Learning To Love the Bomb All Over Again

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 3, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Hiroshima

"The world will never be the same." "A new era has begun." "Today America lost its innocence." "The pursuit of happiness is at an end."

The above sentiments were being expressed with startling regularity after you-know-when. Yet they could all apply equally well to August 6, 1945, when the United States became the first and only country to direct a nuclear weapon against people. Not since 999 AD or perhaps the Black Plague had it seemed so likely that the prophecies of St. John the Divine might be confirmed, with great earthquakes, black suns, mighty winds, mobile mountains, the end of days. Contemplating his work, atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer is supposed to have uttered a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, destroyer of worlds."

There is an enormous literature dedicated to the Atomic Age, much of it concerning the grit and spunk of the Los Alamos scientists. The late Richard Feynman has become a sort of demigod, though he merrily declined to lose sleep over his work on the Manhattan Project. Others like Oppenheimer and Einstein were horrified and contrite. In his book Einstein's Monsters, British author Martin Amis argues convincingly that the existence of nuclear weapons makes ordinary life -- which depends upon a hope for a better future -- impossible, lame, absurd.

With the end of the Cold War, it was assumed that the nuclear chill would undergo a thaw as well. After all, one of the two countries engaged in a policy of "mutually assured destruction" had collapsed, and America's unprecedented economic boom was soon underway. Amnesia triumphed, cigar and martini bars were opening their doors, and then India and Pakistan almost ruined the party by testing their own nuclear weapons. But they were roundly scolded, sanctions were imposed, and once again President Clinton's penis was much more on everyone's mind than thousands upon thousands of nuclear-enabled ICBMs.

The events of you-know-when changed all that. The world was suddenly faced with an enemy for whom "mutually assured destruction" was a happy phrase, a ticket to eternal bliss. While, as Sting quite rightly told us, "the Russians love their children too," the new enemy often wrapped its children in TNT and hurled them at Israeli discotheques. Had the airplanes of that fated day been carrying an H-bomb, the New York death toll might have been 1000 times as great as it was.

Instead of mutually assured you-know-what, we are now faced with a few very grim possibilities, the India-Pakistan conflict to one side. First, the United States may use nuclear weapons in peremptory attacks against so-called terrorist states. Or, terrorists may use nuclear weapons against the United States, which will be helpless to respond. Or both. We are back, in other words, to the eve of August 6, 1945. So it seems fitting to recall what Einstein's monsters can do, and what they did to over 300,000 Japanese.

In 1946 American author John Hersey, who was born and spent much of his childhood in China, published a slim volume titled, simply, Hiroshima. Its contents had originally appeared in The New Yorker, and in 1985 Hersey added a lengthy chapter, "Aftermath." The book has undergone numerous reprintings. The Washington Post declares that "to this day nothing tells better the horror of Hiroshima" and calls Hersey "one of the most powerful writers of modern times." I second both opinions. As I read Hiroshima, I found myself highlighting every other page, then every other sentence; hardly a word is wasted; nearly every is hard to forget.

Orwell once defined a "grown-up person" as "a man capable of writing dispassionately even when he knew the facts." By this criterion, Hersey is almost senile, as he never so much as tenders an opinion or ventures a critique. He is even more dispassionate than the Japanese, many of whom shrugged off the A-bomb with the words shikata ga-nai. Oh, well. It can't be helped. Nevermind.

The bulk of the book follows the lives of a handful of hibakusha, the Japanese term for the survivors of the atomic attack. Hersey describes their fairly mundane activities prior to the moment of impact at 8:15 a.m. Many Hiroshimans expected that their city would be firebombed by B-29s, as Tokyo had been. But some suspected that "the Americans were saving something special for the city."

No one in Hiroshima knew what had hit them, but they soon realized that the weapon was not of an ordinary type. Almost no one heard the blast; people were burned rather than blown up, and they seemed to vomit a great deal; the sun had gone out; and the irradiated rainstorm that followed contained drops the size of marbles.

Theories about the weapon abounded. It was a cluster bomb; it was radium-based. A Catholic priest proudly proposed that "a kind of fine magnesium powder [had been] sprayed over the whole city by a single plane, and it exploded when it came into contact with the live wires of the city power system." Others considered poison gas, or gasoline.

The Japanese found themselves suffering from a combination of the punishments in Dante's Inferno, which describes "warring winds", "turbid water", and "scattered flames". Yet they stuck to their traditions and especially to their exceedingly polite speech. When one Dr. Sasaki saw the flash, "he ducked down on one knee and said to himself, as only a Japanese would, 'Sasaki, gambare! Be brave!'" Buried victims cried out, "Tasukete kure! Help, if you please!" A Mr. Tanimoto apologized profusely to those who had suffered more than he: "Excuse me for having no burden like yours." When Hirohito finally announced Japanese surrender, he took the unprecedented step of addressing his subjects directly over the radio. This so honored the Japanese that their disappointment over defeat was largely mitigated. And few victims were angry with America for using the bomb or at their government for beginning the war.

That is, until March 1, 1954, when the United States conducted a nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll. The test exposed Japanese sailors aboard the "Lucky Dragon No.5" to radioactive fallout. Memories and anger were stirred, and the Hiroshima victims began demanding compensation from their government. It was ultimately granted.

The book's most appalling scene does not take place in Hiroshima, but in an American television studio. Its setup is worth quoting at length, and it begins with an MC named Edwards saying, no doubt with a jaunty lilt:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to 'This Is Your Life.' The ticking you hear in the background is a clock counting off the seconds to 8:15 A.M., August 6, 1945. And seated here with me is a gentleman whose life was changed by the last tick of that clock as it reached eight-fifteen. Good evening, sir."

Edwards asks Mr. Tanimoto some introductory questions, and then asks him where he was at eight-fifteen.

"Tanimoto had no chance to answer. The ticking grew louder and louder, and there was an uproar from kettle-drums. "'This is Hiroshima,' Edwards said as a mushroom cloud grew on the viewers' screens, 'and in that fateful second on August 6, 1945, a new concept of life and death was given its baptism. And tonight's principal subject - you, Reverend Tanimoto! - were an unsuspecting part of that concept.'"

It was probably no accident that Edwards used the word "baptism", with its pleasant and misleading connotations of purification and cleansing. In any case, hapless Tanimoto was forced to confront a part of His Life that he would sooner have forgotten: Captain Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay. Edwards asked Lewis what he had written in his pilot's log. Lewis had written "My God, what have we done?" For this admission the Pentagon subsequently reprimanded him. The show's producers then trotted out Tanimoto's wife, all porcelain-dolled-up in a kimono, although she never wore kimonos at home.

This show, or sideshow rather, took place in 1955. As early as that, the ineffable, private suffering of war had become entertainment for forty million gawking morons. There is a difference, after all, between being a dispassionate grown-up and being a senseless, thoughtless slug.

But even mushroom clouds have silver linings. One positive consequence of Hiroshima was a renewed sense of solidarity expressing "the Japanese spirit of enryo -- setting the self apart, putting the wishes of others first." Another was the beginning of a worldwide movement toward nuclear disarmament, world peace, and even world government. The "World Federalists" would ultimately influence no less than A Beautiful Mind's John Nash, who tried countless times to renounce his American citizenship in order to become a citoyen du monde.

The idea was that without nations and nationalism, there would be no more war, and one democratic world government could do what everybody wants to do, but no one person has done: eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. But John Nash failed, as did World Federalism, which was rejected out of hand by Truman. And its nearest relative, the Security Council of the United Nations, is little more than a reduced version of the old nukes club. In Hiroshima's final chapter, Hersey gives intermittent obituary-like updates on the club's membership: USSR, UK, France, China, India...to which may now be added Pakistan; and Israel, which has at least 100 nuclear warheads.

I often wonder why anybody would want to bring children into a post-Hiroshima world. Granted, it's a pretty lovely world, so long as you can periodically escape the oppressive, discouraging dread of nuclear cataclysm. It is a world in which a German priest can be reading his Stimmern der Zeit one moment, and at the next be "wandering around in the mission's vegetable garden in his underwear, bleeding slightly from his left flank."

Oh well. It can't be helped. Nevermind.

- The End -

Review of John Hersey's Hiroshima, Penguin Classics, 2001.

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