The nuclear past

January 19,2019

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Based on my book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, I often give talks in America about that unforgettable (or now often-too-forgettable) day when, for only the second time in history, human beings deemed it right to assault their own species with apocalyptic power. At these book talks, I’ve learned to be prepared for someone in the audience to say that the Japanese deserved what they got. It’s still hard to hear. At its ‘burst point’, the Nagasaki blast reached temperatures higher than at the center of the sun and the velocity of its shock wave exceeded the speed of sound. Within three seconds, the ground below had reached an estimated 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonized human and animal flesh and vaporized internal organs. Did the men, women, and children of Nagasaki really deserve that?

As the mushroom cloud rapidly ascended two miles over the city and eclipsed the sun, the bomb’s vertical blast pressure crushed much of the Urakami Valley. Horizontal blast winds tore through the region at two and a half times the speed of a Category 5 hurricane, pulverizing buildings, trees, animals, and thousands of people. The blazing heat twisted iron, disintegrated vegetation, ignited clothing, and melted human skin. Fires broke out across the city, burning thousands of civilians alive. And though no one knew it yet, larger doses of radiation than any human had ever received penetrated deeply into the bodies of people and animals.

“What about Pearl Harbor?” American supporters of the bomb write me, referring to the Japanese attack that began the Pacific War. “What about Japan’s atrocities in China?” a man screamed at me at a reading. “And,” veterans ask, “what about the Allied POWs who were tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers?”

Yes, I say to them. Yes, I understand your outrage, even so many decades later. I can fathom the courage of those who fought, the profound loss so many American families experienced during that long and costly war, and how desperately everyone wanted it to end.

But other truths exist as well. Japan did attack the United States and committed countless other military aggressions and horrific war crimes – and the United States bombed and incinerated all or parts of 66 Japanese cities, killing, maiming, or irradiating more than 668,000 civilians. In Nagasaki alone, by the end of 1945 when a first count was possible, 74,000 men, women, and children were dead. Of those, only 150 were military personnel. Seventy-five thousand more civilians were injured or irradiated. Today, this kind of indiscriminate killing and harm to civilians would be called ‘terrorism’.

Despite the history most Americans have learned – that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military necessities that ended World War II and saved a million American lives by obviating the need for an invasion of Japan’s home islands – there is no historical evidence that the Nagasaki bombing had any impact on Japan’s decision to surrender. What we aren’t taught are the political and military complexities of the last few months of the war or how, in the post-war years, our government crafted this end-of-war narrative to silence public opposition to the atomic bombings and build support for America’s fast-expanding nuclear weapons program. What many don’t realize is that this misleading version of history allows us to turn away from what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and continue to support the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons without ever having to think about what those weapons do.

Still, so many decades later, in a world in which the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from a key Cold War nuclear agreement with Russia and the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being modernized to the tune of up to $1.6 trillion, it’s worth recalling the other side of the story, the kind of suffering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings caused in August 1945 and long after.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Against Forgetting: Ground Zero Nagasaki’.



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