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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hiroshima, a book that helped prevent nuclear war

by Jamie Lutton

As I was thinking about which nonfiction books that I have read to review for this column, I  keep coming back to the book Hiroshima,  by John Hersey. This book   was first published complete in the July 15, 1946  issue of the New Yorker magazine, then expanded a few years later. It is a collection of six interviews of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

The interviews cover their recollections of the day of the bombing, the immediate aftermath, and the weeks that followed.

John Hersey was an American, he had been an Allied war correspondent for several years in both Europe and in the Pacific. He had access and could interview the Japanese survivors of this  bomb right after the American occupation of Japan. When he was commissioned by the editor of the New Yorker to do a series of pieces interviewing survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, he was the first journalist from America to do so.

He interviewed many Japanese who had been in the city who had witnessed and survived the bombing. The group of six people he chose was heterogeneous,  one   of which were 'foreign national' living in this city; a German priest, and one a Christian, a Methodist. who had been educated in the United States who spoke 'excellent English'..
 
Two doctors, a tailor's widow who was a mother with two kids, and a young female clerk were the others.. No soldiers, sailors or government officials; the survivors in this book were harmless, ordinary people, four of them in the 'helping' professions.  by choosing to include two doctors, Hershey gives the reader the immediacy of seeing through these doctor's eyes those wounded, maimed and dying from the bomb..

These six residents of Hiroshima were very lucky. It is estimated that 135,000 people died in the atomic explosion that day. Some instantly, some from   hideous third-degree burns from the blast, or radiation  sickness in the  days that followed, which caused repeated vomiting, hair loss and eventual death. Four square miles in the center of the city was completely destroyed, while many, many others who survived the initial blast were sick for years later, with hibakusha, or 'bomb sickness' - weakness, dizziness, and digestive issues, as well as leukemia and other cancers killing many, years later.   Five of the six survivors in this book had some bad injuries from the blast; the clerk had one leg nearly crushed and nearly destroyed.

Most of the survivors were viewed with suspicion by other Japanese, endured prejudice in hiring and marrying, and were seen as 'undesirable' people; even their children were treated like 'undesirable people'.  Many survivors would hide the fact that they had been in Hiroshima, and lived through the blast. Only after several decades,  when most survivors have died, did the survivors get better treatment from the Japanese government, and given stipends to live on.

I grew up in the other shadow of the bombing of Japan. Most of my childhood was spent in Richland, Washington. The Hanford Nuclear facility, or 'area' as it was called, was close by. My Dad worked as an inorganic chemist there, specializing in running a sodium cooled plutonium reactor, the Fast Flux Treatment Facility.. The  local industry in Richland had been making  plutonium based atomic bombs for the American military through  the mid 1940's and the 1950's (then gradually switching to domestic nuclear power plants).

Hanford had made the Nagasaki bomb that was dropped on Japan, a plutonium bomb dropped  four days after the Hiroshima bomb.

The local high school I went to, Columbia (now Richland) High's sports teams, their football and basketball teams are called 'The Bombers' (still are,to this day); and the insignia on the sport gear, the t-shirts and sweatshirts show a mushroom cloud on them.
 
So as I grew up in Richland, it was a matter of bragging and pride in my hometown that we had built one of the bombs that was dropped on Japan.  And the stories I head from my dad about the war in the Pacific are part of my perception this action. Dad told me that he had been in the Marines in 1945, a young man of 19, drafted, and was going to be to be in the invasion of Japan..  From previous battles with the Japanese, it was known they would fight fiercely, street by street, to the bitter end. My Dad told me several times that he was dreading the invasion of Japan, and knew he would possibly, even probably die.  

He always figured that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan saved his life. 

Some WW II veterans who are historians like Paul Fussell also praised the bombing of Japan, He pointed out in his essay Thank God for the Atomic Bomb that the use of atomic bombs shortened the war by weeks or months, and saved lives on both sides. According to Fussell,10,000 people, civilians and solders,  were dying every day in mainland China alone in that summer. So  I have been exposed to many points of view, both negative and positive, on the use of the bomb on Japan.

The lessons that I take from Hiroshima, from living in Richland, from my Dad's stories, and even from Fussell is that ordinary people, like these six people and people like my Dad, are in grave peril when war breaks out.

But, it has come full circle with the atomic bomb.

It has been centuries in the Westsince we lived in a world where our leaders were at the same risk in wars as the man in the street. This era  ended  in the 1480's in  England,when the last king,  Richard the Third, died leading an army in the field defending his crown.  For centuries now ordinary men and women who fight  in armies or as hapless civilians behind 'enemy lines',  while the men who start vicious wars  are safe at home, directing the fighting.
But the atomic age changed this.

I have a gut feeling that this book was read in the Kremlin by Stalin's advisers in the early 1950's, and by Mao's advisers in China, and by other world leaders who acquired their own atomic bombs.

When General MacArthur wanted to drop the bomb on North Korea,President Truman, who had authorized the first use of atomic bombs, forbade it. Truman had gotten reports from Japan,and did not want to use such a horrible  weapon again..   I do think that despite the bellicose Cold War that lasted from 1946 to 1989 (and some thereafter) this little book may have delayed the a nuclear World War lll. These leaders and others must have drawn the rational conclusion  that not only would nuclear war be horrific, that also there was nowhere to hide from atomic bombs. Any and every leader now could be wiped a atomic bomb from the sky, or smuggled into their country.
   
This book was, in those years after the war a huge best seller.. Banned for years in Japan, while it was occupied by the United States  it   was printed as a book only two months after it was published in the New Yorker, and revised as John Hersey went back and interviewed these six survivors again. 
 
It has never been out of print.

Just as  the novel by Harriet Beecher  Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin,  is credited with  helping start the American Civil War, I do think the six survivors testimony in Hiroshima prevented a nuclear World War III. 

The world has not yet found its way to world peace. There is still dreadful threats on all sides from religious strife to economic and political upheavals.  But I do recommend that everyone read Hiroshima.  This gripping testimony of six eyewitnesses to nuclear warfare, and the pitiful, horrifying  aftermath should not be missed. Those 135,000 civilians should not be forgotten, or died in vain.

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