Sunday, August 07, 2005

60 years after Hiroshima, have we learned anything?

Today is the 60th anniversary of the day when the United States government dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare on the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima. By all accounts the day started as any other in the industrial city which was vital to the Japanese war effort. It was, after all, chosen as a target for its strategic significance.

At just before 8:15 AM an American B-29 named the Enola Gay took off from an airfield on a miniscule island named Tinian. A short time later it flew in over the city and dropped its entire payload, consisting of one 60 kg uranium-235 atomic bomb that was called Little Boy by the scientists that created it. The bomb detonated 600 feet above the ground a mere second later nearly 100,000 men, women and children were killed in the blink of an eye. Many of those who survived were burned so severely that they walked around in shock with not an inch of skin on their maimed bodies. In the days, weeks, months and years that followed that day in 1945 another nearly 60,000 people would die as a result of these burns and radiation sickness.

There is no way that Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew aboard the Enola Gay could have any clear understanding of the devastation their payload would unleash on the unsuspecting city below them. One must believe that if they had, the realization alone would have given them pause, if not stopped them outright. It is incomprehensible that any human, with the capacity to fathom the power of such a weapon, would willingly use it.

U.S. President Harry Truman was aboard a Navy battleship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean when he received word that the attack had been a success. The President was on his way back from Potsdam, Germany where trials were being conducted against Nazis for war crimes committed in the European theater. There is only a hint of irony that this man, who by all accounts was a good and decent man, was returning from a war crimes trial when he was notified that his own war crime had been a success.

Truman, too, could not have been able to comprehend the power of the weapon that he was having built. The scientist of the Manhattan Project holed up at Los Alamos Laboratory, alone, fathomed the power that they were unleashing. Many went into the project with the wide-eyed excitement of school boys working on a science project. It was not until they realized the potential that many, no most of them began to speak out against it. They alone knew that the weaponized potential of atomic energy was so unspeakably frightening that they wrote to everyone they could think of, from Generals to cabinet members to the President himself. No one listened.

The powers that be were so convinced that they needed to end the war quickly for numerous reasons that the ethical considerations should take a back seat. The army believed that it would cost 100,000 American lives to take Japan. This does not even take into account the Japanese lives. These numbers have been disputed over the years, but I am in no position to, so we will take it as fact. Even still, the ethical dilemma is almost painful.

Of course, as history will recall, three days later the U.S. dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. This time the bomb was named Fat Man. If the first bomb can be forgiven as a staggering lapse in ethical judgment, the second is absolutely, positively a crime against humanity. There are many reasons given for the need to use this bomb, but the obvious reason was the desire to end the war before the Soviets invaded Japan. If the Soviets were allowed to venture too far into the Asian theater then the western allies would have to share the spoils with Stalin. This was something that was unthinkable to Truman and his advisors. So, instead, the U.S. government sanctioned the killing of another 40,000 civilians in mere seconds.

I have no doubt that our leaders did what they felt was right. It is also clear that they could not fathom the destruction. There is no way they could. They did not see the scene on the ground in the aftermath. But we know what it looks like today. With this knowledge that these weapons destroy humanity in great big quantities at a time, it is mind boggling that our current administration would even joke about first strike use of nuclear weapons. No life is worth the use of these evil weapons. Not mine, not yours, no ones!

It is equally shocking, at a time when the Russian economy is lackluster at best, that our government would be stingy about fronting the money to ensure that remaining Soviet nuclear stockpiles are secured and kept out of the hands of sociopaths like Osama bin Laden and other terrorists who would consider using them against us or one of our allies.

Nuclear weapons are, in a word, evil. Nothing good has ever come from them and nothing ever will. Steps need to be taken to prevent proliferation. Iran and North Korea feel they need them as a deterrent against American aggression. This should tell us something about the way our country is perceived overseas. It is not sufficient to simply dismiss these countries as being lead by psychotic leaders. To be sure, Kim Jong Il and the hardliners in Iran are no teddy bears, but we will get much further by treating them with respect and welcoming them into the international community. Despite our differences, once they are brought out of their shells we will learn that we have far more in common then we do that divide us. Most importantly we will see that we are all humans, sharing this Earth together and that we must strive every day to ensure that the breakdown in humanity that occurred 60 years ago never occurs again.

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1 comment:

Eric the Papa said...

Interesting and a widely held view. I think one can understand the 1945 decisions if one puts in the context of a brutal total war. Saturation bombing of civilians had been going on since 1940. German and Japanese cities were being systematically flattened by massive bombing raids especially after 1943. In that context the A-bomb just seemed a more "efficient" way to do what was being done. The radiological aspect was poorly understood by military and political decision-makers.
Perhaps the best that can be said about the A-bombing of Japan in 1945 is that for sixty years the "lesson" has held...whether it will for the next 50 seems harder to believe.