Hiroshima at 50
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Hiroshima marked the opening act of a grim, expensive Cold War that for decades defined America's relations to the rest of the world and sapped its national spirit.
On Aug. 6, 1945, a lone B-29 airplane destroyed 60 percent of Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb, killing nearly 100,000 Japanese civilians. Fifty years later, the United States remains the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in war. The question of why is passionately debated today by those who see Hiroshima as a symbol of American immorality.
But just what kind of symbol isn't always clear. "Americans continue to experience pride, pain, and confusion over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan," Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell write in Hiroshima in America, a perceptive new history of American responses to the bombing over the past half-century. "Part of each of us wishes to believe that the decision to use the bomb was reasonable, but another part remains uncomfortable with what we did."
Even at this late date, the battle over the collective memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (bombed three days later, on Aug. 9, 1945) matters greatly. Those who defend the bombing cite it as justification for brandishing our nuclear arsenal today. Those who view Hiroshima as the most shameful event in our nation's history see the U.S. as a nuclear bully whose still vast arsenal worsens the prospects for world peace.
It is all too easy to leave unresolved our thinking about the bomb. Yet it is important that we make up our minds, a notion that will probably not garner much consideration next month, when many Americans will unapologetically celebrate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. To condemn the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should in no way limit our comprehension of the decision to bomb these cities. To explain the bombings doesn't explain them away; it doesn't excuse these deplorable actions. We can't undo history, of course, but we can influence the future. How we think about Hiroshima today will determine how we think--and act--about the next use of nuclear weapons.
And we may face another Hiroshima sooner than we think. For decades, the U.S. has threatened its enemies, from Vietnam to Iraq and North Korea, with nuclear obliteration. There's always a chance a rogue nation may push the U.S. too far. Or a terrorist gang might explode a stolen nuclear bomb, raising the issue of the proper U.S. response.
Hot Spark of Cold War Boys: This "Little Boy" bomb is the same type that was detonated over Hiroshima.
Easy Way Out
In rethinking the bomb, it's important to give the nuclear proponents their due. The destruction of Hiroshima brought World War II to a swift close, prompting Japan to abandon plans for an all-out defense of its land and hastening its unconditional surrender. And by the grim standards of that war, the most murderous episode in human history, the bombings weren't especially horrible. The incendiary bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, for instance, killed more people than the Nagasaki bomb.
But the very banality of Hiroshima's evil is a weak defense, so proponents justify the mass killing of Japanese civilians by citing simple retribution for Japan's own horrid acts. As critics of the Smithsonian Institution's doomed Enola Gay exhibit loudly proclaimed, the Japanese were terribly cruel in conquering parts of China in the 1930s. They also drew the U.S. into World War II with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.