Will Nagasaki remain the last nuclear bombed city in history? The Iran question.

August 05, 2015

The ruins of Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki. The nuclear bomb was dropped by a Catholic-American pilot exactly above what was then the largest Catholic church in Asia.



[Note by Tom Gross]

Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another on Nagasaki three days later. The nuclear fission generated heat greater than at the sun’s core.

As author Susan Southard writes of those unlucky enough not to be killed instantly: “A woman who covered her eyes from the flash lowered her hands to find that the skin of her face had melted into her palms”; “Hundreds of field workers and others staggered by, moaning and crying. Some were missing body parts, and others were so badly burned that even though they were naked, a witness couldn’t tell if they were men or women. He saw one person whose eyeballs hung down his face, the sockets empty.”

Alongside the Japanese were many foreign casualties, including Chinese and Korean slave laborers, and Dutch and British prisoners of war. For survivors, their skin simply melted or completely peeled off. Many could not bear to show themselves in public again and chose never to marry.

The epicenter of the bomb was over an area not only inhabited by a large concentration of Christians (who had often been persecuted in Japan), but also by traditional Japanese outcasts, the burakumin.

It is not a question of numbers. More Japanese were probably killed on the night of March 9, 1945, when 300 American B-29s raided a working-class area of Tokyo that housed many small factories. As the Wall Street Journal points out (in the book review below) “the incendiary bombs set off firestorms that laid waste to nearly 16 square miles of the city and killed approximately 100,000 civilians”. And of course the Japanese, and even more so the Germans, killed vastly greater numbers.

(Many Japanese also effectively killed themselves – in the small island of Okinawa alone from April 1 to June 21, 1945, 92,000 Japanese troops fought to the death and kamikaze planes killed and wounded about 45,000 Americans.)

As many have noted, what makes Hiroshima and Nagasaki so horrendous is the shock of a single bomb destroying a whole city in an instant.



Thankfully, these weapons have never been used since. Today the effects of nuclear weapons have become immensely more powerful than in 1945, and their impact would be vastly more devastating.

As intense debate continues over the wisdom of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a deal that a growing number of critics on both right and left say will all but guarantee that the murderous Islamic regime in Tehran becomes a nuclear threshold state, it is worth remembering just how horrific nuclear weapons are, and asking whether Obama’s approach is really the best way of preventing a Shia-Sunni nuclear arms race.

As I have written before, the risk is not just of states using such weapons. Among the countries that will be forced to acquire them if the Iranians become a threshold nuclear state is Saudi Arabia, an unstable tribally divided society likely to implode in the future. If Saudi Arabia combusts and Islamic state type militants seize control, they may well use nuclear devices. Today, one can fit and smuggle such a device into a suitcase, put it in the trunk of an average sized car, and drive it into Europe and detonate it on any underground transit system, for example.

So as a reminder what is at stake regarding the Iran nuclear deal, I attach four book reviews below, followed by Bret Stephens’s column from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal which provides important additional context.

-- Tom Gross


* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.


1. “After the second atomic bomb” (By Ian Buruma, NY Times, July 28, 2015)
2. “The legacy of the 1945 bombing through the testimony of five survivors” (By Eri Hotta, Financial Times, Aug. 1, 2015)
3. “The logical outcome of total war” (By Alonzo Hamby, Wall St Journal, Aug. 1, 2015)
4. “As the 70th anniversary of the bombing approaches” (By Louise Steinman, LA Times, July 24, 2015)
5. “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” (By Bret Stephens, Wall St Journal, Aug. 4, 2015)


Books reviewed in the articles below:

* To Hell and Back, By Charles Pellegrino
* Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, By Susan Southard



After the second atomic bomb
By Ian Buruma
New York Times (Book review)
July 28, 2015

There are good reasons for writing a book about the atom bombing of Nagasaki and its agonizing aftermath. Most people have heard of Hiroshima. The second bomb – dropped by an Irish-American pilot almost exactly above the largest Catholic church in Asia, which killed more than 70,000 civilians on the day and more in the long term – is less well known.

Susan Southard’s harrowing descriptions give us some idea of what it must have been like for people who were unlucky enough not to be killed instantly: ‘A woman who covered her eyes from the flash lowered her hands to find that the skin of her face had melted into her palms’; ‘Hundreds of field workers and others staggered by, moaning and crying. Some were missing body parts, and others were so badly burned that even though they were naked, Yoshida couldn’t tell if they were men or women. He saw one person whose eyeballs hung down his face, the sockets empty.’

Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, which had developed the atom bomb, testified before the United States Senate that death from high-dose radiation was ‘without undue suffering,’ and indeed ‘a very pleasant way to die.’

Many survivors died later, always very unpleasantly, of radiation sickness. Their hair would fall out, they would be covered in purple spots, their skin would rot. And those who survived the first wave of sickness after the war had a much higher than average chance of dying of leukemia or other cancers even decades later.

What made things worse for Japanese doctors who tried to ease the suffering of atom-bomb victims is that information about the bomb and its effects was censored by the American administration occupying Japan until the early 1950s. Even as readers here were shocked in 1946 by John Hersey’s description of the Hiroshima bomb in The New Yorker, the ensuing book was banned in Japan. Films and photographs of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as medical data, were confiscated by American authorities.

The strength of Southard’s book is that her account is remarkably free of abstractions. She is a theater director, albeit one with an M.F.A. in creative writing, and her interest in the story began in 1986, when she was hired as a translator for one of her subjects who was on a speaking tour in the United States. Instead of statistics, she concentrates, like Hersey, on the fates of individuals. We read about Wada Koichi, an 18-year-old student worker for the municipal streetcar company, as well as a 16-year-old schoolgirl named Nagano Etsuko, another teenage girl named Do-oh Mineko, a 13-year-old boy named Yoshida Katsuji, and several others.

They were so badly disfigured by the blast that it not only took them years to recover some kind of health, but they were also hesitant to reveal themselves in public. Children would cry or run away from them, thinking they were monsters. Younger survivors were often bullied at school. Atom-bomb victims (hibakusha) found it hard to find marriage partners, because people were afraid of passing genetic diseases to their offspring.

The only reason we know about the people described by Southard is that all of them overcame their deep embarrassment and ‘came out,’ as it were, as kataribe, or ‘storytellers’ about the atom bomb, reminding people of the horrors of nuclear war by speaking in public, at schools, conferences and peace gatherings all over the world.

Without excusing Japanese wartime behavior, Southard writes with compassion about Japanese victims, and measured indignation about postwar American evasions and hypocrisy. Although her lack of theory and abstraction is a blessing, she might have analyzed the politics of discrimination, as well as the nuclear issue in Japan, a bit more closely.

Hibakusha were not just ostracized because of their grotesque scars. It so happened that the epicenter of the bomb was over an area called Urakami, which was inhabited not only by a large number of Christians, but also by traditional outcasts, or burakumin, the people who did jobs that were polluted in Buddhist eyes: jobs that had to do with death, like those in the meat or leather industries.

As a consequence, the borderlines between hibakusha and burakumin became blurred. Christians, too, although not outcasts, had been persecuted, even after religious freedom was granted in the late 19th century, because of their suspected lack of patriotism. It was often assumed that they would be more loyal to the Vatican than to the Japanese emperor.

And yet the most celebrated victim of the bomb was a young man named Nagai Takashi, a Christian physician who wrote ‘The Bells of Nagasaki’ in 1949, before dying a few years later. Dr. Nagai, also known as ‘the saint of Urakami,’ regarded the bombing in terms of Christian martyrdom: Nagasaki was sacrificed to pay for the sins of war.

The subjects of Southard’s book did not see their suffering in this light. But there is something evangelical about the kataribe’s mission of peace. Wada, Do-oh, Yoshida and the others found a meaning in their lives by spreading the word about the evil of nuclear bombs. World peace became something like a religious mantra. One has to feel sympathy for this. Their suffering ought not to be forgotten, and neither should the horrendous effects of such cruel and destructive weapons. What could be unleashed on cities today would be immensely more devastating than the bombs that obliterated much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nonetheless, preaching world peace and expressing moral condemnation of nuclear bombs as an absolute evil are not a sufficient response to the dangers facing mankind. For even though the kataribe of Nagasaki, and their sympathetic American interlocutor, are driven by human rather than political concerns, the peace movement they promote was politicized from the beginning.

Southard mentions Nagasaki Peace Park, for example, with its many monuments to world peace. The park was established in 1955. Many of the monuments donated by foreign countries were from such places as the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China and East Germany. The peace movement was at least partly a propaganda tool in the Cold War. That killing a massive number of civilians with a radiating bomb is an act of barbarism is hard to refute. Whether the world would have been a safer place on the terms of the Soviet Union and its satellites is less clear.

Domestically, too, Japanese anti­nuclear and peace organizations were manipulated by political interests, conservative as well as leftist. Right-wing nationalists like to cancel out the history of Japanese atrocities (which they often deny anyway) by claiming that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far worse. Left-wing pacifism has often been just as anti-American, but from the opposite political perspective.

Since Southard set out to concentrate on individual lives, rather than politics, one cannot really blame her for dodging these complications, but when she does mention them she can be oddly off beam.

In 1990, Motoshima Hiroshi, the Christian mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back by a right-wing extremist for publicly holding the Japanese emperor partly responsible for the war. Southard explains that Motoshima ‘broke a cultural taboo.’

In fact, Motoshima was courageously challenging a right-wing political goal, which is to strengthen the imperial institution, and undo some of the postwar liberal reforms, including pacifism. Southard says these reforms were ‘forced on Japan by an occupying nation,’ which is also what right-wing nationalists claim, I think wrongly. Most Japanese were happy to enjoy their new freedoms. They didn’t have to be forced, for they cooperated quite willingly with the Americans who helped instigate them.

Still, the merits of Southard’s book are clear. It was bad enough for the Americans to have killed so many people, and then hide the gruesome facts for many years after the war. To forget about the massacre now would be an added insult to the victims. Southard has helped to make sure that this will not happen yet.



A study that explores the legacy of the 1945 bombing through the testimony of five survivors
By Eri Hotta
Financial Times
August 1, 2015

At 11:02am on August 9 1945, a plutonium bomb released from a US B-29 bomber detonated above Nagasaki’s Urakami Valley. The nuclear fission generated heat greater than at the sun’s core. Out of an estimated population of 240,000, between 39,000 and 74,000 people are thought to have died in the immediate aftermath. Alongside the Japanese there were many foreign casualties, including Chinese and Korean forced labourers, as well as Dutch and British prisoners of war. Nagasaki had become the second city in history to suffer a nuclear attack, after Hiroshima three days earlier – and, perhaps precisely because of that, the more overlooked of the two.

‘They dropped the bombs thinking everyone will die, right?’ said Mineko Do-oh, recalling in old age the event that changed her life at 15. ‘But not everyone was killed.’ At least for Do-oh and the four other teenaged survivors, or hibakusha, who feature prominently in Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, this was only the beginning of a new existence plagued by disease, psychological trauma and social stigma. In spite of the long-term risks they faced, all five lived on, and some continue to live into their late seventies and eighties.

Southard is a narrative journalist who first visited Nagasaki as a 16-year-old exchange student. For this book, she conducted extensive interviews with survivors, historians and other specialists for over a decade. Though marred by some rather sweeping generalisations about Japanese history, it is nonetheless moving as an intimate chronicle of individual lives: like a good documentary film-maker, Southard allows her subjects, with all their attractive and quirky qualities, to speak for themselves.

For those five teenagers to have survived at all was incredible. Katsuji Yoshida, a 13-year-old schoolboy, was half a mile away from the bomb’s hypocentre when he was hurled back into a muddy rice paddy. When he regained consciousness, he felt ‘absolutely no pain’, despite the grave burns he had sustained on his face and body. Sumiteru Taniguchi, a 16-year-old postal worker, was a mile from the blast when the great force pushed him off his bicycle. Unable to register what had just happened, his first thought was to collect the scattered mail so that he could still make the delivery. He too felt no pain, though the skin of his left arm, leg and back had either melted or completely peeled off.

The severity and visibility of their injuries varied, though all five would suffer acute symptoms resulting from exposure to intense radiation. They would also deal with their emotions differently. Taniguchi, whose raw, scorched back was immortalised in the portraits taken by the US photographer Joe O’Donnell, was already vocal about his experience in the early 1950s, and was one of the first to demand government healthcare relief for atomic bomb victims of any nationality. In contrast, Do-oh chose silence. She doggedly pursued the life of a career woman in Tokyo, and became one of the first female executives in a major cosmetics company. (She made a conscious decision not to get married, pre-empting a society that was bent on discriminating against those ‘tainted’ with radiation.) But in her retirement back in Nagasaki, she found it impossible to bottle up her feelings, and eventually began speaking publicly about her experience.

Just as the book’s interviewees did not feel the physical pains of their injuries immediately, the rest of the world took time to absorb the terrifying reality of living in a nuclear age. And here, Southard’s careful chronological treatment of events provides an important insight: that the moral debate surrounding the use of atomic bombs on Japan only got going as the cold war escalated. In Japan, it was almost a decade before a pacifist/anti-nuclear narrative crystallised fully, with the US hydrogen-bomb tests in Bikini Atoll. The spur came in March 1954, when Japanese fishermen were accidentally exposed to radiation outside the official testing zones in the central Pacific Ocean. In the minds of many, Japan, the only atomic-bombed country, had become a victim for the third time. (One direct product of this national sense of crisis is the 1954 Godzilla film, a critique of the cult of progress and scientific hubris whose titular monster was portrayed as having been awakened by a nuclear weapon.)

Dr Takashi Nagai, a Catholic physician, was at the forefront of Japan’s nascent pacifism even before this intensification of the cold war debate. Having already been exposed to radiation at work before the atomic bomb, he was bed-ridden with leukaemia for the final few years before his death in 1951. But illness did not stop him from writing prolifically. His most famous work was The Bells of Nagasaki, a bestseller about his bomb experience that was cleared for publication in 1949 by the US occupation forces on the condition that it include a graphic account of Japanese wartime atrocities in the Philippines – an awkward exercise in moral arithmetic intended to demonstrate which country was really to blame.

Nagai’s message was in fact decidedly apolitical. In his devout mind, it was no coincidence that God chose Nagasaki’s Catholics as sacrificial lambs to end the senseless war. (Nagasaki is a city with a long history of persecution; ever since the introduction of Christianity to Japan by Francis Xavier in the mid-16th century it has been the spiritual centre of Japan’s small Catholic minority.) Forget about the finer questions of whether the atomic bombs alone ended the war, or why non-believers too should have been ‘chosen’ to die atomic deaths. Illogical beliefs can be most persuasive, as Nagai won an impressive list of international admirers including Helen Keller, Eva Peron and, not surprisingly, Pope Pius XII. This line of reasoning also did much to obscure the role of human will in the whole war-making enterprise, from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the US development and use of nuclear weapons as, in the words of the politician Henry Stimson, ‘the least abhorrent’ option.

Reading Southard’s reconstruction of lives shaped by the bombing of Nagasaki, it is easy to forget what this city had meant to the world before the second world war. Only fragments remain: the song ‘Nagasaki’, for example, a 1928 Tin Pan Alley hit performed by the likes of Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and, more recently, Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster. ‘Hot ginger and dynamite / There’s nothing but that at night / Back in Nagasaki / Where the fellers chew tobaccy / And the women wicky wacky, woo’, runs the risqué lyric. It summons an innocent era when Nagasaki, for many in the west, was more an exotic concept than a real place, with its alluring Madame Butterflies strolling against a backdrop of azure blue; more troublingly, it also prefigures the darker period that would begin with a blinding flash on August 9 1945. But as Southard’s hibakusha show, life in Nagasaki went on, despite everything.



The Logical Outcome of Total War
By Alonzo L. Hamby
Wall Street Journal (Book review)
August 1, 2015

‘The bomber will always get through,’ Stanley Baldwin told Britain’s House of Commons in 1932. ‘The only defense is in offense, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.’ Baldwin was no warmonger. His purpose was to underscore the indiscriminate horror likely to come from the air in an era of big military airplanes carrying large payloads of explosives. His declaration reflected the thinking of theorists ranging from the Italian general Giulio Douhet to the popular novelist H.G. Wells. It also acknowledged the truism that wars are ultimately between peoples and societies, not just armed forces.

War came within a few short years, and the bomber was its most feared weapon. In Europe, Germany showed the way – first in Spain with Guernica, then in Britain with the Blitz against London, Coventry, Hull and other cities. Revenge followed in the form of British and American bombers plastering German population centers with equal indiscrimination. Japanese bombers killed or wounded thousands of Chinese at Shanghai in 1932 and wreaked havoc at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In late 1944, Japan began to be attacked by the most formidable of the World War II bombers, the American B-29. Japan’s defenses were weak and its provisions for civilian shelters grossly inadequate. Its wood-and-paper buildings were terribly vulnerable to incendiary bombs. Few had basements to which their inhabitants could retreat. On the night of March 9, 1945, more than 300 American B-29s raided a working-class area of Tokyo that was laced with small factories. The incendiary bombs set off firestorms that laid waste to nearly 16 square miles of the city and killed approximately 100,000 civilians and left the survivors demoralized.

Other Japanese cities endured ordeals similar to Tokyo’s. Two, however, were relatively untouched – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their inhabitants never realized that they were being saved for a terrible new weapon. The reprieve came to an end on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, in each case with single atomic bombs that probably produced fewer deaths than the Tokyo firebombing but spread greater fear.

Charles Pellegrino’s study of Hiroshima, ‘To Hell and Back,’ and Susan Southard’s ‘Nagasaki’ give scant attention to the larger military and diplomatic issues of the atomic bombings. Instead they recount the ordeals of ordinary and altogether sympathetic citizens coping with a sudden, devastating event that destroyed the world they had known. The lucky were killed instantly, some simply vaporized. Others displayed mute testimony to the event. Mr. Pellegrino describes one such example, drawn from the account of a survivor: ‘A statue, standing undamaged, . . . was in fact a naked man. . . . The man had become charcoal – a pillar of charcoal so light and brittle that whole sections of him crumbled at the slightest touch.’ Another survivor, we are told, gathers the bones of a young woman, resolves to return them to her parents and manages to catch the last train to their home – in Nagasaki.

Ms. Southard gives us similar stories and provides photographs of aged Japanese still bearing horrible physical scars from their burns. She notes that the scars could also be psychological – feelings of ‘bitterness and outrage,’ the mockery that could come with disfigurement. For some, she writes, the ‘fear of illness and death never ceased.’ Both authors describe the harrowing effects of radiation sickness.

The maimed survivors of each city devoted much of their lives to evangelizing against the bomb. It is easy to write off such narratives as exercises in victimology, but it is also important to understand the effects of nuclear weapons in an age when they have become vastly more powerful and have been developed by nations of dubious responsibility.

What is missing from both books is context. Neither author properly discusses the factors that went into the American decision to use the bomb. Nor do they venture an opinion on whether the bomb shortened the war. They focus on the ways the bomb affected civilians who had to cope with a catastrophe.

‘To Hell and Back,’ one may remember, appeared in an earlier form, in 2010, as ‘The Last Train From Hiroshima.’ The publication of that book was suspended when the authenticity of one of Mr. Pellegrino’s sources – a man who claimed to have been on a plane accompanying the Enola Gay bomber on its Hiroshima mission – was called into question. That source and his assertions are gone from the new book. A foreword notes that he had indeed ‘tricked’ the author, who later admitted his mistake.

In a preface to ‘To Hell and Back,’ Mark Selden, a scholar of East Asian studies, declares that Mr. Pellegrino’s narrative ‘encourages us to reflect anew on the ethics and horrifying outcome of World War II strategies of massive civilian bombing, whether by Germany, Japan, or England, or by American fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’

His statement reminds us that the atomic bombs were the logical outcome of a style of war taken for granted on both sides by the summer of 1945. Britain suffered heavy bombing and massive property destruction, but civilian deaths for the nation were less than 45,000. The port city of Hull (population, 320,000), roughly analogous to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, endured damage to an estimated 95% of its housing stock but lost only 1,200 civilians. Unlike Britain, Japan seems to have made little or no provision for the protection of its civilian population.

Were the bombs necessary to compel surrender? U.S. policy – laid down by Franklin Roosevelt, followed by Harry Truman and supported by most Americans – was uncompromising. The U.S. would accept only unconditional surrender, to be followed by military occupation.

In Japan, advocates of a last-ditch resistance could not promise victory but could guarantee heavy casualties for the invaders. The last battle of the war – Okinawa – made the point. Okinawa was a small island, and the U.S. possessed overwhelming ground, naval and air superiority. Even so, the battle raged from April 1 to June 21, 1945, with 92,000 Japanese troops fighting to the death and kamikaze planes inflicting significant damage on the offshore American fleet. U.S. casualties (killed and wounded) were approximately 45,000.

The experience made an impression in Washington. The Japanese home islands were next. Japan’s leaders made no secret of their plans to wage a dogged resistance that would mobilize the civilian population, right down to teenagers armed only with clubs and sticks; and the leaders clung to the fantasy of a negotiated peace brokered by the still-neutral Soviet Union. They rebuked their ambassador in Moscow for telling them that the Russians, who were moving troops to attack Japan in East Asia, would be of no help.

American military planners focused on the southernmost Japanese home island of Kyushu as a first target, to be followed by an invasion of the island of Honshu and a final campaign across the Tokyo plain in 1946. Meeting with his military chiefs in Washington on June 18, 1945, President Truman expressed his hope of ‘preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.’ A month later, the first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. Hiroshima and Nagasaki quickly followed.

Critics of the atomic bombings often assert that Japan was ‘ready to surrender.’ Clearly this was not the case. Japan could still muster formidable military resources. It is unlikely that resistance would have ever gotten down to teenagers armed with clubs and sticks but probable that an amphibious invasion of Kyushu would have exacted a price reminiscent of Okinawa. That possibility was unthinkable to most Americans.

Why did the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs compel surrender? Radiation effects aside – which were not always immediately evident – the bombs did no more damage than the conventional fire bombing of Tokyo, which had failed to produce any serious thought of a Japanese surrender. A big part of the answer has to be the shock value – a single bomb destroying a whole city.

The nuclear weapons of today make the ones detonated in 1945 look like firecrackers, and more and more countries possess them or threaten to do so. The editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists picture a doomsday clock at three minutes to midnight. The virtue of these books is their reminder of just how horrible nuclear weapons are.



‘Nagasaki’ faces nuclear horror as the 70th anniversary of the bombing approaches
By Louise Steinman
Los Angeles Times (Book review)
July 24, 2015

Author Susan Southard was haunted long into adulthood by the memory of a field trip – during her year as a teen-age exchange student – to the Nagasaki Atom Bomb Museum. In her magnificent and necessary book, ‘Nagasaki: Life After the Bomb,’ she recalls standing beside her Japanese classmates as they all stared in horror at photographs of charred adults and children, graphic evidence of her country’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on noncombatants.

Many years later, summoned to interpret a speech by a Nagasaki survivor, Southard listened to 57-year-old Taniguchi Sumiteru describe the moment, on Aug. 9, 1945, when he was blown off his bicycle, his back torched by the plutonium bomb. She was riveted by his testimony. After his talk, she plied Taniguchi with questions about the fate of hibakusha (‘atomic bomb-affected people’) like himself, who’d survived the horrific injuries that their family, friends and co-workers did not.

She also questioned herself. How was it possible to have lived in Japan, to have been educated in fine American universities yet to be so ignorant about the history of the Pacific War and the survivors’ experiences under the atom clouds?

Most of us share that ignorance. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined a name for this condition: ‘nuclear alienation.’ It began in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb blasts, when U.S. officials advised Americans to ‘leave all problems surrounding the bomb to political, scientific, and military leaders – the nuclear priesthood.’ Over time, Lifton observes, we became accustomed to avoiding that discussion.

Many U.S. citizens hold unequivocal views that the bombing ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. I’m familiar with that argument. When news of the bombing and the Japanese surrender reached my father and his 25th Infantry Division buddies on Luzon, they were recuperating from brutal combat and readying themselves for the dreaded invasion of the Japanese mainland. He wrote home to my mother that all the GIs were ecstatic.

But did the bombs really end the war? After Hiroshima, was there any justification for the Nagasaki bomb, which was exploded without any warning to the civilian population? Russia had just entered the war in the Pacific and new scholarship – as Southard meticulously details – shows that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering.

Most important, if we consider the decision to drop the bomb to be a ‘just action’ to end the war, isn’t it our responsibility to face the human consequences? Southard makes a compelling case that we must. Reading her book is a powerful way to engage with the moral conundrums surrounding our country’s use of atomic weapons.

Southard includes extensive notes on her historical sources for the chronology of the bombs, from President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use them to the moment of cataclysm, through the subsequent decades of official efforts to control the nuclear bomb narrative.

Those efforts began even before the bomb dropped, when the ‘Trinity’ test explosion in the New Mexico desert was termed by local media (cooperating with the U.S. Office of Censorship) ‘a harmless accident in a remote ammunition dump.’ After the bombings, access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was severely restricted by U.S. Occupation forces. Gen. Leslie Groves, in charge of the Manhattan Project, testified to the U.S. Senate in December 1945 that death from high-dose radiation exposure was ‘without undue suffering’ and ‘a very pleasant way to die.’

The first to pierce through the official pronouncements was journalist John Hersey. His 68-page text on Hiroshima was published in its entirety in the August 1946 New Yorker. (Albert Einstein ordered 1,000 copies.) Hersey’s empirical fact-telling, drawn from testimonies of Japanese survivors, aroused American empathy for the victims. It also ignited a campaign by bomb apologists to establish the narrative that the bombs saved a million American lives and that nuclear weapons would keep America safe.

Hersey’s book focused on the immediate aftermath of the bombing; Southard lays out the long-term consequences. She read hundreds of survivor testimonies and interviewed 17 hibakusha. She spent extensive time with five of those individuals, whose tribulations are emblematic of those endured by the 192,000 hibakusha alive today. Their stories address another great conundrum at the heart of the book: ‘How do you survive after you survive?’

Southard skillfully weaves those testimonies through the sorry history of official denials, medical exploitation of survivors by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (collecting radiation exposure data for U.S. research, not providing medical treatment) and the Japanese government’s recalcitrance in offering medical coverage for radiation injuries to avoid ‘implications of Japan’s war responsibility.’

One of Southard’s primary interviewees, Do-oh Mineko, was so ashamed of her facial disfigurement that she sequestered herself inside her mother’s house in Nagasaki from ages 15 to 25. She couldn’t bear the stares. Taniguchi Sumiteru, whose back was severely burned, spent two years of recovery lying on his stomach, leaving bedsores so deep you could ‘see his pumping heart.’ He raged against the Americans for dropping the bomb, the Japanese for launching the war. Yoshida Katsuji’s keloid scarring was so severe, he could barely open his mouth to take in food. He endured years of skin grafts. Many suffered excruciating pain from glass shards embedded in their bodies, rejection from marriage partners, refusals of employment. They were denied medical information about the possible effects of radiation on their offspring. Largely invisible, the hibakusha were prisoners of their own shame as well as societal taboos against public disclosure of personal struggles.

When the U.S. exploded a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in March 1955 (contaminating a Japanese fishing crew), international condemnation was severe. For the first time, national attention in Japan focused on the hibakusha. It also galvanized their gradual transformation from victims to anti-nuclear activists.

In the next years, each of the five survivors went public. Their suffering now had purpose: to fight for the abolition of nuclear arms by grounding the unimaginable in the specifics of their own experience. They became kataribe storytellers, a centuries-long Japanese tradition in which selected individuals pass on historical information to fellow citizens and to future generations. Survivor Yoshida Katsuji puts it simply: ‘The basis for peace is for people to understand the pain of others.’

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the blast, let us hope that many will read this important book: to imagine the unimaginable suffering caused by the bomb and to join these eloquent survivors in their determination that Nagasaki remain the last nuclear bombed city in history.



Thank God for the Atom Bomb
By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal (opinion page)
Aug. 4, 2015


The headline of this column is lifted from a 1981 essay by the late Paul Fussell, the cultural critic and war memoirist. In 1945 Fussell was a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army who had fought his way through Europe only to learn that he would soon be shipped to the Pacific to take part in Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese home islands scheduled to begin in November 1945.

Then the atom bomb intervened. Japan would not surrender after Hiroshima, but it did after Nagasaki.

I brought Fussell’s essay with me on my flight to Hiroshima and was stopped by this: ‘When we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live.’

In all the cant that will pour forth this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs – that the U.S. owes the victims of the bombings an apology; that nuclear weapons ought to be abolished; that Hiroshima is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man; that Japan could have been defeated in a slightly nicer way – I doubt much will be made of Fussell’s fundamental point: Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t just terrible war-ending events. They were also lifesaving. The bomb turned the empire of the sun into a nation of peace activists.

I spent the better part of Monday afternoon with one such activist, Keiko Ogura, who runs a group called Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. Mrs. Ogura had just turned eight when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, the epicenter less than 2 miles from her family home. She remembers wind ‘like a tornado’; thousands of pieces of shattered glass blasted by wind into the walls and beams of her house, looking oddly ‘shining and beautiful’; an oily black rain.

And then came the refugees from the city center, appallingly burned and mutilated, ‘like a line of ghosts,’ begging for water and then dying the moment they drank it. Everyone in Mrs. Ogura’s immediate family survived the bombing, but it would be years before any of them could talk about it.

Because Hiroshima and Nagasaki were real events, because they happened, there can be no gainsaying their horror. Operation Downfall did not happen, so there’s a lot of gainsaying. Would the Japanese have been awed into capitulation by an offshore A-bomb test? Did the Soviet Union’s invasion of Manchuria, starting the day of the Nagasaki bombing, have the more decisive effect in pushing Japan to give up? Would casualties from an invasion really have exceeded the overall toll – by some estimates approaching 250,000 – of the two bombs?

We’ll never know. We only know that the U.S. lost 14,000 men merely to take Okinawa in 82 days of fighting. We only know that, because Japan surrendered, the order to execute thousands of POWs in the event of an invasion of the home islands was never implemented. We only know that, in the last weeks of a war Japan had supposedly already lost, the Allies were sustaining casualties at a rate of 7,000 a week.

We also know that the Japanese army fought nearly to the last man to defend Okinawa, and hundreds of civilians chose suicide over capture. Do we know for a certainty that the Japanese would have fought less ferociously to defend the main islands? We can never know for a certainty.

‘Understanding the past,’ Fussell wrote, ‘requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.’ Historical judgments must be made in light not only of outcomes but also of options. Would we judge Harry Truman better today if he had eschewed his nuclear option in favor of 7,000 casualties a week; that is, if he had been more considerate of the lives of the enemy than of the lives of his men?

And so the bombs were dropped, and Japan was defeated. Totally defeated. Modern Japan is a testament to the benefits of total defeat, to stripping a culture prone to violence of its martial pretenses. Modern Hiroshima is a testament to human resilience in the face of catastrophe. It is a testament, too, to an America that understood moral certainty and even a thirst for revenge were not obstacles to magnanimity. In some ways they are the precondition for it.

For too long Hiroshima has been associated with a certain brand of leftist politics, a kind of insipid pacifism salted with an implied anti-Americanism. That’s a shame. There are lessons in this city’s history that could serve us today, when the U.S. military forbids the word victory, the U.S. president doesn’t believe in the exercise of American power, and the U.S. public is consumed with guilt for sins they did not commit.

Watch the lights come on at night in Hiroshima. Note the gentleness of its culture. And thank God for the atom bomb.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.