The strangest thing about this weapon – which erased two thriving cities, killed 200,000 civilians and children, and poisoned thousands more with radiation – is the fact that its greatest impact, then and now, is psychological. Fear of nuclear pollution is much greater than fear of fossil fuels, although the latter have been much more catastrophic. Our post-apocalyptic fictions invariably feature mushroom clouds, interspersed with the odd plague. And those who built the bomb use almost uniquely religious language to express their terror: “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since,” or “I am become death the destroyer of worlds.” We speak of the bomb with dire respect, born of the dread felt facing a thing that could undo the world.
This enduring nuclear mystique is the final proof that the people who detonated Hiroshima and Nagasaki knew what they were doing. Then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson said the purpose of the bomb was to “shock” – and here we are in 2014, still numb and blinking. Wasn’t that the desired effect? The bomb was inhumane, it was terrible, it killed masses of innocent people (as did the Siege of Stalingrad, the bombings of Berlin and Dresden, the murderous Japanese Empire), but it won the war precisely for this reason. The Japanese fascists surrendered because this bomb – on which debates rage even louder today than fifty years ago – was an irrefutable tool to impress upon them their own mortality.
It has proven increasingly popular in America to simply assume that everything this country has ever done is evil, corrupt, and murderous; that it is nation driven purely by racism, militarism and worship of its own (diminishing) might. I certainly understand this point, as a child whose political awakening occurred during the invasion of Iraq, as the son of a woman who protested the Vietnam War, as a reader of 12 Years a Slave. But it frustrates me to no end that Hiroshima is judged guilty by association with America’s other crimes. In this atrocity that saved lives, in this lethal spectacle that won the war, where is the stupidity that started Iraq? Where is the futility that defined Vietnam? And yet we often compare the three with no mention of America’s “good” wars: the Allied defeat of Hitler, the almost single-handed stemming of the red tide in Korea.
Union soldiers died to make men free, the workers on the Hoover Dam died to make the desert bloom; the women and children of Hiroshima died to save the lives of our grandfathers, to bend Japan’s government to an orderly surrender, to prevent the greater bloodshed of a looming invasion. Of course, they never knew this. Nor would knowing it have somehow rendered their deaths less painful, or less eternal, less irreversible. But the people of the present should know it. Perhaps it is a bit of consolation to those of us who have to live with the crimes our grandfathers committed.
(This is the first of two articles on the atomic bombing of Japan; you may also want to read part Two, which discusses the alternative histories that are so so popular.)