Lessons Learned, Lessons Not Learned


Sixty years ago tomorrow, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the military dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki.

These are the only two nuclear bombs ever used in war, and with good reason. The devastation from the bombs was unfathomable, and as the extent of the destruction became public knowledge, the bombs themselves became a symbol of the atrocity of war.

Immediately after the bombs, once Japan had surrendered unconditionally, the U.S. military instituted a blanket ban on reporting about the effects of the bombs. It took seven years for the first photos to surface in Japan, and many more for the larger world to learn what happened on those two days.

Sadly, the threat of nuclear weapons seems to have faded from the public consciousness, even as the fear of terrorist attacks looms large. With all the talk of "dirty bombs" and "suitcase bombs," the fact is that more than 30,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the eight countries that admit to having any. As Walter Cronkite says in a new radio documentary, "Lessons from Hiroshima: 60 Years Later," "some 4,000 of these are on hair-trigger alert."

"Lessons from Hiroshima" explores the consequences of the bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, for Japan and the world. Survivors of the blasts, Japanese and American alike, paint a human picture of how the world was forever changed on those two days. Host Walter Cronkite interviews Mohammed El Baradei from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency about the modern nuclear threat, and shares his own reflections of post-war Japan.

I listened to an advance copy of the program on the way home from work. When I told producer Reese Ehrlich that I sat outside my house for 15 minutes to finish it before going inside, he laughed and said that’s known as a "driveway moment" in the industry.

"Lessons from Hiroshima: 60 Years Later" is full of driveway moments. It is deeply disturbing but offers listeners hope about the future; anti-war activists have come a long way indeed in the last 60 years.

AlterNet: Would you tell me how this documentary came about?

Reese Erlich: Barbara Simmons, the executive producer of the show and head of [Pennsylvania radio show] Peace Talks had been interested in this topic for a long time, and she and Jennifer Beer went to Japan and to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and interviewed the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), and that was the beginning of the story and this was already a year and a half ago.

Then they contacted me to put it together and I realized that for the 60th anniversary, this was going to be a really great story. So we added some additional interviews, we tracked down a Japanese WWII veteran who was critical of the Japanese military, and that's not so easy. The Second World War is still very controversial over there in terms of how you look at it. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese government and right wing has continued to justify in some ways what they did and downplay the nature of the atrocities. So it's not easy to find a Japanese war veteran who will be honest about what happened.

It's similar to trying to find, in the military today, somebody who would admit what the U.S. did in Vietnam. It's very analogous, it's "Well, yeah, we fought the good fight, we were fighting Communism, we didn't do such bad things." Forget about talking about torture and mass roundups and slaughter of Vietnamese, you just don't hear about it from official sources. so it's much that kind of thing.

Which brings us to the quote you have from Robert McNamara basically admitting that, yeah, "If we had lost, we were war criminals."

Yeah, that was excerpted from The Fog of War, an excellent documentary, and it's very revealing, he really said, "had we lost the war we would have all been considered war criminals." [Full quote] And he does some fancy dancing around these issues of firebombing.

I think what we do in this documentary, at least for the first time that I've heard, is linking the "total war strategy" that the U.S. used in Germany and Japan that included the firebombing of the cities, with the dropping of the bomb. It was clear that one led to the other. If you can incinerate 100,000 people in a single night in a firebombing, then why worry about killing that many with a nuclear bomb.

And the numbers killed with the two bombs?

Two hundred thirty-thousand at Hiroshima and Nagasaki together. And more people were actually killed in the firebombing, in total, because they went on for a lot longer.

But that doesn't take into account the collateral damage of people harmed by fallout and radiation, the ongoing damage.

Right of course, that's not to downplay the significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by any means. The impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki goes well beyond even the number of people killed that night. As you said, it's the long-term impact of the radiation, the future generations that were affected by it, the psychological damage that we talk about. I think a lot of Americans don't know how much discrimination there was within Japan against people from Hiroshima, people didn't want their children marrying people from Hiroshima.

Which is a really amazing point that you make in the program, that it must have been unimaginably horrible to be at the bomb sites, but then to also have this stigma attached ...

Exactly, for the rest of your life, and maybe for the rest of your kids' lives. And actually, I was just reading an article on AlterNet about the censorship, how everything was covered up because the U.S. definitely did not want the rest of the world to know the atrocities that had been committed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So they wouldn't allow photos or film. And Walter Cronkite talks about that in the program.

I want to ask about the cover up, but first I want to ask about the bombing itself. How much debate or discussion was there at the upper levels of government about whether or not this was the right thing to do?

At the upper levels -- at the Cabinet level, the top generals, Truman -- I think there was virtually no debate. At that level, they all thought it was a great idea. What I think a lot of Americans don't know is that among the scientists who worked on the Manhattan project there was a petition that was circulated, and I forget the exact number, but many dozens of scientists who worked in Los Alamos petitioned Truman not to drop the bomb on Japan.

Basically they said, "we developed the bomb to fight Germany, because we thought Germany had a bomb, and we wanted to develop it first to stop the kind of atrocities that Nazi Germany would carry out. But clearly Japan does not have a bomb, and it would be inhuman now that we know, because we are the scientists who worked on this, it would be inhuman to drop it on civilians on Japan."

Now, nobody knew in exact detail what would happen when the bomb was dropped, but they had a pretty good idea, and they opposed it. And every one of those scientists who signed that petition was purged and hounded by the government.

One of the most interesting and damning points you make in the documentary is that if the cover-up had not happened, then possibly there would not have been an arms race, that nuclear weapons would not be the threat that they still are today.

Yes, you certainly have a strong argument about that. Obviously, no one knows for sure, and one of the journalists in the program makes the case that the arms race wouldn’t have happened. But without a doubt the debate would have been different. In the United States there was no debate about the legitimacy of having nuclear arms, the only argument was "Oh my God, how did the Soviet Union get it? The Rosenbergs must have stolen it." That was the only debate; it wasn't about whether it was legitimate to have these weapons, or for the U.S. to test them. Certainly it would have changed the nature of the debate.

About the ban on reporting the effects of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: How was it lifted? By decree? Or did stories leak out until the ban couldn’t hold?

It happened in stages. There was a complete and total blackout in the years immediately afterwards, roughly the first two or three years: no photos, no articles were allowed. At the time Japan was under formal military occupation by the United States, there was no Japanese government.

A reporter named Wilfred Burchett -- an Australian journalist, a leftist who wrote very extensively about the Vietnam War -- in 1945 was one of the first civilian journalists to get into Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and he actually managed to print the first and virtually only article about the destruction that went on in those cities, I think in the London Times. The U.S. military went ballistic. That was the first time anyone in the world knew the devastation that had occurred there. He got in and got around censorship to file his report. In those days you had to submit all your dispatches to U.S. military censors, and they usually just said no, you can't publish this. They had you over a barrel in terms of publishing your stories.

All photos [of the destruction] were banned in Japan until 1952 [when] the first photos came out, and they continued to disallow video. So, for instance, when Walter Cronkite went there with CBS television news in 1958 he was not allowed to film and that was 13 years after the bombing! A lot of the original photos and video that were shot didn't come out until the early 1960s.

And that's just because the government feared that public opinion would be so unified against the bombing?

Absolutely, and it was always under the rubric of national security. But what national security is there in showing a bombed-out house, a flattened house? That's just baloney, it was because the U.S. leaders knew politically what the consequences would be if large numbers of people saw the devastation in those cities.

You mentioned that there is a wide range of thought in Japan on the validity of the war, about using the bomb. You quote a couple of former Japanese soldiers who say it was a good thing overall, it was the only thing that would have stopped Japanese militarism ...

Actually, that's a small minority view. It depends on what issue you talk about. On the war itself of course most Japanese say it was wrong. They mostly believe that the Japanese military was wrong. But when you poke the surface a little bit, there's still residual feelings that what Japan did [has been] exaggerated. A common argument is "We were helping to liberate the people of Asia from foreign colonialism." They were, but only to impose Japanese colonialism [instead] [laughs]. There's that little detail. They freed them from the British in order to enslave them themselves. On the issue of dropping the bomb, it's almost universal opinion that dropping the bomb was wrong. And that is both the legitimate sentiment that anybody would have and that people have all over the world.

But getting to the core of it and certain actions of the Japanese military, like the Nanjing massacre, for example, it's still downplayed in the textbooks. I'd say most Japanese still don't know the true horror of those atrocities by the Japanese military, just as most Americans don't know about the real depth of atrocities in Vietnam.

I was in Hiroshima just after the 55th anniversary, and the city is incredible; it's a monument to peace, there are paper cranes everywhere, there's a Peace Museum, and it's full of memorials. So in 55 years they'd turned from being the aggressor to being a proponent of peace, and in some way you could make the argument that if the war hadn’t ended like that ...

Sure, but do you have to put people through that kind of death and destruction in order to become a monument to peace? It's a credit to the people of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki both, that they've drawn on those lessons and they've made their cities leaders in the movement for peace, but you don't wish that on anyone.

When you mentioned that the Japanese argument in WWII for invading Asia was to liberate them, do you see any other parallels between that war and what's going on now with American policy?

Of course. Ironically, the U.S. has been encouraging the Japanese military and government to increase the sizes of its army and navy, including sending troops to Iraq. And that's why it's so telling that this Japanese soldier [is] completely opposed to sending troops to Iraq, because how is it any different from what they did in Asia?

But on a broader level, what the U.S. is doing now in Iraq is using a lot of the same logic, which is "We're going there to liberate Iraq from a horrible dictator." Of course, that's not what they told us at the time. At the time it was to stop the weapons of mass destruction and to stop nuclear expansion [laughs], and when those arguments turned out to be totally phony, they came up with this latest one. It's the logic of every aggressor, the aggressor never says "We're going there to benefit from your oil and expand our military bases and our geopolitical position." They go there and say "we're fighting for democracy and to liberate you."

What do you think is the biggest lesson we can take away, either from the documentary or from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Well, I encourage people to listen to the documentary and figure that out for themselves, but my personal feeling it goes back to the point you made before: That out of this horrific tragedy, this horrible death and destruction affecting future generations, has come this monument to peace and this movement to peace. Whenever there are anti-Iraq war or anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations on an international scale, there will always be peace activists from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That's a real testimony to the depth of feeling and the organizing that's come out of it, and that's something that can inspire everyone.

"Lessons from Hiroshima" airs on NPR stations nationwide on Saturday. Check your local station's schedule for more information.

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