A War Anniversary Hard to Celebrate : The A-bomb: The valor of U.S. troops in Europe and the Pacific is an awkward backdrop for the nuclear holocaust we inflicted on civilian Hiroshima.
America is in a commemorative mood. The D-Day ceremonies captured the attention of the entire nation. Soon we will mark the 50th anniversary of many other World War II milestones, from the fall of Berlin to the liberation of the concentration camps. The U.S. military’s sweep across the Pacific will be memorialized at Leyte Gulf and the Philippines, on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But these occasions, unlike those related to the war against Hitler, will be haunted by awareness of what comes next: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The stories of the American soldiers who invaded Normandy were supremely moving. There were tens of thousands of these GIs; they fought with unreliable, low-tech weapons, aimed only at soldiers on the other side.
Now consider Hiroshima: one bomb, one plane, 100,000 civilians dead. It will be interesting to see what America--the media, the President, the average citizen--makes of this contrast next August.
The truth is, America has never come to terms with the atomic bombings, so a few painful days of soul-searching is not only desirable, it’s unavoidable. It will be a time for taking stock, for reflecting on the fact that half a century ago something revolutionary happened and it changed everything. No matter what we think of Hiroshima, it has affected us deeply.
This wrenching re-examination, in fact, has already begun.
For years, technicians at the National Air and Space Museum have been reassembling the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima. Next year, they will finally put the front section of the B-29 on display. To its credit, the Smithsonian Institution (which runs the museum) plans a comprehensive exhibit that includes the bomb victims.
The Enola Gay exhibit will feature a Ground Zero room, reproducing a wasteland of rubble, ruins and heat-fused material. This is the Hiroshima landscape familiar to most Americans, and generally it upsets no one; among other things, it testifies to the success of the mission. Butthis Ground Zero goes a step further, including in the panorama charred bodies and items belonging to dead schoolchildren.
The show hasn’t even opened and already it’s drawing flak, proof of how raw the wound remains. A group of Air Force veterans has seen a copy of the proposal for the show and is “feeling nuked,” as Hugh Sidey tastelessly put it in Time magazine not long ago. The veterans complain that the exhibit pays more attention to Japanese casualties at Hiroshima than to Japanese atrocities earlier in the war. The Air Force Assn. charges that it is “a slap in the face to all Americans who fought in World War II” and “treats Japan and the U.S. as if their participation in the war were morally equivalent.” Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kans.) sent a letter to the Smithsonian calling the exhibit (which no one has seen yet) “a travesty.”
Smithsonian officials respond diplomatically, explaining that the treatment of the atomic bombing would be “objective” and make no judgment on the morality of the decision to drop the bomb. The two curators are annoyed, however. One, Tom Crouch, asserts that critics of the exhibit have a “reluctance to really tell the whole story. They want to stop the story when the bomb leaves the bomb bay.”
This repeats a pattern established early on. American officials wanted to keep the human side of Hiroshima hidden. They minimized radiation effects and obscured the extent and identity of the casualties--the vast majority of them women and children. (President Truman’s initial announcement referred to Hiroshima, a city of more than 300,000, merely as a “military base.”) They curtailed access to the bombed cities and censored articles and seized photographs and film footage that showed the human effects of the bomb. In any case, it was a “painless” way to die, said Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which built the bomb.
Suppression was so complete that just months afterward, novelist Mary McCarthy was dismissing Hiroshima as “a hole in human history.” Thirty years later, physicist Ralph Lapp, who worked on the bomb, asked: “If the memory of things is to deter, where is that memory? Hiroshima has been taken out of the American conscience--eviscerated, extirpated.”
But there is another reason, besides an approaching anniversary, that Hiroshima has special resonance right now.
Since last December, the Energy Department, prompted by an award-winning newspaper series, has released thousands of documents revealing shocking details about the U.S. government’s radiation experiments. Among other things, hospital patients were injected with plutonium without their permission, and radiation was deliberately released from nuclear plants. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary has promised a full investigation.
But why should we be surprised by a horror story related to our nearly 50-year experience with nuclear energy? Secrecy, reckless endangerment and death were there from the beginning--even before Hiroshima. While developing the bomb, the Manhattan Project simultaneously began hideous medical experiments on unsuspecting civilians. Thousands more also were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation while working on the project. When the bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert in July, 1945, project leaders feared that a radioactive cloud might sail over populated areas, but they rejected evacuation plans. (Fallout would indeed drift a hundred miles downwind.)
Experimentation and subterfuge have played a major role in America’s nuclear program ever since. For decades, this would have severe implications for workers in the nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries, for residents of communities adjoining those installations, for soldiers and civilians subjected to dangerous fallout from nuclear tests.
Rather than going too far, the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit doesn’t go quite far enough. To really convey the impact of the first atomic bomb, it should include another display, this one called America Ground Zero. There we’d find atomic soldiers and nuclear workers, medical guinea pigs and down-winders--the legacy of Hiroshima.