Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima: Seventy Years And Counting

I owe my life to Harry S. Truman.

Or so my father told me at the dinner table one night in the 1960s when, having just read John Hersey's Hiroshima, I was expressing my shock, sadness and indignation that a US president could kill 80,000 people in one fell atomic swoop. What did innocent Japanese people have to do with the war, I'd asked. Children did not deserve to die, or survive that horrific day only to develop leukemia and other cancers decades later. 

That's when Dad told me that as a soldier stationed on the island of Okinawa in 1945, he was to be part of Operation Olympic, the first stage of the invasion of Japan. Since the Japanese were fully aware of the planned attack, it was believed at the time to be essentially a suicide mission. American casualties were forecast to be in the millions, what with the Japanese heavily fortifying the southern island of Kyushu, where my father's unit was scheduled to land.  

I had always known that my father was in the war, but like so many World War II vets, he never talked about it much. Those were the days before PTSD became a diagnosis, those were the days when men had to be macho. One story he loved to tell revolved around some exquisite watercolors which a Japanese P.O.W. he'd been guarding painted for him in exchange for a carton of Lucky Strikes. Those paintings were among his most prized possessions, along with some autograph and photo memorabilia of star-studded welcome-home parties and studio tours thrown for him and other GI's in Hollywood. He also loved to tell the story of how he'd accidentally barged into Lucille Ball's dressing room, and how warm and gracious she was in her semi-nudity. Diehard "I Love Lucy" fans that we kids were, we were suitably impressed. (My mother, not so much.)

As he rather gruffly pointed out to me that night at the kitchen table, were it not for the atomic bomb I might never have been born. When Truman dropped the bomb, the war ended, Dad got to go home, party, get a good job, get married, and procreate.

 I stared at him in stunned silence, my appetite gone right along with my indignant words.To be told that you are alive because of the mass deaths of others is quite the revelation, instilling not a little of ye olde survivor guilt.

Since that long-ago conversation, recently declassified documents reveal that if Truman hadn't dropped the bomb and Operation Olympic had proceeded as planned, my father might have encountered more weaponized civilian draftees (teens and old people) on the island of Kyushu than seasoned Japanese soldiers, who were busy elsewhere. If he'd gotten killed, it likely would have been from an aerial bomb instead of from a bayonet.

If existential gratitude is indeed in order, I should also probably thank Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Because if anybody went on a guilt trip after the bombing of Hiroshima, and later of Nagasaki, it was those two guys.

As for Truman, he had some regrets over the loss of human life, but apparently suffered no guilt. From his diary:
“It was a decision to loose the most terrible of all destructive forces for the wholesale slaughter of human beings. The Secretary of War Mr. Stimson and I weighed that decision most prayerfully. The President had to decide. It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities and I still think they were and are.

“But I couldn’t help but think of the necessity of blotting out women, children and more combatants. We picked a couple of cities where war work was the principle industry and dropped the bombs. Russia hurried in and that war ended.”
  Give Em Hell Harry's statement that he dropped the bomb to save flowering masculine lives had some truth in it, if I do say so my selfish self. But as his critics point out, he also might have been ignoring Japanese overtures for peace. The estimates of millions of American casualties might have been overblown in order to justify the ultimate reality of a quarter-million Japanese casualties. And Truman's atomic attack on Nagasaki was most assuredly done as a warning to the Soviets, who had their own goal of taking over post-war Asia. The bombing of Nagasaki was an act of monumental brutality and pure, chest-thumping hegemony.

What is also brutally clear is that in the 70 years since Hiroshima, not one country has attacked the United States. And yet American leaders have used the same Trumanesque rationale of "saving American lives" to justify every invasion, every bombing, every drone strike, every construction of every one of its  thousand military bases around the world. The dropping of the atomic bomb set the stage for American dominance, with the Soviet Union the scapegoat until its collapse in 1991.

By then, of course, it was too late to rein in what Dwight Eisenhower had warned about: the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Since the end of the Cold War, the US has unleashed its military might against the Balkans, northern Africa and the Middle East. In just the past year, the Obama administration has staged a coup in Ukraine and sent troops to Russian border countries, and begun what is euphemized as "a pivot to Asia."

In yesterday's Faux-Peace In Our Time speech to his Iran deal critics, President Obama manfully boasted,
As commander-in-chief, I have not shied away from using force when necessary. I have ordered tens of thousands of young Americans into combat. I have sat by their bedside sometimes when they come home.
I've ordered military action in seven countries. There are times when force is necessary, and if Iran does not abide by this deal, it's possible that we don't have an alternative.
 And while the US chickenhawks in both parties wring their hegemonic hands and thump their imperialistic chests over the proposed de-nuking deal with Iran, the MIC continues to build up its own nuclear arsenal with a vengeance.The Obama administration last fall announced plans to invest another trillion dollars in a renewed nuclear arms race. The first phase was the building of a sprawling plant twice the size of the Pentagon in America's heartland. One thousand people have been hired to build new warheads in Kansas City, MO. From the New York Times
  This expansion comes under a president who campaigned for “a nuclear-free world” and made disarmament a main goal of American defense policy. The original idea was that modest rebuilding of the nation’s crumbling nuclear complex would speed arms refurbishment, raising confidence in the arsenal’s reliability and paving the way for new treaties that would significantly cut the number of warheads.
 Instead, because of political deals and geopolitical crises, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.

 Supporters of arms control, as well as some of President Obama’s closest advisers, say their hopes for the president’s vision have turned to baffled disappointment as the modernization of nuclear capabilities has become an end unto itself.
Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize president sanctimoniously scolds critics of his Iran "peace" deal. Without the ability to peacefully threaten Iran over its own nonexistent-to-modest nuclear program, he boomed yesterday, war will become inevitable. He is kindly giving Iran a chance to behave before bombing it to smithereens.

Meanwhile, over at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, they just completed a massive renovation of their plutonium processing plant.

Meanwhile, over at the Y-12 Security Complex in Tennessee, they just completed a $550 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. 

Meanwhile, over at the 3,000-worker Pantex Plant in Amarillo, they're building a "high explosives pressing facility" at a cost (so far) of $145 million.

Meanwhile, over at the Savannah River Site, more than 5,000 gainfully employed Americans are enjoying the brand new Tritium Engineering Building. Tritium is a highly radioactive form of hydrogen gas.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. For more information about what they're building and improving, be sure to visit the National Nuclear Security Administration website. Look at all the happy employees. Read all about how weapons of mass destruction keep you safe and secure.  Read all about how thousands and thousands of lucky workers with good-paying jobs are "giving back" to their communities as they build, refurbish, maintain and stockpile the American nuclear arsenal. Whoever said Americans don't manufacture stuff any more is nuts.

Their faces are literally glowing. They are grateful, and they want you to be grateful too.

Nuke University, Class of 2014


Jay–Ottawa said...

Another John Hersey-type review of the Hiroshima catastrophe was Thomas Merton's poem "Original Child Bomb." In the nineties, when the anti-nuke movement probably reached it's peak, I made an adaptation (with permissions from the Merton legacy), dividing the poem into parts for four readers representing a non-judgemental Reporter, his irreverent sidekick Commentator, the Bomb himself, and a curiously unsentimental character called Hope. This version was read (17 minutes) by a local theatrical troop here and there around Central New York and even substituted for the usual sermon in a church service in Syracuse on the same Sunday, as I recall, that about a million people were demonstrating against the bomb in NYC. Here's a snippet from a site that prints Merton's poem in its entirety. The tone is never far from sardonic.


At the last minute before taking off, Col. Tibbetts changed the secret radio call sign from “Visitor” to “Dimples.” The Bombing Mission would be a kind of flying smile.

At 2:45 A.M. Enola Gay got off the ground with difficulty. Over Iwo Jima she met her escort, two more B-29s, one of which was called the Great Artiste. Together they proceeded to Japan.

At 6:40 they climbed to 31,000 feet, the bombing altitude. The sky was clear. It was a perfect morning.

At 8:09 they reached Hiroshima and started the bomb run. The city was full of sun. The fliers could see the green grass in the gardens. No fighters rose up to meet them. There was no flak. No one in the city bothered to take cover.

The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The temperature at the center of the fireball was 100,000,000 degrees. The people who were near the center became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and the ruins all caught fire instantly everywhere, burning briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died within a few hours. Those who did not die at once suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.

The men in the plane perceived that the raid had been successful, but they thought of the people in the city and they were not perfectly happy. Some felt they had done wrong. But in any case they had obeyed orders. “It was war.”


As to the Original Child that was now born, President Truman summed up the philosophy of the situation in a few words. “We found the bomb” he said “and we used it.”

Since that summer many other bombs have been “found.” What is going to happen? At the time of writing, after a season of brisk speculation, men seem to be fatigued by the whole question.

Pearl said...

Jay: A very brief clear picture of what happened but the horrifying results were filed away for many years. We can thank Truman of cold war fame for this decision and the lies surrounding why it had to happen (Japan's emperor was waiting to sign the end of the war) which would have stopped all military action but was ignored.
Oppenheimer and his colleagues were frightened by what they had accomplished and many scientists including Albert Einstein appealed to FDR to prevent its use.
It was a power play to show who was in charge after WW2 and to keep the Soviet Union out of the loop on decision making.
Without their role at Stalingrad Germany might have gone on with the killing and bombing.
Truman always claimed he had no choice in the matter. Such is the clear truth about a limited president's decision.

Unpatriotic Pearl said...

Karen: What a moving column. Was that really your father you were talking about?

So we are still in the killing business, even more dangerous than before and are lucky we haven't had some terrorist or maniac getting his hands on a full blooded nuclear weapon to hurl at an enemy although what is available is doing a lethal job.

And the lying about the truth of Hiroshima means they knew how dangerous things had become. I remember reading some of the truths in the left wing press at the time and later more information about the true extent of the damage which lingered in injured people's lives for a long while. I am glad I no longer have to mouth the
Star Bangled Banner in America although I had already stopped doing so in High School.

Karen Garcia said...


Thanks for sharing the Merton poem along with the background info on the site you referred us to. A long time ago I read his book The Seven Storey Mountain, about his intellectual journey via mysticism and meditation. He was a Trappist monk, so he had plenty of time to think, and write. You have inspired me to give his work another look.


Yes that is a true story about my father, who died a couple of years ago, aged 88.

Thinking about how sanguine Truman was about dropping the bomb got me to thinking how nothing much has changed. I think that of all the presidents subsequent to him, Kennedy had the most heart and the most conscience. I read that he actually wept after he learned of the "suicide" (actually CIA murder) of President Diem in the lead-up to the Vietnam War. I wonder if that war would have escalated had Kennedy lived.

How ironic and how apt that the first GOP "debate" is being held on the anniversary of Hiroshima.

Bill Sprague said...

You are a journalist and you ostensibly know how to spell. There is no period after the S in Truman's middle name and it apparently stood for nothing. Please correct your blog post.

Karen Garcia said...

Bill Sprague:

You'd also better alert the Truman Library.

But thanks anyway for the factoid. Actually, the "S" stands for the names of both his grandparents, so to say that it stands for nothing is an insult to his forebears. Grammarians are divided as to whether the Ess in his name deserves a period or not.

Therefore, I am not going to correct my punctuation, or as you call it, "spelling."

Jay–Ottawa said...

Punctilious grammarians used to have their periods and spells up here in Canada too, but, as I understand it, our mother country, I mean the UK, launched an intelligent reform a long time ago. What? Why? Well, introducing a period in the middle of a sentence or a name is like slamming on the breaks for no reason during rush hour. Good way to get bumped in the behind. So we began to see the pointlessness of it all in most situations and dispensed with those confusing little points of darkness, which merely served as speed bumps to speed reading. Good riddance. Thus, it’s Dr [sic], Mr [sic], Ms [sic], Mrs [sic], St [sic] on and on all the way down the Ave [sic], unless the abbreviation happens to come at the very end of a sentence, of course. But that's another story.

As for Harry S Truman [sic], I too believe there is no dot after the middle initial. Truman probably invented the middle initial back in the Thirties just so he might qualify for a Social Security card. (Everybody knows, when you fill out the application, your name should be printed in capital letters in the blocks provided and, please, no hyphens or periods. Doing that eliminates the clerk's calling over a supervisor because you left out the middle initial, even if you don't have one.)

Karen says the period is there if you check it out with the authorities at HST's [sic] presidential library. Aha, no no, we all know how authoritative those propaganda mills can be.

I cannot document the following but I suspect Harry, to his credit, which he is in special need of in light of his nuclear decisions, intentionally omitted the period behind the 'S' because he held a secret admiration for peace-loving Canada and decided to show it in a way that J [sic] Edgar Hoover & Co [sic] wouldn’t catch on and run around shouting “Treason!”