As I write this, late on August 6th, 2007, it is already a day later in Japan. Sixty two years ago the people of Hiroshima, those who survived, were stunned and in agony. Nagasaki, the old Christian center in Japan, still stood, three days would pass before it, too, melted in an instant of fire.
That summer, on that day, I was at a Baptist youth camp near Los Angeles. Word of the bombing reached us and I knew what it was from an item that had been carried some time earlier in the old "Ripley’s Believe It or Not" which had reported that, "believe it or not" a weapon is being devised, based on uranium, that is so powerful than one pound of it would destroy an entire city.
However knowing what it was, and understanding it, were two very different things. I was not yet seventeen and, like almost all the youth in the United States (or in Japan or Germany or the Soviet Union) I was totally committed to my own country, and to the war in which it was engaged. I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Hawaii, so the date of December 7th, 1941, was not abstract but immediate. And in the case of Hiroshima there was also a special link - my father. Lt. Col. Charles McReynolds - had been with the B-29 command from its beginnings, and had been assigned as an Army Air Force Intelligence Officer to CBI (China/Burma/India). He had flown on the first bombing run of the B-29, over Bangkok. (And as he wrote us, he had chalked the names of each of us three children on bombs that were dropped there). Only those of us who were children at that time can understand the "totalitarian" spirit loose in the lands of war. It is a tribute to the sense of what America is (and Great Britain) that pacifists were tolerated, jailed, but not executed. (And because that war was special - Hitler was not the Kaiser - even those who refused to join in the hymns to war also did not organize a resistance to it).
By 1951 I had become a socialist and a pacifist and finally, six years after the events of that August, understood what Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant. Let us clear up at once the notion that those two bombings were a unique barbarism. The allies had already laid waste to Dresden, a non-military German target, destroying it by fire. And the US had, in one night of fire-bombing, killed more people in Tokyo than were to die in Hiroshima. Rather, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the coda for the vast incomprehensible barbarism of World War II.
When that war began, before Hitler had launched the ultimate pogrom against the Jews, and before the US had been drawn into the conflict, the world was stunned at Hitler’s bombing of Rotterdam, in Holland. Rotterdam had been declared an "open city", which meant it was not a military target, and would offer no defense. When the Nazis launched heavy air attacks on the city it was considered an attack unique in modern history. Yet, modern war being what it is, the Allies proceeded, step by step, to make Hitler’s crimes seem mundane. (Except for the Holocaust, in which twelve million people were exterminated because they were Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, or simply old and sick).
The descent to barbarism had begun with Rotterdam. It ended with Dresden and then with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever moral difference had existed when the war began were erased by its end. The victors had been morally conquered by the enemy.
Let me pause for a moment to deal with why the bombs were used, since Americans have been very reluctant to confront this, despite substantial evidence that the bombs were not needed. We have been told that the sad choice of nuclear bombs saved perhaps a million lives - our own men and the Japanese who would have died in a final conflict for Japan. Certainly the Japanese troops were absolutely fierce in battle. (I’d recommend the remarkable film by Clint Eastwood - Letters From Iwo Jima - in which the epic battle for that island is shot entirely from the Japanese point of view, with English subtitles). But the Japanese leadership knew they had lost the war. At least two, and I believe three, "feelers" were put out by the Japanese government to find the terms of surrender. One went via Moscow and may not have been delivered to the US, since the Soviets planned to enter the war at the last minute ( as they did). I have heard some argue that the Japanese made impossible demands. The fact is they were asking what the terms would be, and were concerned that the person of the Emperor not be touched (something the US granted after the surrender).
My father, whose job was to study the photographic evidence from aerial reconnaissance, told me shortly after he returned home from the war, that he was convinced the nuclear weapons did not need to be used - that while the air war against Germany had not achieved its aims, in the case of Japan it had. Rail lines were broken, ports closed, transport at a virtual standstill. This view was advanced by others in the US military at the time, and they expressed greater reservations about the bombing than the US political leadership. Why then, were these bombs used? One reason was clear - a shot across the bow of the Soviet Union. We were then allies with the USSR, but those who made US policy sensed a coming conflict and thought it wise to let the Soviets know where the US stood.
And the other reason was simply because we had the weapons and wanted to test them. There is something childlike about men, even in matters of war. Would Congress ever have forgiven President Truman if it discovered that a weapon developed at enormous expense had not been used?
What made Hiroshima and Nagasaki so urgent, a message sent by nuclear post, was that either war was over, or the human race was. Wars have continued, but not since 1945 has there been a conflagration such as World War II. (Though not because that notion did not have strong support among some intellectuals in the West who, having so little sense of what war really was, could rally around the cowardly slogan "Better Dead Than Red").
I have been to Hiroshima more than once in the years since 1945, to stand there in the peace park, to wait for the exact second when the bomb when off. The world owes a special debt to the Japanese peace movement which has never let us forget, which has reached out, year after year, to remind us of what nuclear weapons really mean. While US political leaders - in collaboration with the worst part of the Japanese political establishment - has pressed Japan to end the "Article Nine" of its constitution, which forbids Japan from making war, the peace movement there, from the grass roots on up, has resisted. Both the Socialists and the Communists in Japan have rejected the idea that "in the right hands" a nuclear weapon might be a good thing.
We have seen other nations acquire these weapons - Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa (briefly - the only nation thus far to test a nuclear weapon and then discard the program) - and still other nations hunger for them. But the non-nuclear wars we have seen since 1945 - particularly the US attack on Indochina in which over three million people lost their lives in Vietnam alone, or the current US and British attack on Iraq which has destroyed a nation - remind us of the fact that even the most "conventional" wars can destroy nations.
The danger is always there that nuclear powers will be tempted, in a time of tension, to attempt a first strike (are there any among us who have not seen Dr. Strangelove?). The lesson from the ruins of those two cities destroyed in the middle of the last century is not that nuclear weapons must be banned (though indeed they should be!) but that it is war as an institution which must be dismantled, and alternative means found to resolve the deepest conflicts between nations. Until that lesson is learned, the terrible pain of those days in a distant August will lack meaning.