The lessons of Hiroshima for Americans today are not what you think

At 8:15 am on August 6th 1945 the first atomic weapon ever used on people was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The commemorations of this event this weekend will occur amidst a backdrop of regional tensions between the nuclear armed powers of the US and North Korea. On one hand a blustering North Korea keeps test firing missiles and threatening to strike the US. On the other hand Donald Trump (who has famously been credited with being confused as to why the US needs to be cautious about using nuclear weapons) openly discusses the possibility of a first-strike against North Korea being worth the risk — even if it results in hundreds of thousands of deaths — since it will occur ‘over there.’ As Senator Lindsey Graham recently said, “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And [Trump’s] told me that to my face,” Graham said. “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”

This position that the security of one nation is strengthened through the annihilation of thousands of civilian lives somewhere ‘over there,’ however, may not just be morally objectionable; it may also be just flat wrong. While Hiroshima is often brought up as an example of the use of overwhelming violence against civilians to secure the end of World War Two (and therefore an example of mass death ‘over there’ to secure security at home), there is substantial evidence that it was the Soviet Union’s entrance into the Pacific War that really caused Japan’s surrender. The current discussions in the US about starting a war ‘over there,’ however, reminded me of a different lesson that I learned when I visited Hiroshima about 10 years ago. Namely, that conducting a war ‘over there’ in the name of the security of one’s nation can boomerang back against the population that supports it. What follows is a short excerpt from a book I published in 2015 (available at the publisher’s page and Amazon and which has been reviewed a few places including here and here), but I am posting it here because I thought the narrative can still be useful for thinking through the current political situation.

… As early as May 1943 (long before D-Day in Europe) the United States had decided that the bomb that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima was going to be used not against Germany, but against the Japanese. The idea that the Japanese were selected for atomic bombing only because the Germans were already out of the war is a myth. Originally, the first atomic bomb was going to be dropped on Chuuk (Truk), a populated Micronesian island that was the anchorage for a large part of the Japanese fleet (demonstrating the oft-repeated American view of Micronesian islands and their native inhabitants as expendable). By the time the bomb was ready, however, much of the Japanese fleet had already been sunk at Chuuk through a conventional air attack in February 1944. Instead, Hiroshima was chosen as the site of the first atomic bomb exploded on people.

As I walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I was surprised by the first few displays. I expected them to be about life in Hiroshima before the bombing, but the focus was interesting for someone studying militarized places and environments. Having seen many accounts about the bombing of Hiroshima, I came into the museum with some knowledge of the horrors. I thought the first displays would portray the everyday lives of Hiroshima’s people and represent the city as a victim of a horrific attack against civilians. I was wrong.

The most noticeable thing about the pre-bombing displays is that they depict how Japanese militarism and nationalism had permeated the city. There are maps showing where various military barracks were located. There are pictures of the city’s populace celebrating in the streets after Japanese victories in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Particularly poignant is a photo of people joyously cheering the Japanese taking of Nanking, China, in late 1937. In the aftermath of the battle, known as “The Rape of Nanking,” Japanese soldiers raped large numbers of women and children and outright slaughtered an estimated two hundred thousand civilians over six weeks. The message in these displays is clear: Hiroshima was not a peaceful city before it was bombed. It was a cog in the Japanese military machine. It supported Japan’s aggressive wars both materially and spiritually.

The word that best describes the museum’s portrayal of the atomic bombing is “moment” because the museum emphasizes the instantaneous nature of the destruction. At the moment of 8:15 a.m. on August 6 everything that existed there melted all at once. In the first hall of the museum are dioramas of the city before and after 8:15 showing the complete destruction of almost all of the buildings in the city, while overhead a film runs on a loop of the bomb dropping from the plane, the bomb exploding, and the mushroom cloud rising above the city. Much of this film was shot from the American bomber that escorted the Enola Gay (a bomber that was, revealingly, named Necessary Evil). Connecting this moment of destruction to the continuation of the development of nuclear weapons, metal plaques affixed to the walls, etched in Japanese and English, reproduce telegrams the mayors of Hiroshima have sent in protest of every nuclear test conducted by the world’s nuclear powers since 1968.

Continuing this theme, upstairs from the first hall are displays focusing on the development of nuclear weapons since the bombing of Hiroshima. Descriptions of modern nuclear weapons systems demonstrate how much larger the current hydrogen bombs are than the fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In this room there is also a giant model globe with missiles protruding from it to show the numbers of nuclear warheads in the world. Nearby is a helpful graph showing that the United States and Russia each maintain close to ten thousand nuclear warheads. Other countries, including the UK, France, and China, are listed with their hundreds of weapons. The displays here also depict the history of nuclear testing, nuclear accidents, near accidents, and crises when there were threats of nuclear weapons being used.

The next part of the museum, however, is the hardest one to walk through. It is a view of the bombing from the scale of everyday life and a demonstration of what a nuclear bomb does to bodies. The museum re-creates the atmosphere of life in Hiroshima after the bomb struck. The low, reddish, lighting starts as you walk down a hallway dominated by pictures of the mushroom cloud taken from the ground from various vantage points around the city. Then the hallway opens into a series of smallish rooms. In the rooms are wax statues of children with flesh melting off their bodies as fires burn in broken buildings. Blocks of concrete show the silhouettes left behind when the bomb vaporized a person and the stone was scorched all around the crouching victim. The displays also include all sorts of watches stopped at 8:15. There are photos of people who had the pattern of their clothes burned into their flesh: darker colors absorbing the heat and scorching their designs into the backs of women. Artwork drawn by survivors adorns the walls: of burning bodies limply hanging over bridges as people died attempting to jump into the city’s rivers; of the skeleton of a family member left standing with the flesh burned off, captioned with the sorrowful regret that the artist was not there to attempt to save her (“I’m so sorry, it must have been very hot”). There are detailed descriptions and pictures of the various stages of radiation sickness: children with hair falling out, men with large purple sores around their necks.

There is also an emphasis on the bomb’s effects on children. There are narratives about children heroically saved from the firestorm only to bloat and die days later from radiation poisoning. There are details about Sadako Sasaki, who was one mile from the explosion at the age of two. Although she was growing up into an athletic young woman she developed leukemia at age twelve. Believing that if she folded one thousand paper cranes she would be cured, she started folding the cranes, and died. There are also displays of children’s possessions: a scorched lunch box opened to reveal the ashes of a meal packed for a boy’s lunch, a special shoe that — when found by the girl’s mother — was the only confirmation that the girl had been killed, a three-year-old’s burned and twisted tricycle that was buried with the child because her parents could not bear to think that their daughter would have nothing to play with after her death.

As tragic as the day of August 6, 1945, was in Hiroshima, we should remember that museum displays are as much about the present as about the past. What, then, is the message from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum? While the theme of “never again” is certainly prominent, there is another message here about militarism. As the displays at the front of the museum emphasize, the people of Hiroshima were supporters of a militarized society. This museum is a political message for the present, a not-so-subtle suggestion to Japanese visitors to resist the ongoing efforts to remilitarize Japan. To people from other parts of the world, particularly Americans, the message is not subtle either. The message is not, as some might assume, that Americans are inherently violent or owing apologies. Instead, the message reads something like this: We were once militarily strong; we used our might against others to benefit the military, the politicians, and their corporate appendages. One day our empire declined, as happens with all empires, and we reaped what we sowed. The violence we had so patriotically embraced when it was directed against others was turned back onto us. Then the mushroom cloud came and we were vaporized, burned, irradiated, broken.