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This Week in 'Nation' History: Hiroshima and the Roots of American Secrecy | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: Hiroshima and the Roots of American Secrecy


An allied correspondent stands in a sea of rubble in Hiroshima Sept. 8, 1945, a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was dropped by the US. (AP Photo/Stanley Troutman)

There is so much to mourn when we think of Hiroshima. Most importantly, as many as 80,000 Japanese civilians evaporated when the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy sixty-eight years ago this week. Fifty thousand later succumbed to radiation poisoning and other ailments. But we also mourn the end of whatever human innocence remained intact after the atrocities of the previous six years of war, not to mention the preceding tens of thousands. “With this bomb,” President Harry Truman announced, returning from Potsdam aboard the USS Augusta, “we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction.” That, too, should be—and in the pages of The Nation since 1945, has been—mourned.

Initially, The Nation’s response to Hiroshima echoed Truman’s justification for it as a necessary, and desirable, means of ending the Pacific war—one which saved Japanese and American lives. In an editorial in the first issue after August 6, then editor-in-chief Freda Kirchwey wrote:

From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000…was never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success; Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting. There is no answer to this argument.

Future Nation writers, as well as many historians, would disagree, as we’ll see below. But just days removed from the event itself, Kirchwey was understandably more concerned about planning for a drastically transformed future than doubting the official story—which would have been a difficult task anyway, given the scant information the Truman administration had provided about the decision to use the bomb. Kirchwey argued that there was only one way to safely and justly contain what Truman had called “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe”:

If we are to survive our new powers we must understand their full meaning. We shall have to move fast, both internationally and within each country. No longer can we afford a world organized to prevent aggression only if all of the great powers wish it to be prevented. No longer can we afford a social system which would permit private business, in the name of freedom, to control a source of energy capable of creating comfort and security for all the world’s people. This seems self-evident, and so it is. But it calls for changes so sweeping that only an immense effort of will and imagination can bring them about. A new conference of the nations must be assembled to set up a World Government, to which every state must surrender an important part of its sovereignty. In this World Government must be vested the final control over atomic energy. And within each nation the people must establish public ownership and social development of the revolutionary force was has thrust into their hands. This program will sound drastic only to people who have not yet grasped the meaning of the new discovery. It is not drastic. We face a choice between one world or none.

That fall, the Nation Associates—now the Nation Builders—hosted one of the first forums to discuss how atomic energy and weaponry had changed domestic and international political questions, as Sara Alpern records in her outstanding 1987 biography of Kirchwey. The British political theorist and Labor Party chairman Harold Laski, headlining the event, seconded Kirchwey’s argument, telling the crowd that only international socialism could protect humanity from destruction. “No one nation is fit to be trusted with the development of atomic energy,” Laski declared. “We must plan our civilization or we must perish.”

Several articles in the decade after 1945 explored the impact of the bomb on the ground—including a 1946 review of John Hersey’s seminal book Hiroshima and, in 1955, translations of excerpts from the recently published memoirs of several Japanese survivors. “There was a column of fire about ten yards ahead of me—a regular waterfall of fire—with terrific explosions like the sound of a thousand thunderclaps,” Yasuo Yamamoto wrote. “The screams of babies and women and the helpless calling for lost ones poured into my ears like water from a dam that has broken.”

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As the decades passed and the Cold War congealed into a seemingly perpetual state of nuclear standoff, Nation writers began to consider the ways in which so much of contemporary political thinking and behavior could be traced directly to Hiroshima. In 1981’s “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” the Pulitzer-winning historian and current Nation editorial board member Martin Sherwin wrote:

The American public’s sense of powerless before a monster its own government created and used may be the single most important reason behind the easy acceptance of the idea—so vigorously promoted by the Reagan Administration—that only nuclear superiority can guarantee our national security. Even here, the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is relevant, for it is of paramount importance to those who wish to rely increasingly upon nuclear weapons that these weapons not be tarnished with a sense of guilt that could inhibit their use as an instrument of diplomacy.

However, the least obvious impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be the most important: the subtle conversion of tens of millions if people over the course of thirty-six years of nuclear arms racing to the idea that nuclear war is inevitable. The button exists and someday someone will push it; nothing can prevent that. Technology has altered our confidence in free will.

Nation writers also began to reconsider whether the bombing needed to happen in the first place, and why it did. While Kirchwey saw the post-war diplomatic implications of the atomic bomb as secondary, though important, consequences, Sherwin—and many Nation writers since—have tended to view the impending power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as the primary motivation behind the bomb’s use, if not its design:

Truman inherited the basic policy that governed the atomic bomb, just as he inherited every other policy related to the war, a point that commentators on both sides of the debate often ignore. It was therefore possible to use the bomb only because Roosevelt had made preparations to do so. Truman was inclined to use the bomb because of those preparations. But he decided to use it because there seemed no good reason not to. On the contrary, the bombs were available and the Japanese fought on; the bombs were available and precedents of burned cities were numerous; the bombs were available and $2 billion had been spent to create them; the bombs were available and revenge had its claim; the bombs were available and the Soviet Union was claiming too much.

In 1995’s “The Atomic Curtain,” the psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton and current Nation blogger Greg Mitchell, co-authors of Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, found in the ultra-secretive creation of the bomb and in the deliberations over using it the origins of the same National Security State that today identifies as a top national priority the persecution of a 29-year-old former intelligence analyst for telling the American people what they have every right to know. “Hiroshima was the mother of all cover-ups,” they wrote, “creating distortions, manipulative procedures and patterns of concealment that have affected all of American life. Secrecy has been linked with national security—and vice versa—ever since.”

Starting with Hiroshima, officials advised Americans to leave all problems surrounding the bomb to political, scientific and military leaders—the nuclear priesthood. Americans were not supposed to think critically or engage in the debate over the gravest issue of our age. Over time, we became accustomed to bowing out of that discussion, and then of debates involving other major issues. We got used to putting the greatest problems, military and social, completely in the hands of experts and political leaders who claimed to have them under control—only to recognize in painful moments that they didn’t have them in hand at all. Surrendering our right to know more about Hiroshima, and later nuclear policies, contributed to our gradual alienation from the entire political process.

The message of the official Hiroshima narrative was control: controlling the story of Hiroshima, controlling nuclear weapons, controlling history. But the official narrative also increased ordinary Americans’ sense of being out of control of their own destiny, of being out of control of the forces that determine their future.

No wonder, then, that the American people have come to feel deceived by the bomb and its caretakers. We know that ominous truths have been concealed from us—starting with Hiroshima. One reason we remain confused is that part of each of us psychologically colludes in the concealment. But our resentment at what has been concealed and falsified does not necessarily limit itself to nuclear matters but can spread, vaguely and bitterly, into just about any aspect of social and national experience.

We have to ask ourselves, then, how much of our mistrust of politicians and public officials, of the media, of our government and just about all who govern us—how much of this angry cynicism so evident in our public life in recent years—is an outcome of the Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima nuclear deceptions and concealments. To what extent do we feel ourselves a people who have been unforgivably deceived in that most fundamental of human areas—having to with how, when and by whose hand, or lethal technology, we are to die?

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The Nation has long been concerned with more than exploring historical arguments or finding in the past the roots of present predicaments, however important that is. Our remarkable peace and disarmament correspondent, Jonathan Schell, has written extensively in The Nation about the necessity of universal nuclear disarmament and the prospects for achieving it. Perhaps his magnum opus on this subject was The Gift of Time, originally published as a special issue dated February 9, 1998, and later as a book. Schell interviewed fifteen major international experts and officials—including Robert McNamara and Mikhail Gorbachev—about the possibility of nuclear disarmament in a post–Cold War age:

The task is of course immense. But history has given us the gift of time—a limited time, perhaps, but enough to proceed, without haste, to scout the obstacles in our path, to weigh carefully and thoroughly the course to be followed, and then to create the structures that will carry us to the goal and keep us there. If we use the gift properly and rid the species for good of nuclear danger, we will secure the greatest of time’s gifts, assurance of a human future.

It was reported in yesterday’s New York Times that President Obama is unsure of what to speak with Vladimir Putin about if they do indeed meet next month. He may want to reread Schell’s essay, and start there.

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In 2010, we put together a slide show of excerpts from The Nation in the nuclear age. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

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