Nagasaki, 1945: “The world did not need your experiment”

By H. Patricia Hynes | (Informed Comment) | – –

Kyoko Hayashi nearly died on August 9, 1945 in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. She was fourteen years old and working at a factory less than a mile from the epicenter of the atomic explosion. She traveled barefoot for nine hours through the ruins of Nagasaki passing many dead and dying who had been crushed, burned and wounded.

The unique tragedy of those who lost their lives to the bomb, she feels, is that the bomb not only deprived them of their lives but also of “their own personal deaths.” And for the survivors like herself, known as hibakusha, “…the shortening of a given life, not being able to live fully–this was the promise made between an atomic bomb and its victims.”

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary

The bomb changed time for her. “I could not make an appointment longer than a month ahead,” given many hibakusha friends died from unpredictable bleeding. “The past is always present and the future is never countable.” A friend observed of Hayashi, “[The] quietness in her seems to flow from her sustained mourning over those who lost their lives in the Nagasaki bombing. Every hibakusha knows their survival carries within it the wailing and silence of the dead.” (1)

In one of her many published stories, Hayashi invents a new calendar, the “A-bomb calendar” which designates 1945 as the first year. Why? “The significance of the birth of Christ or Buddha pales in comparison,” with the event that demonstrated that “humans had gained the means to destroy their own species, all other species and the earth.” (1) Her words reverberate with the grave ruminations of the renowned biologist and author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson. “In the days before Hiroshima,” she imagined the powerful and inviolate realms of nature, like the sea and vast water cycles, to be beyond human destructive power. “But I was wrong. Even those things that seemed to belong to the eternal verities are not only threatened but have already felt the destroying hand of man.” (2)

Fifty four years after surviving the bomb, Hayashi journeyed from Japan to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the site of the first atomic bomb explosion, a national landmark since 1975, and “a hibakusha’s birth place,” as she deems it. She may be the sole survivor of the atomic bombs to have made this morbid pilgrimage.

At Trinity Site and also in her visits to Los Alamos and the National Atomic Museum, she was startled to see that all the visitors were white, no Black, Asian (other than herself and a friend) or Mexican visitors. Standing in “Ground Zero” at Trinity Site, she looks out to the red mountains and wilderness beyond and suddenly senses a kinship with desert plants and animals. “Until now as I stand at Trinity Site, I have thought it was we humans who were the first atomic bomb victims on Earth. I was wrong. Here are my senior hibakusha. They are here but cannot cry or yell.” (1)

After viewing museum films that lionized the scientists of the atomic bomb project, she writes, “I understand winners create a proud history…[but] the world did not need your experiment.’’ (1) Hayashi’s bitter words echo the stark sentiment expressed by Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the Third Fleet, in 1946: “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…It was a mistake to ever drop it.” And before Congress in 1949, he testified that “bombing–especially atomic bombing–of civilians is morally indefensible.” (3)

Key World War II American military leaders from all branches of the armed forces, among them Generals Eisenhower, Arnold, Marshall and MacArthur; and Admirals Leahy, Nimitz, and Halsey strongly dissented from the decision to use the bombs–some before August 1945, some in retrospect–for both military and moral reasons. American intelligence had broken the Japanese codes and knew that Japan was already defeated and in peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. Surrender was imminent. Further, a demonstration bombing away from residential areas (also supported by many atomic bomb scientists) could have been used instead to force immediate surrender. (3) (4)

Political advisors to President Truman overrode the expert military opinion against dropping the atomic bomb. Among them was Secretary of State James Byrnes who argued that using atomic weapons would daunt Russia and secure American domination after the war. (5)

This morally corrupted compass–contravening all international conventions of war–set the course for Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.

At their fortieth anniversary reunion in Los Alamos, New Mexico, 70 of 110 physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb signed a statement in support of nuclear disarmament. Many had changed their minds about the bomb long ago. (6) In December 1996, retired Air Force General Lee Butler, former commander of the Strategic Air Command that oversaw the entire nuclear arsenal, used a National Press Club luncheon as a forum to urge his government to take the lead in abolishing all nuclear weapons. “Nuclear war,” he held, “is a raging, insatiable beast whose instincts and appetites we pretend to understand but cannot possibly control.” Nothing, he concluded, not deterrence, not national security, justifies these weapons of physical and genetic terror. (7)

Most recently, William Perry, the highly respected former defense secretary in the Clinton Administration, offered a bleak and chilling assessment: “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” (8) “Our chief peril,” he writes in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, “is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly.” (9) Only by dumb luck, he adds, have we escaped nuclear war thus far. Contrary to government and defense industry group think, nuclear weapons do not provide security, they only endanger it.

Contrast this realist wisdom from military and defense experts with our government’s current nuclear weapons policy. Over the next thirty years, the United States plans to spend $1 trillion to modernize the existing arsenal of nuclear bombs and warheads and their delivery systems by air, land and sea, despite our existing capacity to destroy the world many times over. No other discretionary long-term public expenditure approaches this immense sum, nor is it clear how it will be paid for: “We’re…wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” concedes undersecretary of defense Brian McKeon. Nor did presidential debate moderators raise this mammoth public expenditure for nuclear weapons modernization in questions to the candidates. (10)

We live in a state of widespread public ignorance and public passivity because of government secrecy and denial about the “raging, insatiable beast” of nuclear weapons and because of the immense insider power of the defense industry. Studies of whose priorities shape government policy have consistently concluded that U.S. government policies do not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but are instead shaped by the interests of the wealthy class and powerful corporate lobbies. (11)

Pick your issue of Americans’ insecurity and suffering: 20- for Black children), paychecks that working people cannot live on, costs of education and housing, climate change, prison reform, human trafficking…and imagine what our trillion dollar taxes targeted to modernize nuclear weapons and police the world militarily could do re-invested in what the majority of Americans need and want for a sustainable and secure future.

References

1. Kyoko Hayashi. Trinity to Trinity. Translated by Eiko Otake (2010) Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press. Originally published in Japanese by Kodansha 2000 as Torinichi kara Torinici.

2. Rachel Carson. 1962. Of man and the stream of time. Scripps College Bulletin. July, pp.5-10.

3. https://www.thenation.com/article/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/. Viewed July 15, 2016.

4. John Dower. 2015. Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq. New York: W.W. Norton.

5.http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/library/biographies/bio_byrnes-james.htm. Viewed July 20, 2016.

6. Peter Wyden. 1984. Day One: Before Hiroshima and After. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp.362-366.

7.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/filmmore/reference/primary/leebutler.html. Viewed July 15, 2015.

8. William J. Perry. “A National Security Walk Around the World.” 2016 Drell Lecture. Center for International Security and Cooperation. Stanford University. February 10, 2016.

9. Jerry Brown. A stark nuclear warning. Review of William J. Perry. 2016. My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/07/14/a-stark-nuclear-warning/. Viewed July 24, 2016.

10. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162279. Viewed July 23, 2016.

11. http://www.businessinsider.com/major-study-finds-that-the-us-is-an-oligarchy-2014-4. Viewed July 22, 2016.

http://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/inequality_and_democratic_responsiveness.pdf. Viewed July 22, 2016.

Pat Hynes, a retired professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts (http://traprock.org). She has opposed nuclear weapons since she visited the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and Memorial Park in the early 1980s.

12 Responses

  1. >Surrender was imminent. Further, a demonstration bombing away from residential areas (also supported by many atomic bomb scientists) could have been used instead to force immediate surrender.

    I dont know, i found this book pretty persuasive in showing that the war would have continued for quite a bit and that without the bombs the death toll would have been higher.

    link to amazon.com

    • You are correct, dmol. “Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire,” by Richard B. Frank is well researched and conclusively establishes that the atomic bombs ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives, both American and Japanese, that would have been lost had an invasion been necessary. Two other books I recommend to counter the “revisionist” narrative that was overtaken by scholarship at least 20 years ago: “The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan,” by Wilson D. Miscamble; and “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945,” by the British military historian Max Hastings.

  2. Hiroshima and the Second World War were horrific. As the author points out, the decision to use the bomb was a civilian and a political decision, not a military one. That is something that militaristic Japan in 1945 could hardly have understood. In many cases, the civilian authority has restrained the military. Truman’s decision to limit the Korean War, for example.

  3. A great and thoughtful article. Thank you, Patricia. And, thank you Juan for publishing this for us to read.

    I don’t disagree with any aspect of this article. I fully support that we should be focused on nuclear disarmament, and not modernization of our nuclear arsenal.

    I do wonder about 2 hypotheticals:

    1. If Truman firmly believed that the dropping of the 2 atomic bombs would likely shorten the war and save American lives, was doing so morally worse than the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden? From Wiki, the “firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II, greater than Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki as single events.”

    2. If atomic bombs were not used, would they have been used in subsequent wars, that may have escalated into an even greater catastrophe?

    It is also worth noting that we have found another way of ending life on earth – the unlimited burning of fossil fuels.

  4. Thank you for this post. That these bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is beyond belief, and as Dr Hynes writes Japan was already in peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. So, their use amounts to genocide. In a just world, reparations and an apology should be issued by our government, but I doubt this will happen. I hope that we do not see further use of these weapons.

    • Japan was not in “peace negotiations” with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not a belligerent party as it had not declared war on Japan, and in fact it refused to act as a negotiating intermediary. The USSR was not as yet a member of the allied effort against Japan and had no standing to act on the allies’ behalf.

      Scholarship over the last two decades, MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic traffic, and the evidence we have of the final deliberations of Japanese officials and the emperor indicate that The Japanese were not ready to surrender. They put out feelers to the Soviet Union, hoping to get better terms, but they offered no concrete terms themselves.

      Moreover, we know that what the Japanese had in mind was more an armistice rather than a surrender. It included no allied occupation of the Japanese home islands, no allied war crimes trials (which if conducted at all would be conducted by the Japanese themselves), and continued Japanese occupation of Manchuria (Manchukuo, as they called their puppet state). This would have been a case of the vanquished dictating terms to the victors and was unacceptable, particularly given that the Japanese initiated the war and the atrocities they committed in its execution.

  5. I am a retired high school social studies teacher. When I was in college my professor managed to get ahold of one of the few publicly available copies of the film, “Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August, 1945.” Every year that I taught, I would rent that film, at my own expense, and show it to my students. I still believe that if you have not seen that film, you cannot have an informed opinion on the use of nuclear weapons. Using them is a war crime.

  6. I’m not a revisionist about the bomb. Once we started the Manhattan Project it was impossible not to use it. Just think about that particular time. If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb they would have hung him in a public square.
    Nuclear technology has been bad deal all around.
    What I mean is that it makes lots of this really bad stuff that never goes away and it keeps getting spread around. Not only that but there’s more of it being made all the time. People being themselves, make mistakes or get mad and spread the stuff around some more.
    Nuclear waste never goes away. It breeds and will wind up everywhere if we don’t get a grip.

  7. Tragic that even today so many Americans still believe the propaganda regarding the use of nukes in Japan.
    Unfortunately little can be done to counter the vicious patriotism that is so ingrained in the American mind.
    While you are thinking about this “exceptional” nation it is good to remember that they have killed far more innocents and overthrown far more democratic governments since WW2 than any other country. The USA is #1!!

  8. I can (sort of) understand the first bomb; but why the second only three days later? I hardly think an exclamation point was needed.

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