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?
MORE: 27 nonfiction books you'll want to read -- and share -- this summer
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.
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War
Viking: 416 pp., $28.95