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Tomgram: Christian Appy, America's Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 Years Later

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here."href="http:>

""So many decades later, it's hard to remember the kind of nuclear thinking top American officials engaged in during the Cold War. In secret National Security Council documents of the early 1950s, for instance, the country's top strategists descended willingly into the charnel house of futuristic history, imagining life on this planet as an eternal potential holocaust. They wrote in those documents of the possibility that 100 atomic bombs, landing on targets in the United States, might kill or injure 22 million Americans and of a "blow" that might result in the "complete destruction" of the Soviet Union.

And they weren't just whistling Dixie. After all, in 1960, the top military brass found themselves arguing about the country's first Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war. In it, a scenario was laid out for delivering more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world. Targets included at least 130 cities, which, if all went well, would cease to exist. Classified estimates of possible casualties from such an attack ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured. That's what "the complete destruction" of the Soviet Union and Communist China meant then and, until Dr. Strangelove hit the screens in 1964, those figures were simply part of the sort of "rational" war planning that led to perfectly serious debate about launching a "preemptive strike" -- what, if another country were considering it, would have been a "war of aggression" -- to eradicate that enemy. To give credit where it's due, Army and Navy officials did worry "about the lethal impact of downwind fallout, with the Army explicitly concerned about limiting exposure of 'friendly forces and people' to radioactive fallout. By contrast, the Air Force saw no need for additional constraints [on surface nuclear blasts]."

It's this world that we "celebrate," having now reached the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). Today, we know that delivering so many nuclear weapons (or, in fact, many less) would have done a lot more than wipe out the "Communist world." It would have plunged the planet into nuclear winter and undoubtedly eradicated humanity as definitively as the dinosaurs were wiped out by that asteroid 65 million years ago.

Apocalypse was -- and remains -- us. After all, despite the recent nuclear agreement that will stop a country without nuclear weapons from building them, this planet is still loaded with a world-ending arsenal that is constantly being expanded, updated, and modernized. Call us lucky, but don't call us particularly thoughtful. Today, Christian Appy, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, considers the way in which -- except in rare moments when antinuclear movements gained brief strength here -- Americans managed to ignore how this country's leaders ushered us into the nuclear age by annihilating not one but two cities and killing hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians. Tom

Our "Merciful" Ending to the "Good War"
Or How Patriotism Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry
By Christian Appy

"Never, never waste a minute on regret. It's a waste of time."

-- President Harry Truman

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Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I'm wondering if we've come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world's only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of "Little Boy" and "Fat Man," those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the "black rain" that spread radiation and killed even more people -- slowly and painfully -- leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?

Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear "modernization" in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I've been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: "Love," says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, "means never having to say you're sorry." It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.

It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you're sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, "I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don't care what the facts are."

It turns out, however, that Bush's version of American remorselessness isn't quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it's still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it's time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons -- the argument in their defense -- that ensured we would never have to say we're sorry.

The Hiroshima Apologia

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On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. "The world will note," he said, "that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.

Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a "military base," then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon's power and so selected the "virgin targets" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could "show its strength" to the fullest. According to Stimson's diary, Truman "laughed and said he understood."

The president soon dropped the "military base" justification. After all, despite Washington's effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. "We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor," he said, "against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans."

By 1945, most Americans didn't care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan's war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of "yellow peril" racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of "savages" -- "ruthless, merciless, and fanatic" people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true "civilians" and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America's willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William "Bull" Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, "The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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