with us for a year. After she had been living with us for a while, I felt compelled to speak with her about her hometown of Hiroshima and to apologize in my own way for what had happened before either of us had been born. She seemed surprised at my gesture and we spoke about the event in the abstract—her parents had been children at the time and spoke little to her, if at all, about their memories. I suppose that the American generation preceding mine who experienced the direct consequences of World War II might argue with my stance on apology citing my distance from the events that defined them, in many cases, for the rest of their lives.

I find it interesting that the word “apology” and “apocalypse” have the same prefix. Apology is said to be rooted in words originally meaning “regret, defense, or justification” and giving an account or story of oneself. Apocalypse is rooted in the Latin word meaning “revelation” and the Ancient Greek meaning “to uncover” as in to lift a veil. The prefix “apo” means “from, away, off”. Perhaps there is a connection between the act of apologizing and the avoiding of apocalypse—by this logic, if we lift the veil that hides our own truth, then revelation might follow. A year after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the esteemed Indian yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, reflected on the discovery of uranium: “The human mind can and must liberate within itself energies greater than those within stones and metals, lest the material atomic giant, newly unleashed, turn on the world in mindless destruction.”

With the first new ruling party now established in Japan in over fifty years, an appropriate overture to the new government from the American President whose campaign mantra was “change” should be to agree to hold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in Hiroshima and take the world stage by opening his remarks with an apology to the people of Japan. Think about it the next time you are being served sushi—these people were our enemies? Or as Allen Ginsberg might say, “We are the Japan.”


Pete said...

It is interesting to me that the discussion doesn't seem to include the more cynical aspects of why we actually bombed either of those cities at all. Japan was no further threat. At the time the two cities were bombed, as an alternative strategy the American military could easily have simply pulled back from any further aggression and Japan would have simply continued its free-fall into economic ruin; it's subsequent surrender inevitable.

The reason the bombs were dropped was more realistically that the US needed to intimidate Stalin.

However there are many other aspects of this and certainly none of us will ever know the facts.

Einstein, upon hearing of the destruction wrought by the bomb which would not have been possible without his seminal work, famously uttered, in possibly the most heartbreakingly pithy understatement in human history:

"oy vey".

Anyway, thanks for the post, very good of you to remind us.

Alexandra said...

Very well written & very moving piece. As I read about Yr guest's macabre recollection of the charred running body of mother & child, I thought of Pompei and Herculaneum. Perhaps a sick joke by whoever had come up with the 2 Japanese cities to mimic the gods of antiquity with equally cruel folly & conceit of modern man?

From my readings this was an unconscionably brutal, politically motivated, opening salvo to the Cold War between the USSR and USA, the remaining super powers jockeying for world domination. The USSR had just moved its troops to its Far Eastern borders. Had either/both super power(s) had any serious intentions to bring up VJ day, a naval blockade would have forced Japan to the negotiating table tout de suite. Probably without a single shot being fired. After all, at the time Japan had been at war for more than a decade and hardly in any position to threaten a million... men well-equipped with the most up-to-date toys of war. Lastly, the US had a short time earlier put the crown jewels of the Japanese navy at the bottom of the Pacific.

T Grasso said...

Kevin, I loved the Yogananda quote.

“The human mind can and must liberate within itself energies greater than those within stones and metals, lest the material atomic giant, newly unleashed, turn on the world in mindless destruction.”

As Moonie flunkie Bo Hi Pak stated during The Frasier committee hearings in the '70's..

"The 3rd World War is going on right is the battle for the hearts and minds of men..and in this war all means will be used..military means, financial means, propagdistic means".

It seems that all means are constantly being used to deflect mankind from the truth..which is that we are capable of so very much more as a species. It is not, however, good for business!

Let's direct our thoughts to the goal of liberating those energies of mind so that it may come to pass.

Kevin Stein said...

Thank you for your comment, Pete. Clearly, the US emerged from the bombings as the world leader of the non-Communist world. Churchill also famously spilled the beans about the atomic bomb development to Stalin and it is also well known now that the Nazis were pursuing atomic weapons as well at their secret base in Norway.

Based on the length of the Cold War, I guess we really scared Stalin and them damn Russkies some with Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I guess that the statiscal mean would arrive somewhere between how close we came to nuclear blows during the Cuban Missile crisis and Dr. Strangelove...

I also believe that Einstein added to his brief comment, the following quote: "I do not believe that civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb. Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the earth will be killed."

Reminds me of Henry Kissinger's infamous comment about testing of the Hydrogen bomb in the Pacific and collateral damage among islanders (including Japanese fishermen for whom reparations and apologies were made) during the 50s: "There's only 98,000 people out there..."

Rhodes account of Japanese attempts to negotiate a cease-fire through Soviet backchannels is compelling--perhaps the Russians had their own reasons to mute these overtures. When Emperor Hirohito finally acquiesced and surrendered unconditionally--which was the sticking point--the Japanese wanted to protect his honor--the Emperor said he did it "to save humanity."

Sure, there are more cynical takes one can speak to, but I was taking a more measured route given how controversial the atomic apology still is in Washington.

Kevin Stein said...

Tom, I appreciate your comment and also the link which I urge all my readers out there to check out. The Reverend Moon's unspoken legacy as a behind-the-scenes mover in US policy certainly warrants attention. And no matter what his auspices, his flunkie's quote which you cite is ironically on the money--so to speak.

Kevin Stein said...

As always, I appreciate your interesting and stimulating comments, Alexandra, especially as they shedadditional details of how a naval blockade could have worked as well as about how the Japanese fleet had been defeated before the atomic bomb attacks.

Silvanus Slaughter said...

Great recapture, Kevin. Had missed your column. Welcome back.

Oh, gosh, into the abyss, it seems. Hold onto your love.

Terry Lanxner Ivester said...

Kevin, I loved your definitions of "apo" logy! Far, away, off --from "logy" or knowlege/reason. Maybe it is important to connect with intuition..."in" --toward and "tuition" --to look at or to look after, and also (archaic)-- custody, guardianship. Knowledge is a wonderful thing especially when connected to inner knowledge! I believe PEOPLE EVERYWHERE KNOW in their GUT what is right...and what is wrong.

Kevin Stein said...

Thank you, Terry, for your etymological logic comment. Perhaps without more apologia we are heading toward the Logos as Silvanus's comment also would aver.