On Friday, May 27, 2016, President Obama will become the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima, Japan, site of the 1945 atomic bombing that remains controversial to this day. While President Obama has indicated he will not apologize for the bombing, the visit, part of a larger Asia trip, remains significant.
The following article examined the legacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in the June / August 2010 issue of the Humanist magazine.
MOST PEOPLE who have been to contemporary Hiroshima have seen the Atomic Bomb Dome, the shell of a building that was some sixty meters from the hypocenter of the 1945 atomic blast, and which now serves as a modern symbol of that bitter truth commonly referred to as man’s inhumanity to man. This structure was so named because its most outstanding feature is the skeleton of the original building’s dome, spokes of structural steel that form the shape but lack the covering that was literally atomized that day, sixty-five years ago this August 6. The outside walls of concrete and brick remain partially intact, irregular, broken, and humbled—as the ruins of some medieval castle—while the windows, which were of course pulverized, and the interior floors and ceilings now lie on the ground inside in rubbled chunks. The destruction is not medieval; rather, it is profoundly modern.
The construction of a medieval castle required the effort of hundreds of craftsmen and peasants placing stone on stone for generations. Such a castle’s demise, its ruin, would take centuries of storms, rain, freeze, and thaw. Only a few seconds were needed to reduce the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall to rubble sixty-five years ago. With a flash of light and a shock wave of many thousand degrees centigrade, lasting less than a handful of seconds, the promotion hall was destroyed by a force of technology that represents an order of magnitude that’s nearly incomprehensible. Modern technology to medieval technology is an asymmetrical comparison. But the Atomic Bomb Dome testifies to the ongoing human ability to visualize, propagate, rationalize, and even to forget the horrific.
Begin with the fact that there were some 350,000 people living in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Approximately 140,000 died that day and in the five months that followed. The flesh of the children in Honkawa Elementary School near the hypocenter did not hold up as well as the concrete and structural steel of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Absolutely nothing was left of them, no remains whatsoever for their parents, if they survived, to bury. Nor did the flesh of the babies, adolescents, young adults, middle-aged, or senior citizens hold up any better. In fact, every human being—with the exception of two—within a 1.2 kilometer radius of the hypocenter were atomized or fried within a few seconds of the 8:15 a.m. bombing. Nowadays, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, one can hear Keijiro Matsushima, who miraculously survived the blast at his school just outside the 1.2 kilometer center of death, describe the scene that was around him as he made his escape to the countryside just after the blast. Blackened, bloodied, skinless masses of corpses were floating in macabre positions in the Kyuohotagawa and the Motoyasugawa rivers. Long lines of shuffling figures—clothes burned right off the body; hair standing on end or singed off the scalp; skin peeling and dripping off arms, legs, backs; hands outstretched, zombie-like—were all wandering blindly away from the center. And this hellish scene was played out in utter darkness, for the mushroom cloud, that carrier of black rain and persistent death, had turned day into night and modern technology into humanity’s greatest nemesis. It’s estimated that the second bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9 claimed another 80,000 lives.
Sixty-five years later the epicenter of the first blast is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, an area of impressive memorials to the victims, a museum, and intricately manicured gardens of flowering bushes, meticulously pruned trees and lily pad ponds, so representative of the Japanese horticulture aesthetic. Every day the park is inundated with groups of Japanese school children in their navy blue uniforms, energetically wandering in groups from memorial to memorial, smiling and laughing. The architectural and natural beauty combined with the joy and health of youth is as far from the grim reality of August 6, 1945, as one can imagine. Yet, if one enters the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, one returns to the images of that day.
An especially striking photograph was taken shortly after the blast, one of the very few that exists of the immediate aftermath. The shot is a street scene, candid of course, capturing the astonished terror of the victims. On the left, there are a half dozen figures sitting on the road with their elbows resting on their knees, frozen in fear by the catastrophic shock of the blast. The hair of four of the victims is sticking out from the scalp. Two of the victims’ hair has been entirely singed off their heads. Some are half naked while others wear scorched and tattered rags. All the exposed skin shows the dark patches of charred flesh. On the right, there is a group of standing figures. To the left in the group, a girl, clothes in tatters, seems to be hopping on feet burned raw. Next to her a woman, her mother possibly, is bent over and seems to be peeling flesh from her left shin. To their right, a group of men and women, clothes hanging limply from shoulders and arms, fried flesh across the backs, are bent over, apparently trying to aide a figure on the ground. Over them all hovers a sinister darkness, the day-into-night of the mushroom cloud. Behind them are more groups in the shocked poses of human agony. And behind those, one imagines, are more groups in the throes of death and dying and torture and torment, and it goes on and on from street to street and neighborhood to neighborhood all across Hiroshima, an ever expanding vision of the increasing horror of modern warfare. This was the reality of that day and the bomb. Back outside the museum one looks again at the healthy school children and the manicured beauty of the gardens, contemplates the enormity of those two days in August 1945, and tries to place it in the annals of human misery.
Certainly, the history of our species isn’t lacking for examples of horrific destruction of human life. The Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio describes the indiscriminate and pervasive devastation of the bubonic plague. In fourteenth-century Europe the plague may have killed up to half the population. Boccaccio goes into great detail about human relations breaking down under the onslaught. Morality was abandoned, rituals were ignored, and life became cheap. Bodies were dragged from the houses and piled up in the streets. One might imagine scenes not too unlike Hiroshima, so the plague and the atomic bombings are quantitatively similar. Pandemics are endemic to the human condition, but they are tragedies. By definition, tragedies are beyond human volition. In no way could the plague have been avoided by an act of human will, and this is what makes it qualitatively different than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The bomb is a human creation, and the U.S. bombing of those two Japanese cities was a calculated act of human will. The Black Death was a natural scourge on humankind; Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Of course, cruelty is endemic to the human condition. Contrary to what some of his contemporaries believed, Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed that the degree of our inhumanity toward each other hadn’t changed throughout the entire course of history, from the beginning up to his nineteenth century. Whether you agree or disagree that humans have made no moral progress, we have certainly progressed in the technological ability to kill human beings quickly and efficiently.
Back in 1209, Pope Innocent III decided to put an end to the Cathar heresy in southern France. For political, economic, and doctrinal reasons too complicated to go into here, the Albigensians (Cathars) refused to recognize the authority of the Church. Therefore, Innocent III called for a crusade against the heretics. As a result, some 10,000 God-fearing knights of Europe mustered in Lyon, and thus began a twenty-year campaign in which 100,000 to 200,000 Albigensian men, women, and children were burned at the stake, tied and quartered, put on the rack, simply slaughtered, or otherwise violently put to death. Tens of thousands of knights on horseback, accompanied by their squires and other agents of death, took twenty years to kill as many human beings as the atomic bombs did in seconds and then a few months. Contrasts to such brevity abound: the Mongol conquests, the Spanish in the Caribbean, the European Americans’ destruction of the Native Americans, the Europeans in Africa, Hitler, even the “Global War on Terror.”
One of the remarkable developments of modern technological warfare is the ability of the public—the American public in the case of the atomic bomb—to accept such swift massacre. For, along with an increased sophistication in killing technology comes an equal sophistication in dehumanization. When Keijiro Matsushima gives his survivor’s talk, he mentions how President Truman and other U.S. leaders found it easier to drop the bomb on “monkeys” than school children. He points out that such dehumanization has always been a part of war but the fact remains that mass annihilation contained in a very short period of time is more readily accepted, psychologically and collectively. A protracted campaign, such as the slaughter of Vietnamese peasants, is impossible to keep from the public. The atomic bombs were much different. General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. occupation forces were able to completely suppress the images and detailed reports of the bombings because the carnage happened so swiftly. For the American public, the tens of thousands of instant deaths had no names or faces and, for the most part, have remained that way. They were successfully dehumanized while, as the late Howard Zinn said, the righteousness of dropping the bomb has remained a cherished American myth.
But even for their swift demolition, the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombs were extremely inefficient. Only one of the fifty kilograms of uranium present detonated in “Little Boy,” the affectionate nickname given to that weapon of mass destruction by those responsible. Hiroshima could have been even more horrific than it was if one dares imagine. A mere sixteen years later, the technology had advanced dramatically. After all, the “best minds in the world” were feverishly working on these projects during the Cold War. The Tsar Bomba was the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. It was tested north of the Arctic Circle on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Sea on October 30, 1961, by the Soviet Union. When it detonated 2.5 miles above the ground, the fireball reached from the ground to 6.5 miles up into the atmosphere and was felt nearly 620 miles from ground zero. The seismic shock from the blast was still measurable on its third pass around the earth. Scientists estimated that the power released from the Tsar Bomba was approximately 1.4 percent of the power output of the sun or 1,400 times the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
This new order of magnitude in killing efficiency also brought a certain distance and unreality on the part of the killer. Modern bomber pilots never witness first-hand the death that they bring, and since the end of the Cold War up to the ongoing “Global War on Terror,” the accurate and efficient elimination of human life is increasingly presented as mundane, casual, even routine while the distance between killer and killed constantly increases. Nowadays, at bases here in the United States and abroad, technicians direct smart bombs and Predator drones to their “targets” on screens, much like video games, where living human beings are presented as electronic images on a monitor. Here, the ultimate dehumanization of warfare has been achieved: the enemy has been reduced to an electronic blip that can be eliminated with the click of a button. None of these warriors will have the blood of the enemy in their face and, possibly, on their conscience like the knights of the Albigensian holocaust. Sixty-five years after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is neither more peaceful nor less dangerous. On the contrary, the efficiency and dehumanization of killing machines has only increased.
The elimination of nuclear weapons alone, no matter how desirable and admirable a project, will not end “man’s inhumanity to man.” Modern technology has assured us that an ever-increasing efficiency in the killing of human beings can go on with or without nuclear weapons. So the lesson of Hiroshima isn’t merely that nuclear weapons must never be used again but that there must be a way to stop the “best minds in the world” from developing other weapons technologies—whether for warfare or under the guise they’ll be used as deterrents. Not an easy task, true. However, there is some precedent.
Albert Einstein’s famous 1939 letter, drafted by physicist Leo Szilard (who was named Humanist of the Year some twenty years later), convinced President Roosevelt to start the Manhattan Project. Einstein later became a peace activist and days before his death signed Bertrand Russell’s 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto along with ten other esteemed scientists and intellectuals. It begins with the words: “In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction.” It ends with the oft-repeated phrase: “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
And then of course there’s Andrei Sakharov, one of the developers of Soviet bomb. Shortly after the Tsar Bomba test, he began to estimate the future cancer deaths from above-ground, nuclear-bomb testing fallout in the atmosphere and soon became a dissident advocating the elimination of nuclear weapons technology. This position came at great personal cost, but also helped lead to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In 1975 Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1980 was given the Humanist of the Year award. In his 1968 essay, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” he writes:
The division of mankind threatens it with destruction. Civilization is imperiled by: a universal thermonuclear war, catastrophic hunger for most of mankind, stupefaction from the narcotic of “mass culture” and bureaucratized dogmatism, a spreading of mass myths that put entire peoples and continents under power of cruel and treacherous demagogues, and destruction or degeneration from the unforeseeable consequences of life on our planet.
The humanist position must again and again insist on the value of human life over ideology, political expediency, and fear mongering. The reason for using the atomic bomb, the smart bomb, the drone, or any other weapon can be found in these irrational appeals to the people on the part of the powers that be. These reasons must be answered by strong voices that counter the ideology, political expediency, and fear mongering with facts about the costs of their use on human life. This is the message of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sixty-five years later.