Hiroshima and Me

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

As another August 6th approaches, let me tell you a little story about Hiroshima and me:

As a young man, I was probably not completely atypical in having the Bomb (the 1950s was a great time for capitalizing what was important) on my brain, and not just while I was ducking under my school desk as sirens howled their nuclear warnings outside. Like many people my age, I dreamed about the bomb, too. I could, in those nightmares, feel its searing heat, watch a mushroom cloud rise on some distant horizon, or find myself in some devastated landscape I had never come close to experiencing (except perhaps in sci-fi novels).

Of course, my dreams were nothing compared to those of America's top strategists who, in secret National Security Council documents of the early 1950s, descended into the charnel house of future 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 an American "blow" that might result in the "complete destruction" of the Soviet Union.

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And they were pikers compared to the top military brass who, in 1960, found themselves arguing over the country's first Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear strategy. In it, a scenario was laid out for delivering more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would, if all went well, cease to exist. Official, if classified, estimates of possible casualties from such an attack -- and by then, nuclear weaponry and its delivery systems had grown far more powerful -- ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (and this probably underestimated radiation effects).

From the National Security Council and the Pentagon to a teenager's nightmares, an American obsession with global annihilation undoubtedly peaked when President Kennedy came on the air on October 22, 1962, to tell us that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with "a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere." Listening to his address, Americans everywhere imagined a nuclear confrontation that could leave parts of the country in ruins. Nuclear fears, however, began to fade (even as the superpower arsenals grew) when the Cuban Missile Crisis was defused and, along with atomic tests, went underground after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963. Then, of course, the Vietnam War seemed to swallow the world.

In 1979, after the reactor core of a nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania partially melted down, the bomb returned to me in an odd way. Then a book editor, I went out to lunch with a potential author who had been on one of the investigatory panels created by the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island which Jimmy Carter had set up. She told me of a Japanese journalist who testified before her panel. He had interviewed the mothers of young children and pregnant women belatedly evacuated from the potential danger zone to an iceless ice rink in the state capital, Harrisburg. None of them had heard of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This so startled me that I decided to search for a book to publish on what had happened on those August days in 1945 when two Japanese cities were wiped out by a new weapon and the nuclear age began. With the help of a historian and friend, I finally came across a Japanese book of images drawn by Hiroshima survivors, few of them artists, sometimes with school materials borrowed from their own grandchildren. Each drawing caught a moment experienced on that terrible day when Hiroshima was wiped out and was accompanied by a little personal description. Many of images were in pastels, or even crayon, and looked invitingly sprightly until you read the horrific accounts that accompanied them. The book was called Unforgettable Fire and it played a small role in the massive anti-nuclear movement that arose in those years. Unfortunately -- and this tells us something -- it's now long out of print.

A couple of years later, I was invited by Japanese publishers to visit their country. Only on arriving did I discover that the man who had shepherded Unforgettable Fire to publication -- and who was surprised to discover that an American editor wanted to publish it in translation -- planned to take me to Hiroshima.

As a former atomic dreamer, who now knew a good deal about the history of the dropping of the bomb, and was, above all, the editor of possibly the only mainstream visual record in the U.S. of what had happened under that mushroom cloud, I was touched by the gesture, but somewhat bored by the idea. After all, Japan was then dazzling. It was the era of "Japan as Number One" mania and there was so much to see in a few brief days -- and I, of course, knew pretty much what there was to be known about the experience of the first A-bombing. That's just how plain dumb I was.

The trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with its caramelized children's lunchbox and permanently imprinted human shadows was, to say the least, unspeakably horrifying. In fact, it left me literally speechless, so much so that, although I returned to New York babbling about Japan, I found, for a long time, I couldn't talk about what I had seen in Hiroshima.

And that, mind you, was only the museum, which means it was next to nothing compared to what actually happened that long ago day. When American strategists in the 1950s confidently began, in Herman Kahn's famous phrase, "thinking the unthinkable," they, too, undoubtedly had no idea what they were incapable of imagining. By and large, they still don't. As TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan points out, the weapons that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the equivalent of BBs compared to what's now in the major nuclear arsenals on this planet. So sweet dreams this Hiroshima Day.