Friday, May 27, 2016


I don't get out much.  On those rare occasions when I do engage in some social event, I often find myself amazed at the variety of life experiences which other people report.  For instance, I went to a party recently and spent some time listening to the story of a fellow who said he had broken or severely sprained an ankle at the age of five.  That mishap resulted in his being confined to his bed at home for about a month.  His convalescence coincided with the assassination of John Kennedy.  The storyteller said he watched the unfolding events on tv pretty much non-stop, and said he had been obsessed with it ever since.  He was convinced that Oswald could not have made the shots as was alleged, and that someone else was responsible for the killing.  Of course, I watched much of the same reporting on tv at the time, but I was twenty-one years old, and I had a rather different view of the events.  I remember being rather cynical about the death of the President at that moment, and I tended to accept the investigative findings as likely correct.  The later killings of Bobby Kennedy and MLK had a much more profound effect on me; they seemed to me to be much less an accident of history, and more an indication of the nation slipping into an irreversible downward spiral.

Beyond the facts and controversies of the assassinations, the story the fellow related got me to thinking about how our memories and world views are products of many factors in our environment beyond what we may immediately perceive at the time.  I was five years of age in 1945.  That was also a time of monumental, world shaping events, but the opportunities for a five-year-old to perceive and evaluate them did not include the visual and narrative structuring of experience that were made available by television programming in the 1960s.  My memories of those times contain many small snippets of information gleaned from infrequent exposure to newsreels in darkened theaters, bits of overheard conversations, and perhaps a little audio input from the big old wooden cabinet RCA radio in our living room.  I'm sure there were more coherent written journalistic accounts of  events available, but they were not accessible to a child of five.  I do have some recollection of the sense of relief and elation around the ending of WWII.  I do not directly recall anything at all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Conversation in our household about the events of 1945 were no doubt muted to an extent by the fact that my father did not return from the war.  How much that was responsible for the obvious holes in my memory of that time is hard to judge.

It turned out that I was a precocious reader.  Thanks to that I did gain some awareness of the A-bombs not too long after the event.  I clearly remember John Hersey's book, Hiroshima, sitting in the plywood bookcase in our living room which had been built by my grandfather.  My grandmother encouraged me to read the book; I was probably seven or eight by then. Hersey's account relating the stories of the six survivors created an indelible impression in my young mind.  It is an impression that has stuck with me and influenced my thoughts about the bombing and the threat of the Bomb ever since.

Like everyone of my generation, I lived closely with the Bomb throughout my youth and well into adulthood.  I learned to duck under my school desk when the practice alarm was rung.  I recall being in D.C. during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis and suddenly awakening in the middle of the night, sure that I had perceived the flash of a nuclear detonation.  The lessening of tensions and a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. brought a sense of respite, but the reality and the on-going danger of the Bomb came to the fore every year in any case, usually around the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I believe it was on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we were visited in our home in the desert in New Mexico by two young Japanese women who Margaret had befriended through her hospice work.  I recall that as we sat down to dinner one night that I felt compelled to share with them my feelings of regret about the dropping of the A bombs.  They were quite reserved in their reactions to my comments.  I don't really know what they thought of what I said, or even how much they understood given the language issues of the moment.  It is possible that even their parents were not yet born before the end of the war, and the two young women may have felt as remote from those events as my own children.

Albuquerque, where we now live is home to the Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  The section of the museum devoted to the Bomb includes a book where people can leave comments about the use of the Bomb against the Japanese.  Some of the commenters express feeling similar to mine, but many repeat the idea that the use of the A-Bomb was necessary to avoid a high number of  American losses which would have resulted from an invasion without the use of the Bombs.   Similar arguments have surfaced in response to Obama's recent visit to Hiroshima.  Here is a typical response to an article in The Nation about the U.S. use of the A-Bomb:

Sure we could have invaded the Island of Japan and ended the war at the cost of another 100,000 American lives. All the bleeding hearts are pouring forth with their version of what could have been. The reality is the Japanese were arming the populace with ceramic grenades and any other weapons they could come up with to defend the island to the last man, woman or child.
It seems most want to forget the brutal murderous reign of these war loving people who would slaughter anyone who stood in the way of their domination.
Truman was right then and he remains right today and forever.
It might be interesting to sit down with the fellow who made those assertions to get at the process by which he arrived at his opinions justifying the need to drop nuclear bombs on the two Japanese cities in response to the threat of "ceramic grenades and any other weapons they could come up with to defend the island to the last man, woman or child."   The writer is likely just a troll given the absurdity of his proffered imagery, but I think there are a substantial number of people who adhere to similar views who are entirely sincere in their beliefs.

I think such beliefs are the product of a combination of racism and false memories, some of which are implanted by happenstance, but others being the product of deliberate propagandistic manipulation.  I'm not overly optimistic about changing the world views of people who are able to glibly write off the instantaneous incineration of cities based on such flimsy reasoning.  But, it still seems worthwhile to make an effort to offer the relevant facts when the opportunity arises. The article in The Nation by Gar Alperovitz is a good place to start as it presents the actual views expressed by top military and scientific leaders at the time the Bomb was used.


Jim Grey said...

When I was in the early grades of school, we were taught the line about how dropping the bomb prevented tens of thousands of further American casualties. It was one of the things I was taught about U.S. history that I learned later to either be a spinning of the truth, a propaganda, or a flat out lie.

I'm not given to conspiracy theories or to a view that the United States is an evil place, but it was neither pleasant nor welcome to learn that we're not as perfect as I learned in school.

I grew up during the tail end of the bomb years. I remember a long course of study in the 7th grade about the bomb and the realities of a nuclear strike. My high school's basement was a bomb shelter, complete with yellow and black CD signs. I can't remember the last time I saw a CD sign. When I watched an old James Bond flick with my sons recently, I realized I had to explain to them the entire postwar/Cold War dynamic that was just part of the air I breathed when I was their age.

I am sorry to learn that your father did not come home from the war. My father is of your generation and he was fortunate that his father did return home.

Mike said...

The headline in today's Albuquerque Journal was "IT HAD TO BE DONE", supplied by a 90-year-old vet along with some other dredged up opinions. No mention of opposing views expressed at the time by Adm. William Leahy,  Henry “Hap” Arnold,  Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz,  Adm. William “Bull” Halsey Jr., or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Not exactly a puzzle about how this mythology originated or proliferated.