Stories are important. Stories frame events and help us interpret them. They provide a context within which we can understand and act in the world. Today I want to tell three brief stories concerning the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 and the continuing nuclear threat they created. These are stories of commemoration, normalization, and abolition.
The first story is about the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the real flesh and blood human beings who suffered grotesque injuries and agonizing deaths in early August 64 years ago. We should remember them and acknowledge their suffering. They are often reduced to abstractions and statistics.
John Hersey’s 1946 book, Hiroshima, first brought their story to the American people. Hersey’s vivid account of the experiences of six survivors of the Hiroshima bomb allows us to see the tidal wave of death and destruction that the first atomic weapon wrought, hear the agonized screams of the victims, and feel the horror and the fear that seized them that fateful day. Despite the documentary record concerning the effects of the attacks, Americans often avert their gaze from the horrible suffering that the two atomic bombs caused, fail to hear the cries of the survivors, and seal themselves off from the raw emotions these events provoke.
But we need to break through the denial and the psychic numbing, acknowledge the suffering of our Japanese brothers and sisters and commemorate the victims of the atomic bombs. For when we hear their stories and understand their pain we are moved to say “never again” and to work to prevent any future occurrence of nuclear war.
The second story is the story of official denial and political normalization of terror bombing. It is the story of how government agencies and the political culture in the United States during the human catastrophe of World War II gradually came to define the deliberate bombing of civilian populations as acceptable and normal.
Even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American officials had started to violate the longstanding and widely shared moral and legal norm of noncombatant immunity. Prior to the war there was international outrage over the bombing of innocent civilians at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and in China by the Japanese military. At the outset of World War II, President Roosevelt issued a plea to the belligerent nations not to target civilian populations. When the U.S. finally entered the war, the Army Air Corps was firmly committed only to the precision bombing of military and industrial targets and it disdained area or carpet bombing that targeted civilians and their morale. But gradually during the war, due to the perception of the morality of the war goals, technological momentum, and the elastic definition of military necessity, to say nothing of the strong emotions of anger and the desire for retribution, the U.S. began to engage in the deliberate bombing of cities. No bright line separates the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo in early 1945.
But the first use of the most destructive weapon in human history required a special narrative. At the outset there were some instances of literal denial. President Truman’s initial statement about the bombing called Hiroshima a “military camp” and U.S. officials refused for quite some time to acknowledge the deaths and injuries that occurred due to radioactive poisoning. Later Truman and his Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, engaged in what Stanley Cohen calls “interpretive denial,” telling a story that justified the tragic use of the atomic bomb as necessary to end the war quickly, avoid an invasion of Japan and save the lives of a million American soldiers. There is still considerable debate among historians about the validity of the claims in this account. Suffice it to say that many commentators do not believe that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb to end the war and that U.S. officials had other political motives for dropping the bomb related to the then emerging Cold War with Stalin and the Soviet Union.
The important point, however, is that within U.S. political culture and among the American people, this story, which justifies the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, has been widely accepted and is stubbornly resistant to any challenge. As a result, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the use of air power more generally that results in civilian casualties, has become normalized; that is, accepted and supported by cultural norms. The bomb has become so normalized that we still cling to it even though, after the Cold War, there is no specific avowed enemy that threatens us. Thus, as Jonathan Schell argues, the creation of nuclear weapons in 1945, and their current normalization, has “opened a wide, unobstructed pathway to the end of the world.”
This brings me to the third story. This is the story about the effort to abolish nuclear weapons and eliminate the nuclear threat. We do not know the end of this story, but we do know that it is a story in which all of us can participate. We can become abolitionists and join in the political struggle to eliminate these indefensible weapons. The postcards we are gathering tonight represent one small step in that struggle. But we must do more, much more in the coming years. We can start by commemorating the victims, hearing their story and acknowledging their suffering. We can challenge the official narrative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and attempt to disrupt the denial and negate the normalization of nuclear weapons. And we can find our own unique and personal ways to join with others in political movements and utilize our specific skills and knowledge to participate in the wondrous and hopeful story of nuclear abolition. A story that is, as Frida Berrigan noted recently, “64 years too late and not a moment too soon.”
Remarks presented by Dr. Ron Kramer, professor of sociology, Western Michigan University, at a Hiroshima Day Commemoration in Bronson Park, Kalamazoo, Michigan, August 6, 2009.