Strangelove Revisited

or How I Learned to Forget the Bomb

by John Humpal

An anniversay approaches as I write this. Not just an ordinary milestone, August 6 marks what many would call the most significant event in history. On this day fifty years ago, the atomic bomb was first used to deliberately slaughter as many people as possible. And just in case somebody missed it, a second one was dropped four days later.

If you watch the local news here in Chicago, the anniversary of The Bomb, as it used to be known, might come as a revelation, for the homegrown media prefer to celebrate the 6th of August as "the day the war ended." At least that is how the anniversary is being promoted on three of the five television stations I happened to watch during the last weeks of July. Granted, the midwest, and Chicago especially, have been slammed hard by record heat (at latest count, over 580 died during the mid-July heat wave in Cook County alone), so naturally that is what most people around here are talking about. But amnesia regarding The Bomb is not confined to the Windy City. National networks have been oddly silent on the momentous occasion. An exception was ABC, which ran a two- hour special on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hosted and co-written by Peter Jennings. Jennings and his staff did an admirable job of establishing the background for the atomic attack on Japan, including details of the British firebombing of Hamburg, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, and the American incineration of Tokyo. At the end of the broadcast, Jennings chided veterans groups and grandstanding pseudo-populist politicians for bullying the Smithsonian into gutting a commemorative exhibit of the bombing.

The Smithsonian had planned to incorporate exhibits of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that delivered Little Boy to Hiroshima, information about the top secret development of The Bomb, and photographs of The Bomb's effects -- photographs never before seen by most Americans because the pictures were taken by Japanese Army photographers immediately after the smoke cleared. It was these formerly unavailable or classified photographs that the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars objected to, calling them Japanese propaganda. Predictably, the patriots in Congress ganged up to intimidate the Smithsonian curators into eliminating all references to the sufferings of the noncombatants who were either killed or maimed on August 6 and in the days and years following. Estimates of the Hiroshima dead range from 75,000 to over 100,000, but these numbers don't reflect the indirect health and mortality effects of the bombing: destruction of clean water sources and hospitals, and of course radiation poisoning, the effects of which are still felt today.

The Legion, VFW, and most of the Republican party would rather babble about hypothetical American lives that were saved at the expense of mere tens of thousands of Japanese, most of them too old, too young, or too female to fight in the war.

Well, it's neither here nor there whether American lives were "hypothetically" saved. Sadly, most commentary about The Bomb revolves around this degenerate argument. Did The Bomb kill 100,000, or "only" 75,000 in Hiroshima? Did the annhiliation of tens of thousands of noncombatants really save American lives? How many? A thousand? A hundred-thousand? A million? Is that the point, anyway? Advocates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings proudly point out that not one American life was lost to an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Which means, I suppose, that a single American life is more valuable than (I'll be generous) 75,000 Japanese. In any case, should we reckon the cost of The Bomb in terms of human lives, lost or spared, as military minds like to do, or is the price we paid even uglier than death on a massive scale?

There is no discussion of American guilt at all. We talk about the heat, the football season, OJ. Public amnesia about The Bomb is abetted by the lack of media attention. The Atlantic and Esquire make no mention of The Bomb in their August issues. The newsweeklies run their dull 500 word EZ-2-read synopses of the accepted -- that is, acceptable -- facts. Even liberal mainstay Mother Jones barely mentioned the occasion, and did so partly as an advertisement for their archive of Important Photographs. The New Yorker ran a maddeningly even-handed piece by Murray Sayle, in which responsibility for the slaughter was so evenly distributed among all the players -- American, Japanese, and Russian -- as to effectively deny responsibility to any. Accompanying the Sayle piece was a disappointingly brief excerpt of John Hershey's magnificent 1946 report from Hirsohima (in its original form, it filled the entire issue and was later expanded into book form). As if to balance Hershey's objective and heartbreaking excerpt, Hendrik Hertzberg's "Comment" in the front of the issue offers the standard saved-lives and (probably) ended-the-war apologia.

Leave it, then, to E.L. Doctorow to bring the whole business of the Bomb and America's amnesia into focus. Doctorow is a professional voice in the wilderness. Along with Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky and a handful of others, he preaches to the choir. In his piece in the August 14 Nation, Doctorow writes, "America made the A-bomb out of fear of the A-bomb... By 1944, the atom bomb was the employer of 129,000 people...."

That is the truth of the development and use of nuclear weapons: paranoia and business as usual, an equation that added up to power. Fifty years ago, American generals asked for a weapon that could kill a city. What they got was the means to kill a world. The Bomb was built because it both fed and fed from a wartime military-industrial collossus, and it was used because it was there. It's as simple as that. How many lives it took, how many it might have saved -- these questions are meaningless in the face of the simple inhumanity of its use. The weapons developed in the half-century since Hiroshima and Nagasaki dwarf the original bombs' destructiveness. Can anyone say that we won't someday use them? And what will be the rationale then? I suspect it will be no different than the one used fifty years ago. By refusing to examine our reasons -- our guilt -- in the destruction of two Japanese cities, we have left open the possibility that we will do the same to another city or nation, and for just as little reason.

Perhaps amnesia is the sane response after all. Who wants to think about the inconceivable?

In the early 1980's, I joined a reported million others in a march from the UN building to Central Park to protest nuclear proliferation under the Reagan administration. At the end of that lovely summer day in the city, I was able to pat myself on the back for "making my voice heard," for being a part of history. But the truth is, I went on that march for less than noble reasons. Sure, I was a good liberal, I had a perfect Democratic voting record (except for the John Anderson ballot I cast in 1976). I didn't like nukes, and neither did any of my friends. But the real reason I took part in the march was for the chance to visit my girlfriend. What I remember most from that day was the silence of the marchers. It was such a fine day, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the sunny weather. The only controversy was over some marchers carrying animal rights placards, and others protesting US involvement in El Salvador. That is not, some participants said, what this march is about. What it did seem to be about was a million nice people, most of them white and relatively affluent, strolling up Park Avenue, stopping occasionally at vendor carts for Dannon yogurt or Dole popsicles, and gathering in a public park where Paul Simon and James Taylor were singing their greatest hits. Afterwards, for me, it was off to the Upper East side to see my girlfriend at her mother's duplex overlooking Gracie Mansion. The view of the East River at the end of the block was once immortalized on the cover of the New Yorker. I don't remember which issue, and couldn't even tell you the date of the march. Some things are easy to forget.


As I completed the final edits of this piece, the Sept. 4 _New Yorker_ arrived in my mailbox. Contained in this issue are letters responding to the Sayle article. I am indebted to Mr. Arthur Kamber of Loch Arbour, NJ for reminding me (and presumably Murray Sayles) that some of us have no right to criticize the Hiroshima bombing, as we were not putting our lives on the line in August of 1945. Mr. Kamber and several hundred thousand of his fellow American soldiers were preparing for the final invasion of Japan when word reached them of the destruction of Hiroshima. Understandably, they rejoiced. I do not begrudge them their celebration at the time, given what they had gone through during the grueling and deadly island-by-island battles of the Pacific. Mr. Kamber echoes the voices of thousands of Pacific war veterans who, on August 6, 1945, saw the atomic bomb as a peacemaker or, at any rate, a war-ender. The argument is demonstrably persuasive, as it has held sway in the media and education of Americans for a half century. It is also an argument in favor of atrocity, whether Mr. Kamber and others who support his views want to admit it or not.

Copyright 1995
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