This article discusses the following books:
To Hell and Back: The Last Train From Hiroshima, by Charles Pellegrino (New York and London: Rowan and Littlefield, 2015) 413 pp. $29.95.
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, by Susan Southard (New York: Viking, 2015) 389 pp. $28.95.
The Bombing War, Europe 1939–1940, by Richard Overy (London: Penguin Books, 2014) 852 pp. £16.00.
Note: The American edition is some three hundred pages shorter.
Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, by Thomas Powers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993) 610 pp. $27.50
Few decisions made in the twentieth century were more morally fraught than the decision to use atomic bombs against two Japanese cities. They brought the extreme of strategic military thought—annihilative bombing, long implied and discussed—into play. The human use of power of any kind magnifies human flaws, as obviously as drink enables a lethal driver-car combination. But in a world containing nuclear weapons, the driver is now all of humanity, threatening its own extinction.
How are we to think about the atomic bombings of Japan? What do the facts say? What can they tell us? What are we to think of ourselves? Do we know how to listen? Have we listened?
Human beings did the deed; human beings might have chosen not to do it. Could they have chosen not to use the bomb?
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was preventable—no less so than the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and many another unnatural disaster in which human beings fail to notice what is in their power to do and what is not. It seems that increasing knowledge and technical skills do not bring with them greater control of ourselves. Such control seems to exist in ideal religious futures, even more clearly in totalitarian regimes where it seems to fail no less often than it does in freedom-based democracies. Consider:
|Hiroshima / Nagasaki||Hurricane Katrina|
|A successful physics project gave us the two atomic bombings.||Katrina’s destructiveness resulted from a well-known and neglected water-engineering failure|
|Einstein later regretted having written to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to urge the development of a nuclear weapon.||The failure of the New Orleans levees was long predicted by engineers, who fully admitted it as a waiting human disaster only occasioned by the hurricane, which did not even strike the city directly.|
|General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appalled that we dropped “that thing” on human beings.|
|General George Marshall denied that the bomb had been used in order to prevent the need for an invasion of Japan.|
|Both men personally met with President Harry Truman and advised him against the bombings. Truman would offer several justifications for the decisions, confusing critics who later attacked one motive at a time: to keep the Soviets from invading Japan as agreed upon; to demonstrate the right of America to dictate as it pleased; and the most cited, that a half-million American soldiers would die invading Japan, along with countless Japanese, a figure denied as ten times too large by General Marshall and others.|
|In addition, the repeated efforts of the Japanese to surrender in those final days made the need to invade questionable, as unwanted peace queries were simply ignored.|
|The full effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were censored almost immediately, with a milder set of facts offered to the general public.||The denials that Hurricane Katrina was a man-made catastrophe began immediately, and then collapsed before the facts.|
|“The atomic bomb is not an inhuman weapon,” stated General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project to build the bomb, in the New York Times. “I think our best answer to anyone who doubts this is that we did not start the war, and if they don’t like the way we ended it, to remember who started it.”|
How “who started it,” a complex subject involving the usual underlying and proximate causes in itself, somehow made the atomic bomb into a humane weapon is a textbook non sequitur. Demonize your enemy, then minimize or deny the growing harm of radiation, admittedly deployed with some level of ignorance, even though incidents during the bomb’s development had made clear the lethal harm that radiation could wreak even without an explosion.
Ignorance was an excuse that died quickly—but more slowly among military and civil-defense planners.
Among Truman’s advisors lived the conceit that the United States could now dictate to the world, as a hurried Truman awaited word of a successful test from Los Alamos with which to confront Stalin at their upcoming meeting in Yalta.
Truman said in newsreels that Hiroshima was a military target and that his own sleep was undisturbed; collateral damage was unavoidable. Yet after Nagasaki, he was reportedly horrified enough by the results to call a halt to a third drop.
The bomb was originally developed for use against Germany. Winston Churchill had said that all Germans were complicit with Adolph Hitler, therefore Germany had to be defeated by breaking the will of his civilian support. Sadly, postwar analysis by British historian Richard Overy has confirmed that the civilian bombing of German cities by British and American forces only increased German national feeling and resistance, which continued for a decade of insurgencies long after the surrender, as in the aftermath of the American Civil War. (Apparently the British had learned nothing from their own people’s solidarity under the Blitz.) America later practiced similar violence in the Korean War, in the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, and in many such examples of “unavoidable” collateral damage and “necessary” torture justified in Iraq—including, today, outright murder and assassination by remote-controlled drones on written presidential orders.
In fact, war by the rules had rarely if ever existed; World War II had merely set the record straight. Those who argue over whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to any justifiable degree military targets continue to accept civilian collateral damage; for this, contemporary military thinking has only two feeble answers: “Too bad,” and “We try.” Authorized drone strikes are more of the same; they kill more than their targets but keep American boots at home.
Efforts to minimize the details of what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped start the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union, during which time the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a blinkered atomic war. America’s bombing of Japan was followed by the open-air testing of hundreds of weapons, all the while denying through poorly presented observational data and studies the collateral effects of radiation on civilian human populations. Truthful explanations had always been present, but they had to struggle through politically insistent notions of “safe” exposure levels. Today we have accepted that no exposure is safe. Yet the arsenals exist and proliferate.
We have had our Atomic War, the war long before mythologized and warned of in science-fiction stories, along with its real (and ill-reported) casualties. And there have been other consequences, different in kind.
All the rationales for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were questionable from the start and have only become weaker as the public has grown better informed. The development of atomic weapons—first justified to forestall Hitler’s conquest of the world but later used against Japan—begins with the scientific and personal motives coming together in the engineering visions of the physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Albert Einstein and the American general Leslie Groves. They were nurtured by vast ignorance among governmental figures who found themselves suddenly tempted by a genie-like political fantasy. Meanwhile, the public found itself in the position of blind persons groping an elephant, unable to get a clear picture of the whole animal.
One of the most persistent questions about the development of atomic bombs was why Hitler’s Reich failed to get a bomb. Strange was the fact that despite Szilard’s and Einstein’s fears—and all the growing knowledge of atomic physics that strongly indicated that atomic bombs were inevitable—Hitler’s Reich failed to develop one. (Japan’s effort was also unsuccessful.)
Even stranger is the fact that Allied intelligence failed to realize that Hitler was nowhere near having a bomb. The Allies had to proceed on the assumption that Germany might get the bomb, later labeling German explanations for this failure as sour grapes. None of this should surprise us today; it was well documented by Thomas Powers in his Heisenberg’s War (Knopf, 1993). As Powers reveals, no one beat the Germans to the bomb; Werner Heisenberg, the greatest physicist of his day and teacher of many physicists of the 1930s, killed it in ways so subtle that he managed the feat without endangering his image as a loyal German. Heisenberg only gave himself away in 1946, when he wrote that “From the very beginning German physicists had continuously striven to keep control of the project … and had used their influence as experts … because the idea of putting an atomic bomb in Hitler’s hands was horrible.”
Heisenberg confessed to denying Hitler the bomb. He “did not simply withhold himself, stand aside, let the project die. He killed it” (Powers, p. 479). During his famous Copenhagen meeting with Neils Bohr in 1941, Heisenberg tried but somehow failed to hint to Bohr that the German bomb would never happen—perhaps out of fear of surveillance.
Today, the many motives for our entering the Atomic Age are clear, yet they are too seldom put together for the public. The sudden relief of soldiers returning from the war in Europe, apparently freed from the fear of dying in a much-feared invasion of Japan, fed only one simplistic dismissal of the problem. To keep Stalin out of Japan, which by agreement he was obliged to invade, is a better argument; but given the Soviet Union’s horrendous losses in defeating Germany, Stalin may have felt relieved to be spared his obligation as an ally, much as he might have wished to capture Japan’s nuclear physicists.
As Germany surrendered, Stalin met with American Ambassador Averell Harriman to toast the surrender. Stalin was said to have been in a jovial mood. He congratulated Harriman on his country’s scientific success with the atomic bomb—which he was said to have known about for some time—and was happy to learn that it worked and that Hitler had not made one first. To know that it worked reassured Stalin that his own bomb would work. It was reportedly a remarkable meeting, suggesting that the Cold War might have been delayed or avoided, beginning with the hope on Stalin’s part that he would not have to invade Japan—perhaps the exact opposite of American fears that he would invade and never be dislodged. So much for one claimed purpose for a nuclear demonstration, proposed and lost beneath the various debates and in the military’s eagerness to use the bomb.
The Truman administration’s willingness to maintain an arms-based economy after the war partly reflected the fact that World War II had ended America’s Great Depression; there seemed real reason to fear its return. There are no clear scenarios here, only alternative futures and questions, some of them deeply held inside major personalities of the times.
Japan would have surrendered before the two victorious powers could have invaded; sober heads knew, against all pride, that surrender was inevitable. Ironically, it was the post-Nagasaki firebombing of additional cities by three thousand planes that broke the military’s dithering delay about whether to surrender, even as the emperor was readying to do so.
Human failures and deliberate misunderstandings varied. Angels and villains danced together on all sides and imagined themselves just. (Can we judge ourselves in this way before the extremes that face us, even more so today than in 1945?) Many still see J. Robert Oppenheimer favorably, if with minor flaws, and Edward Teller as a devil set on revenge because of his early life in a communist country. The scientists who created the bomb in real fear of Hitler were not ambivalent or opposed from the start, but became so as targeting shifted to Japan and the bomb’s extreme destructiveness became clear. Many were sure, after the first test, that the bomb would never be used, certainly not on cities. But all decision-making slipped out of their hands as Vice President Truman came into office upon Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death. Roosevelt had softened capitalism’s extremes, but the fears of socialism remained topmost in the American mind; turning back its influence continues to this day.
General Leslie Groves, put in charge of Los Alamos, accused the critical-minded physicist Leo Szilard of treason and sought to have him imprisoned and deported. Groves finally removed him from the project, notwithstanding that it was Szilard, fleeing from Nazi Germany, who had aroused fear in a skeptical Einstein that Hitler would acquire a fission weapon—and helped draft Einstein’s famed letter to President Roosevelt urging the United States to develop such a weapon.
Twentieth-century physics had flourished in Germany before the world wars. The American physicists Ernest O. Lawrence and Oppenheimer had studied in Germany. Even outside academe, enough was known about atomic physics to inspire the chaos of super-weapons in science-fiction stories of the 1930s. It was H. G. Wells who coined the term atomic bomb and described both fission and an arms race in The World Set Free, a 1914 novel. In 1940, Robert A. Heinlein described the dangers of an atomic reactor in his story “Blowups Happen.” This story concluded that reactors were too dangerous to operate on the earth’s surface; Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and a hundred smaller accidents along the way suggest that Heinlein was right. The same author’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” published in 1941, envisioned a “dirty bomb,” now closer than ever to reality. After Hiroshima, Wells would cry out, “I told you so!”
When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Groves was more eager than ever to demonstrate the success of his Manhattan Project in winning a war. Germany no longer being a target, only Japan remained upon which to make that demonstration. Both his courted friend, Oppenheimer, and his increasingly critical enemy, Szilard, had been right in predicting that the bomb would work—indeed, it had exceeded all expectations. Groves himself had seen the blinding light of the true believer in strategic bombing (which had failed in Europe) but which was now resurgent with the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in Teller’s dream of the hydrogen bomb (to which, ironically, the fission bomb was merely a fuse).
Truman entered the Oval Office, his right-wing advisors eager to portray America’s newfound power as an accomplished fact. They believed America’s nuclear exclusivity should never be permitted to fade away or be challenged by nuclear proliferation. America would be a new Rome, and there could never be more than one Rome around the Mediterranean—or the Pacific Basin, as the case may be. The fear that American power might slip away was genuine, motivated in some by the ideal of American goodness and in others by pragmatism.
Groves’s rationalizations continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reports of the human effects of the bombs were censored—classified in both Japan and the United States—even while Groves testified before the U.S. Senate that death from high doses of radiation came “without undue suffering . . . and a very pleasant way to die.”
Of course, atomic “secrets” could not be monopolized. They lay in nature, in any good encyclopedia, and were popularized in the speculations of science-fiction writers of preceding decades, as well as in the fairy-tale dream warnings of unlimited power in Richard Wagner and J. R. R. Tolkien. Applied physics became technology, engineering invading reality with taxpayers’ money, unfolding a science-fictional nightmare, one of several in which we still live.
Grove’s support for the atomic bombing of Japan would ultimately cast the foundations of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even that blank wall of nuclear stalemate that many call “peace,” before which we still wait today.
The ironies continue: nuclear Armageddon’s threat has made the world safer for old-style bombing, as in Nixon’s Christmas bombing of North Vietnam and in countless conflicts since. Additionally, better manufacturing techniques have made nuclear weapons smaller and less radioactive, leading to discussions of making them more acceptable to the public.
Today, when the deniers and minimizers thought no more could be said—decades after John Hersey’s pioneering book, Hiroshima, had done some moral due diligence—we have Charles Pellegrino’s compelling account, accompanied by Susan Southard’s Nagasaki. These books open up realities too long set aside, too long avoided in discomfort by the victors of World War II, even as nuclear technology’s failures—technical, administrative, and political—rise up like Godzilla from the ocean floor, Krakens that we have permitted to escape from imperfect human constraints.
Both books carry to a dead end long-held military views on strategic bombing and the place of populations in armed conflicts. Richard Overy’s book lives in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thomas Powers answers the question of what finally happened to set us in the shadow of extinction.
Charles Pellegrino is an American scientist whose research and many books ranging from archaeology to astrophysics have been acclaimed worldwide. To Hell and Back (2015) is a new edition of The Last Train from Hiroshima (2010), withdrawn and pulped by Henry Holt on the excuse—exaggerated beyond all scholarly reason—that one of the witnesses to the atomic bombing of Japan whom Pellegrino quoted had lied to him, as the witness had for many years to his family and friends. Pellegrino discovered and corrected the error; it was of a sort not uncommon in works of history. But against all the merits of the work, the publisher feared losses from admittedly ersatz controversies threatened by trolling cranks and pranksters who had demonstrated their ability to fool journalists and editors. And so the 2010 edition was—unjustly, in my view—suppressed.
But the publisher drove the nail in deeper, doing nothing to discredit Pellegrino’s attackers. This opened the way to claims that the original book was a hoax based on multiple nonexistent witnesses. None of this was true, as can be inferred from the fact that the book has gone through more than twenty foreign editions without successful attacks on their veracity.
Here is one example of the storm of invective against Pellegrino’s 2010 edition. Henry Holt received some fifteen thousand e-mails from supposedly irate war veterans angry about the book. It turned out that these were robo e-mails, each based on one of six original letters. They were easily detected and recognized as variants of those few sources; moreover, they had been sent so incompetently that many failed to get through the most basic anti-spam firewalls against mass robo e-mails. Even after all of this had been discredited, looking wrong seemed less costly than taking a stand to defend the book and its author.
The attacks did not end there. Pellegrino was forced to prove his identity, to show that he was a genuine family member of a 9/11 victim, and most laughably to provide a letter from James Cameron attesting that his scientific dives to the Titanic had not been faked on a soundstage.
Behind all the attacks on Pellegrino and his work, there stands an inchoate fear of critical-minded Americans, held by other Americans who draw a circle around love of country to exclude any unfavorable opinion and who see any voicing of their nation’s accurate history as a threat to American exceptionalism and a denial of their nation’s undoubted goodness—which, of course, is never to be doubted. Too many among the “greatest generation” were of this mind, inclined to ignore the vast number of the dead sacrificed by all the other peoples who defeated the German Reich and to know little of the documented looting and rape of Europe by American soldiers.
More civilians died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet we are asked to take this as some sort of justification for atomic bombing.
Horrible as they were, the fission bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mere precursors to even more terrifying thermonuclear weapons. Faced with Teller’s “sweet physics” of lighting up a hydrogen fusion bomb with the more modest fission-reaction bomb, Oppenheimer saw a tool of wholesale extermination coming into human hands. No one knew what to do except stockpile the bombs while refraining from using them, all the while playing a game of “reduction” in numbers as proofs of good intentions—a progress supported only by fear.
After Teller and other hydrogen-bomb proponents won their argument against Oppenheimer, the latter is said to have lingered in Washington, noting that words such as morality and ethics had become unfashionable—and avoided.
What Pellegrino and Southard accomplish in their books reaches far beyond traditional historians’ recital, into the very life of facts; in their concrete and specific examples we see the people and the events in which they found themselves, as if by an inexplicable conqueror’s magic, and with which they still live. The authors retrieve grieved memories from a fleeing past, making accessible authentically complex realities that must never be lost.
I will not cite the many incidents from the bombings, put forward so vividly by the two authors. But I cannot resist sharing this most chilling instance presented by Pellegrino. Dr. Michihiko Hachiya was a Hiroshima physician who had survived the bombing there:
From Dr. Hachiya’s perspective, neither Disease X (radiation sickness), nor anything else about the atomic bomb seemed to abide by natural laws. At least two of the newcomers to the Hiroshima hospital had glass in their lungs. Hachiya did not believe it until a colleague brought one of the patients to him. Sitting up in his own sickbed, the physician listened through a stethoscope and heard the tiny slivers clinking together with every labored intake of breath—scores and scores of slivers. He could not imagine what force had caused a man to inhale so much glass, or how he had managed to stay alive in this condition.
That Pellegrino’s work has emerged in a new edition gives us hope that the damned truth lives as we enter a new era of American historical writing, one in which our history can be told as it was, unsanitized by moral exceptionalism and denials of the sort that have sought to bury such hideous facts as genocide and slavery. Sadly, Pellegrino’s book has been a body over the wire; Southard’s book seems to have escaped a similar fate.
The ironies remain rich: from General Douglas MacArthur’s encouragement of Japan’s nuclear industry for the benefit of American corporations, even while supporting a model pacifist constitution for a conquered nation, to the catastrophe at Fukushima that fulfilled Robert Heinlein’s 1940 prophecy. Nuclear power has brought Japan two tragedies—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and now a third at Fukushima. Who would have thought it!
Fukushima is not over; the effects on its people and the world await us. Nor did they end for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pellegrino’s detailing of the effects of the bombings on the human body reveals how much the general public was never told, either here or in Japan. Chernobyl is not over, either; Russian scientists tell us that the unstable site will almost inevitably release destructive radiation again. President Barack Obama was intent on building ever-more advanced nuclear weapons, even as he claimed to be working against proliferation; some nations can have them, some not. He made a new compact with the past and wore its blame; it may well be that no one knows what to do. Heinlein’s story about dirty bombs was titled “Solution Unsatisfactory.” Given all the disasters facing our Earth, will that phrase be our epitaph?
Governments do not address the world’s miseries if solutions mean endangering the power of economic hierarchies that wage interventionist wars. Down this path waits an amnesiac Dark Age. President Eisenhower’s comment at the dawn of the Atomic Age, that the wish of the world’s people for peace will one day have to be granted by their governments, seems more naive than ever.
Pellegrino’s book presents additional details in its new edition. Still, even after all the attacks against him had collapsed, a fallout of lies and confusion continues to torment Pellegrino, despite the fact that the author himself discovered the single lie in the book’s first edition and corrected it in the second. Nevertheless, that single error is eagerly seen as sufficient to support all the false accusations made against the book. So toxic has this whole affair become that Pellegrino’s new publisher has expressed reluctance to publish the author’s next work. Profit instills a fear of controversy while malign pranksters troll the Internet in search of new controversy, real or illusory.
The truth itself defends this book and its author’s earlier work but seems unable to quiet the shameful exposure of malpracticing editors, publishers, bloggers, “truthers,” and so-called journalists.
Perhaps the best way to indicate how deeply Pellegrino’s book strikes into our hearts and minds is to describe the struggle to “imagine the real,” in Martin Buber’s words; this may be impossible for most of us to do after Hiroshima and for that matter Auschwitz. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s words in his 1972 The Life of the Self fulfill the aims of Pellegrino’s book:
The problem, then, is not only calling forth end-of-the worlds imagery but in some degree mastering it, giving it a place in our aesthetic and moral imagination. It is not only futile to try, as so much of the world does, to dismiss images of Hiroshima and Auschwitz from human consciousness. To attempt to do so is to deprive us of our own history, of what we are. In blocking our imaginations we impair our capacity to create the new forms we so desperately require. We need Hiroshima and Auschwitz, as we need Vietnam and our everyday lives, in all of their horrors, to deepen and free that imagination for the leaps it must make. . . .The vision of total annihilation makes it possible to imagine living under and beyond the curse.
Buber and Lifton wrote decades ago. Their words should not be as relevant today as they still are.
The contexts and questioning implications raised by Pellegrino and Southard in these two books continue to intrude, carrying forward an indictment of the justification for bombing civilian targets—clearly alive and well in General Groves. Excluded from the European war against Hitler, Groves was tempted into the magical idea of winning the war from behind a desk at the Manhattan Project and saw in Oppenheimer a horse he could ride to glory. Oppenheimer in turn saw Groves as the sponsor he needed to perform an unlikely and costly physical experiment and contribute to the war effort, which might not require that so terrible a power be unleashed. Did someone’s antipathy toward Grove’s character lead to his appointment to a project that might well fail? After all, what could all this nuclear speculation amount to in the light of common sense? Some mathematical chicken marks on paper, which even Einstein and other scientists had once called “moonshine,” that Groves grasped at to redeem his career as he heard Oppenheimer’s poetic talk about physics? Groves might have done better to anticipate Oppenheimer’s words as he watched the test fireball unfold over the New Mexico desert: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Groves quickly informed President Truman at Yalta that the bomb test had worked, paving the way toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has been claimed that no one really wanted to atomic-bomb Germany, unless Hitler was about to test his own atomic weapon. There were aggrieved European survivors who were surprised that Germany was off the hit list.
Groves belonged to a group of American generals, which included Curtis Le May, Douglas MacArthur, and George Patton, strange cases all according to many analysts but restrained by calmer heads such as Eisenhower, Marshall, and Bradley. One can see a tug-of-war between them and President Truman, who knew too little but authorized the use of the bomb as soon as it was ready, was shocked when he saw the results, and ordered a halt to further such bombing. Papers in Truman’s library confirm that he felt that the bomb should never again be used.
Oppenheimer’s misgivings after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were expressed at his later meeting with the president. Truman seemed not to know who Oppenheimer was, as he ordered his aides never to let that man visit him again. Oppenheimer had annoyed Truman by saying that physicists had blood on their hands after the bombing of Japan—the bombing Truman had approved and for which Oppenheimer had made suggestions for effective use. Truman had given the order, little realizing how a tempting technology had driven his decision, fitting easily into the development of air war as a strategic weapon—no longer a mere tactical support of ground troops but a decisive blow to be struck from the air, taking out an entire city in a dispassionate way, yet allowing one to claim that by doing so one was saving lives. One might say that General Groves got away from Truman’s oversight, that the pressure of a wartime weapons project got the atomic bomb into the battle, yet that the new president did not let the same momentum continue; Truman denied MacArthur use of atomic weapons in Korea, the first in a series of America’s lost wars.
Richard Overy’s book The Bombing War examines conventional European bombing in heartbreaking detail. This kind of conflict was suddenly succeeded by the use of nuclear weapons, from which use the world’s leaders have so far backed away through the doctrine of deterrent fear.
A provocative presentation of this dilemma was presented in Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, “Thunder and Roses” (1947), in which human survival was ensured by a nation’s not responding to a nuclear first strike, an idea that may have helped justify the Cold War policy of mutual deterrence, named MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction, rationalizing the answer to the question “Of what use are nuclear weapons?” with the claim that as deterrents they are used every day through nonuse. Deterrence seems to have worked; we have not had a nuclear war. (As the man who fell off a tall building supposedly said when halfway down, “So far so good.”) The Cold War is over, but the weapons are still with us. And irony of ironies, the fission bombs of the previous war wait to light the thermonuclear bombs of the next. I wonder if the chain-smoking Oppenheimer might have thought such a thing as he lit his next cigarette with the dying one.
Not all the scientists who came to work on the bomb opposed bombing Japan. Some assumed, or hoped, that the bomb would only be demonstrated or used against Hitler as a last resort. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when three thousand bombers were sent to conventionally bomb various cities and towns, one bomb was readied for a possible third atomic attack. One scientist suggested adding a whistle to the bomb, so that victims would look toward the sound and be blinded by the flash. How far we had come since Sergeant York used turkey calls to get Germans to pop up from behind shelter and be shot by him for their curiosity in World War I.
We can be grateful that American presidents since Truman have stuck to a delaying MAD as their policy. Some strategic thinkers, however, still dream that some effective use can be made of nuclear weapons, even if only in a tactical application with limited escalation. Pellegrino’s and Southard’s books, along with Overy’s history, recount the civilian collateral cost of all bombing. In recent years, one American military leader has said that the only foreign policy we seem to have is bombing, from which we can only expect insurgent and terrorist violence, as we have seen, of the conventional sort, to date, based on the unfulfilled ambitions (just or unjust) of various peoples—a view often called “blame America first.” The Romans had their roads, along which they could propel enough force to sustain the empire. We have our bombers, missiles, and submarines and a perpetual threat of accidents, of which there have been more than a hundred.
Pellegrino’s and Southard’s books resist the charge of “revisionist history.” Critical reexamination and revision must of course stand scrutiny, but we have seen how its guise has been used to dismiss unpleasant truths, in the histories of the American slave trade, of the Native American genocide during the American expansion, and nowadays in the “climate change deniers,” the Obama-is-not-an-American “truthers,” and even in the claim that the World Trade towers were brought down in a deliberate demolition. Shall the truth of our histories belong only to an informed elite, surrounded by a mob who considers them fools, as crank conspiracies take over? It has been said that the best place to hide the truth is in a basket of conspiracy theories. It was claimed during the Bush era that “we make our own reality,” and in the case of Dan Rather’s destruction it was said that “even the truth can be made to serve us,” by retyping it onto anachronistic paper forms with proportional spacing not appropriate to their supposed date of composition.
Even as the ignored details of our history caught up with our much-denied, well-intentioned, and now weakening empire, new rhetorical weapons have come into play with which to dismiss the unpleasant facts of our “manifest historical destiny”—all of them carrying an easily recognized tone of disapproval and dismissal. “Revisionist history” was linked to “the blame game,” “the racist card,” “reverse racism,” and the “blame America first” indictment. No need to examine or think, just throw a phrase.
In discussing Pellegrino’s new edition, I have tried to note what is not said and what is feared. The substance and execution of this great history has revealed how much John Hersey’s Hiroshima, as remarkable as it seemed at the time, served to quiet America’s conscience and diverted attention from the extremes of what happened and continues to happen in downplaying the lethal destruction of nuclear weapons.
The implications of these two books about the atomic bombings of Japan, or of the conventional bombing of Europe as detailed in Richard Overy’s exhaustive study, are not easily faced; nor are the implications of upcoming works about the broader sweep of American history (for example, An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley, Yale University Press, 2016).
Everything suggests that we do not understand and have not documented the facts of what happened in the two world wars, and during the racist past of America’s founding and expansion and what it will continue to mean. How many of us will face it?
American denials are many; also denied is the imperative felt by critics and scholars that we should face the truth and not, for doing so, be labeled traitors. Slavery was not abolished with the birth of our constitution. Women’s rights were set aside. Our great universities were founded with slave profits. Native Americans were wiped out in a physical and cultural genocide, whose scope was long denied and is now coming into focus with new, frightful discoveries. Slavery continued in various ways, some but lightly attenuated, for a century or more after the Civil War. The American empire, established in the face of protest by Mark Twain’s massive assembly in New York City’s Central Park during the Spanish-American War, stood briefly at the end of World War II as a lone nuclear power, and later established eight hundred American bases in a half-moon from Scotland to Japan. It confirmed the arbitrary divisions of the Middle East, from which we still suffer. And now we have climate-change deniers and a president who signs monthly drone attack warrants for military operators whose remote-controlled video assassinations of guilty and innocent alike require a rotation of stressed crews.
The planetary climate crisis may be one future history that will force an end to the declining American occupation of the world’s economy, resistance to which is a spectacle of violent human behavior, common and possible to us all. A nuclear takeover of the world by Hitler was prevented by the United States, with the massive help of our uneasy Soviet understudy, with whom we still quarrel and who seems to have long lost earlier ideals in a totalitarian fire of fear.
It might have been worse; but worse still awaits us if, for example, we prevail against our climate sins but leave our lesser selves in charge. The works I have cited here are unwelcome mirrors, showing us histories that we have lied about in our schoolbooks of how good our times had been and how they would only get better, as rote learning for the young slowed the opening of their eyes to the failures of the so-called adult world.
To Hell and Back ends with a Japanese child asking which country dropped the atomic bomb, and we wonder whether we have ever come back from those moments; more important than who dropped the bomb looms the fact that human beings did so. It is perhaps this fact of history, following slavery, various genocides, and our endless wars, that fueled much of the disquieted assault against Pellegrino’s book.
Our present and near future is being painted with red coats of blood, spilled from the dead and dying. Donald J. Trump, currently the U.S. president-elect, never saw a city splashed across a landscape, and he didn’t seem to care as he asked as a candidate in his blind greatness, “Why can’t we use nuclear bombs?”
There are better visions of America, waiting, oddly enough, in the documents written by earlier hearts and minds. We know what must be said against all the dark efforts to silence us by our inheritance from a brutal nature, given to us as a survival weapon long before our intellects and conscience could provide rationalizations.
Many of us employ denial, rationalizing that the atomic bombings did not have to happen; no, they had to happen and wait to happen again. I interviewed Pellegrino in search of some final thoughts about these atomic bombings beyond the usual “yea” or “nay” judgments of history.
He e-mailed to me:
Now there is no excuse for anyone not to know what really happens to people underneath atomic bombs—and especially if they are running for leadership of a nuclear-armed country. We need not argue whether or not Hiroshima and Nagasaki were humanity’s sin.
Their relevance is not in the past but as a signpost for the future; for in that future waits not only our old enemy, nuclear destruction, but also the destruction of our global climate, our life-support system that we inherited from nature. These two threats may well join together.