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How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

This Part II discussion of the atomic bombing of Japan was to be submitted to the Tidings on Sept. 9, but the Almeda Fire forced us to evacuate from Talent. Nine days later we returned to witness the massive devastation. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of what happened at Hiroshima in 1945.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a devastating economic collapse, and powerful anti-racist protests have sparked a long overdue examination of our society and its past. But no such critical examination of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has occurred. A powerful government elite aided by corporate media have put forth propaganda about what happened and why — bought by most citizens, politicians, and media pundits.

Historian Paul Ham asserts that this official propaganda has prevailed despite its “grotesque fiction” justifying the attacks, because the atomic bombs allegedly ended the war and spared millions of American lives. This fiction was created in response to the “mounting ethical objections to its use” by writers and religious leaders, who, beginning in August 1945, began to question the justice of what happened. Historians Gar Alperovitz and Martin Sherwin have disputed the prevailing view, asserting that “the overwhelming historical evidence” from American and Japanese archives reveal that the Japan would have surrendered that August, even if there had been no atomic attacks — and documents exist that prove President Truman and his closest advisors knew it.

After the bombing, Commonweal, the Catholic journal, stated that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were names for American guilt and shame. It lamented that there been so little public protest in the nation over the attacks, that many Americans had simply accepted what happened. A March 1946 report of the Protestant Federal Council of Churches stated that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “morally indefensible” because they resulted in “the indiscriminate slaughter” of civilians. The Council concluded that Americans had “sinned against God and the people of Japan.”

Two influential articles also challenged the atomic bombing: Norman Cousins’ commentary in Saturday Review of Literature (August 1945) and John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” in the New Yorker (February 1946). Cousins asked whether “we as a people [had] any sense of responsibility for the crime of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” He called for a national halt to all normal habits and routine, so that citizens might become truly informed about the moral implications of the bombings and the atomic age.

Hersey’s “Hiroshima” New Yorker issue sold out on the newsstands, and it was later broadcast on ABC radio. Albert Einstein wanted one thousand copies for members of his Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. Hersey believed correctly that the U.S. War Department covered up the human suffering of the atomic bombs, particularly their radiation effects. The military controlled access to the bomb sites, and asked American media to limit information. When reports of widespread suffering from radiation emerged, they were downplayed as propaganda. Hersey pointed out that reporters either “toed the line” for the war effort or moved on to other stories. Scholar Lesley Blume states that the government spin and suppressed reporting had the desired effect: protests and alarm were kept to a manageable level.

Cousins and Hersey forced a reaction from pro-bomb authorities such as James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, who oversaw the Manhattan Project that developed the bombs. Conant urged former Secretary of War Stimson to respond with an article in Harper’s magazine (Feb. 1947) — ghost-written by McGeorge Bundy. Bundy-Stimson asserted that the bomb alone had ended the war, but said nothing about the Soviet Union’s crushing defeat of Japanese troops in Manchuria as key factor in Japan’s surrender. In effect, the atomic bomb was the first act of the Cold War. In May 1945, President Truman had written in his diary that it would be America’s “master card” in dealing with the Soviets.

Historians have exposed the “grotesque fiction” about the atomic attacks, challenging the elite and their corporate media helpers who have helped to disable citizens’ critical understanding and fundamental right to know the facts. The current protests against racism should teach us that falsehoods are essential to U.S. history, fostered by this self-interested elite. Our most important task, therefore, is the struggle for an accurate memory and explanation of important historical events, such as the atomic attacks on Japan. Whose views will ultimately prevail? Those of informed citizens or the powerful that fear such citizens? How we respond to this question will determine whether we accurately assess what happened in August 1945.

John Marciano lives in Talent.