Saturday, September 5, 2015

THE LEGACY OF THE HIROSHIMA MYTH

By Ronald T. Fox


NOTE: Part I (Scrutinizing the Hiroshima Myth and Legacy) and Part II (Why Did the U.S. Drop Atomic Bombs on Japan) of my three-part essay on Hiroshima examined distortions of truth surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These distortions formed a mythology about the bombings that has become deeply embedded in the collective American conscience. Part III, below, explores the legacy of the Hiroshima Myth.

Enduring American allegiance to the Hiroshima Myth—or, conversely, our collective failure to confront its truth—has had a profound impact on the United States, both at home and abroad. Perceiving the atomic bomb as a decisive war-winning weapon led most Americans to embrace it as the essential protector of our nation. To be safe, we needed to stockpile nuclear weapons and be prepared to use them, a belief that would spark a massive nuclear arms race in the ensuing decades. Accepting the Hiroshima Myth meant accepting nuclear weapons as a fact of national and international life.
 
The belief that the bomb killed thousands to save millions imparted a moral righteousness to the bomb that today translates into a collective American numbness to matters of mass destruction, even genocide. Almost anything is permissible if used to “save American lives.” This numbness, along with our belief in American exceptionalism and the decisiveness our military power, helps explain why the US is prone to deploying extensive force and using increasingly destructive weapons against perceived international enemies, however unthreatening they may appear to the reasoned mind.
 

Public opinion surveys taken shortly after the war revealed the overwhelming majority of Americans approved of the bomb’s use (85%), believed it ended the war, and accepted the official Hiroshima narrative as set forth in Henry Stimson’s article in Harpers magazine: the bomb’s use on military targets ended the war making an invasion of Japan unnecessary, thus saving thousands of lives; and, because the Japanese started the war, committed criminal acts, and mistreated American POWs they had forfeited any claim for mercy. To be sure, this approval derived from overwhelming joy at the war’s victorious ending, but also attests to the tremendous effectiveness of the Truman Administration’s propaganda campaign to justify use of the bomb on military as well as ethical grounds. Leading military and political figures in the bomb decision went to great lengths to emphasize the bomb’s essential role, hide its grotesque effects on people, and deny its revolutionary significance. A compliant media and opinion-molding industry transmitted the official narrative without questions.  Virtually all editorials endorsed the use of the bomb.
 
There were some contrary accounts, most notably John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, a moving account from ground zero, David Bradley's best-selling No Place to Hide, and essays that appeared in the Saturday Review by Lewis Mumford and Normal Cousins, that put a human face on the bomb’s devastation and touched on the lethal effects of nuclear radiation. These challenges to the carefully structured official story, however, failed to shake the strength of the Hiroshima Myth; the “good war” and “winning weapon” were embraced as unambiguously righteous.
 
Politicians fell in line with the sanitized version of Hiroshima. Only one president ever strayed from the official line: Dwight Eisenhower who wrote in his 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe that he had argued against the military use of the bomb. Later he more firmly and publicly criticized the use of those “awful things.”
 
It is my thesis that an inability or reluctance to confront the full truth of Hiroshima, and a failure to recognize that the atomic bomb had changed everything--that the very survival of mankind was now an issue--led to a fateful American embrace of nuclear weapons and an arms race with the Soviet Union that has drained our country economically, morally and spiritually. The bomb exacerbated Cold War fears, aggravated global tensions, and has spawned an acquisition dynamic that now finds nine nations in possession of nuclear weapons. Unstable Pakistan is now reported to have the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal; many worry that Iran will be next to join the nuclear club. We tremble at the thought of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear device.

Not all Americans believed the U.S. could maintain an atomic monopoly that would protect us into the foreseeable future. Several atomic scientists and government officials had doubts and advocated for the internationally control of atomic weapons. To rally Americans behind this idea, a number of scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project launched a campaign to educate the public about the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons.  They reasoned this would frighten people into rallying behind the idea of international control. Their insistent tales about apocalyptic destruction did resonate with the American people, but, as Eugene Rabinowitch, one of the touring scientists, later lamented in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editorial, they had left the American people only "half-educated": while the lesson of the bomb's awesome power had been learned, the lesson of the value of international control and cooperation had not.  Rabinowitch concluded that the scientists' effort had been worse than a failure: by drumming into the public consciousness the bomb's irresistible power, they encouraged the very reliance on atomic weapons they had hoped to avoid.

Meanwhile a fear of communism was spreading throughout the U.S., especially after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949.  According to Paul Boyer, in By the Bomb's Early Light, the strong emotions the scientists had stirred in their scare campaign created fertile psychological soil for an all-out crusade against the growing communist menace.  When fear of the bomb married the fear of communism, nuclear weapons gained deified status in the U.S. The atomic bomb became central to American society, around which everything else revolved. And, if we were to have atomic bombs, we had to have the biggest and best: the idea of nuclear supremacy was born.
 
Still many Americans felt a foreboding about a possible—or even likely--apocalyptic future. Opinion molders tried to soothe public anxiety about atomic bombs and its hazards, particularly the danger of radiation, with reassuring TV ads, the “duck-and-cover” campaign, and positive messages about the peaceful uses of atomic energy, but visions of a nuclear finale remained in the public consciousness. Many of the same Americans who endorsed the use of the bomb, and later embraced it, felt it would ultimately destroy the world. This reflected the seemingly contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has disturbed and confused Americans ever since.
 
In America, secrecy, concealment, and falsifications that surrounded the Hiroshima narrative, and the profound fear of being a victim of mass destruction--perhaps of the utmost—has led to the creation of an all-powerful and encompassing national security state. All post-Hiroshima presidents have resisted open debate about national security and have sought to control the dissemination of information about security matters. The purpose of such control has always been to retain the military prerogative without public constraint. Since Hiroshima, a small group of relatively isolated individuals has made enormously consequential decisions in secret, then afterwards concealed from the public the real reasons for, and the nature and consequences of, their decisions.

Secrecy and concealment have not only become institutionally entrenched, manifested in a myriad of cover-ups of misdeeds (Hiroshima was the mother of all cover-ups), but has invaded individual American psyches. Evoking “national security” is like a muzzle; Americans generally don’t question actions taken in the name of national security. We have become accustomed to putting our gravest security problems completely in the hands of so-called “experts” and political leaders who always claim to have things under control—only to recognize later that they really don't. The dissident who questions actions taken in the name of national security, or reveals concealed “secrets,” runs the risk of ridicule, physical attack, and even imprisonment.
 
It may not be too far a stretch to say that the rising mistrust of Americans for politicians, governing officials, and government in general, and much of the angry cynicism so evident in our current public life, is an outcome of the Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima nuclear deceptions and concealment of truth.
 
With new historical revelations raising serious questions about the truthfulness of the official Hiroshima narrative, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1995 used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II to plan an exhibit that would offer visitors much more than the usual decennial triumphant celebration.  lts curators and consulting historians wanted to provide a thought-provoking exhibit about the development of the bomb, the debate--then and now--over its use, and its legacy. Smithsonian officials also wanted to put a Japanese face on the exhibit by displaying some artifacts from the flattened Hiroshima.  They hoped the exhibition would promote a national dialogue.
 
It wasn’t to be. When word leaked out about the project, the Smithsonian curators were bombarded with protests from veteran groups, pro-military organizations, conservatives, and many Americans unflinchingly proud of their country’s victory in the Good War. Editorials were almost uniformly hostile to the Smithsonian. Voicing outrage, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution which while condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive” reiterated the Hiroshima Myth that use of the bomb brought a merciful end to the war, saving both American and Japanese lives. Attempts by historians and supporters to defend the planned exhibit were to no avail. The Smithsonian ended up cancelling the full-picture exhibit and in the end displayed little more than the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb.
 
Such is the tenacity of the official Hiroshima narrative. After all these years it still touches raw emotions. To many Americans, challenging its truthfulness is like desecrating the flag; it's not something to tread on.  
 
While psychologically numbing Americans to mass killings, making such actions easier to contemplate and tolerate, the Hiroshima Myth has also inculcated a sense of futurelessness in the psyches of our citizens. Since nuclear weapons, most now far more powerful than Little Boy and Fat Man, could end life on earth as we know it; why, then, should people think about, or plan for, the future? And, why worry about one’s transgressions in the now? Hiroshima made it clear that while our new weaponry endangers particular human populations, it more ominously poses a threat to the overall human habitat--the earth. Even if nuclear weapons are never used again, our awareness of that possibility has shaken our confidence in the quality of “eternal nature.” Early 1980's revelations about the possibility of a continuous “nuclear winter” underscored this fear. Nuclear weapons pose the ultimate environmental danger.
 
So here we are 70 years later as far as ever away from a rejection of the idea of dropping atomic bombs on Japan’s civilian population brought a merciful end to a bloody war. (How “merciful” was it when the number of civilians instantly killed by the two bombs was more than twice the number of our troops killed during the entire Pacific War, not counting the thousands of Japanese who would die from the effects of radiation.) After all, Hiroshima was destroyed at the end of a war against an evil empire by a country that had been victimized by a surprise attack and numerous wartime atrocities (Okinawa and Bataan, for example). Few Americans see any reason to revisit the atomic bomb decision.
 
Belief in American virtue and exceptionalism (Truman thanked God for giving the decisive weapon to us), and pride in our scientific achievement in creating and improving on the bomb has fostered an admiration, and for some a complete devotion, to nuclear weapons. This enthrallment, which has continued despite the end of the Cold War, has blocked out reflection on past wars, and, for many, future dangers. Under these circumstances, self-condemnation for Hiroshima is out of the question. The Japanese prime minister has apologized for the horrors his country visited upon the United States; don’t hold your breath for an American president to do the same.
 
Our entrapment by the Hiroshima Myth has, I believe, taken a heavy toll on the America for which we are supposed to stand: an America based on democratic accountability, liberty, justice, ethical conduct, the rule of law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes; an America where its leaders speak forthrightly to its people; an America with a capacity for empathy and compassion. Until we confront the Hiroshima Myth, we will never acknowledge that nuclear weapons can never be used again, never be able to seriously lead a movement to establish a nuclear-free world, and never wean ourselves from our habit of using force as a first, rather than a last resort. We can also never fulfill the promise of our founding ideals.
 
The words of Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell ring truer today than they did 20 years ago when they published their book Hiroshima in America:
 
"Confronting Hiroshima can be a powerful source of renewal. It can enable us to emerge from nuclear entrapment and rediscover our imaginative capacities on behalf of human good. We can overcome our moral inversion and cease to justify weapons or actions of mass killings. We can condemn and step back from acts of desecration and recognize what Camus called a “philosophy of limits.” In that way we can also take steps to cease betraying ourselves, cease harming and deceiving our own people. We can also free our society from its apocalyptic concealment, and in the process enlarge our vision. We can break out of our long-standing numbing in the vitalization endeavor of learning, or relearning, to feel. And we can divest ourselves of a debilitating sense of futurelessness and once more feel bonded to past and future generations."









































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