When the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, two-year-old Sadako Sasaki was at home with her family. Unlike tens of thousands of others, she was fortunate enough to survive the immediate blast of the 15-kiloton Uranium-235 bomb.
But the young, athletic girl who liked to run could not escape the grim reality of what it meant to live through an atomic blast. Nine years later Sadako would contract leukemia, dying a year later in a Hiroshima hospital at the age of 12. In death she joined the legions of the hibakusha, the Japanese term for the victims of radiation poisoning.
An estimated 140,000 people died as a result of the Hiroshima blast, tens of thousands of them instantly or within the next few months and almost all of them noncombatants and children. Three days later at Nagasaki, another bomb was dropped, killing thousands more. Eventually over 200,000 people would die as a result of the attacks, either during the bombings or later from illness. By any objective measure the nuclear attacks by the U.S. military constitute the largest acts of mass murder in the history of the world.
They also constitute acts shrouded in lies. At the time President Truman told Americans the targets were military sites. It was necessary to use the bombs to force Japan’s surrender, he declared. The public was also told-falsely-that leaflets were dropped prior to the bombings warning people to leave. Later, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson claimed that the atom bomb saved the United States from an invasion of Japan that might have cost a million American casualties.
But U.S. official McGeorge Brundy came up with the million figure, based on nothing, as he later acknowledged. Consider only the assessment of Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1945, who years later wrote: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” The admiral compared the use of the bombs to adoption of “an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”
The Age of ‘Collateral Damage’…
Truman indeed knew Japan’s surrender was imminent, according to now declassified records. But if nuclear weapons were unnecessary to end the war, they did send a forceful global message about which country would dominate the post-war era. Truman did not intend for it to be the Soviet Union. And so the dead and victimized of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only the last casualties of World War II, but also the first casualties of the Cold War.
Dark ages indeed. In our world the deliberate slaughter of civilians in war is very much the norm. The atrocities of the Nazis and Japanese militarists are well known, but less so was the intentional targeting by Britain’s air force of the concentrated worker housing of Hamburg, Germany. Ignoring the factories and U-boat construction yards south of the Elbe, British bombers under the command of extreme reactionary Arthur Harris instead spent months dropping incendiaries and high explosives on Hamburg’s civilians. Some British military leaders did not support this policy, but it prevailed and was driven not only by strategic war aims but also by what science historian David Bodanis in “Electric Universe” describes as Harris’ acute hatred of the working classes.
More evidence. In the Errol Morris documentary, “Fog of War,” former Secretary of State Robert McNamara admits a reasonable case could have been made to have tried as war criminals the group that organized the mass death firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. It’s a significant admission since McNamara was part of that group. McNamara also acknowledges that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by Congress, giving President Johnson the authority to unleash war in Vietnam, was based on a lie. The alleged torpedo attack by North Vietnam on the U.S.S. Maddox in 1964 never happened.
Fast forward 40 years. Other than Fox News Host Sean Hannity and other venerated thinkers, the whole world now knows the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on an equally fabricated justification: Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t exist. Nor does the shining “democracy” whose exportation became the fallback rationale to justify Iraq’s ongoing occupation. What does exist in Iraq’s chaotic civil strife is the more shadowy reality of regular indiscriminate killing by the U.S. military of Iraqi civilians. “A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi,” says one member of the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division, to The Nation’s investigative reporters Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. The GI was describing his impression of the general attitude among U.S. troops who operate the patrols and supply convoys, man checkpoints, and conduct raids and arrests.
And dead Iraqis there are. An estimated 68, 347 and 74,753 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the military intervention, according to the log of reported deaths kept by Iraq Body Count. In the chaos of occupation and civil war, this is invariably a conservative figure.
…And Also Madness and Irony
What also exists are Democratic candidates identified as “antiwar” such as Hilary Clinton, who attacks Barack Obama because for about five seconds he said he would rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a foreign policy option. “I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons,” Clinton said.
Yes, they can. They can at minimum adopt a no-first strike policy. They can reaffirm support for non-proliferation treaties and work vigorously to eliminate nuclear weapons from their own and the world’s arsenals. They can question why the United States arms itself with a military force whose budget equals almost half of all world military spending. They can repudiate a foreign policy tradition that takes as a given the American right to send troops and establish bases anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, Obama quickly scratched his anti-nuclear thought, keeping the one about invading Pakistan in pursuit of Al-Qaeda (and this is key) regardless of whether Pakistan approves. It’s a sad, imperial state of affairs when the President’s biggest critics scramble to show which among them is most willing to mimic the current administration’s belligerent posturing on world affairs.
Sad, and also dangerous. Because 62 years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world remains perilously trapped in conflict. “In the year 2007 the average yield of a nuclear weapon is about 10 times greater than the 15-kton Hiroshima bomb,” writes Raymond G. Wilson, professor emeritus of physics at Illinois Wesleyan University, for the Peace and Conflict Monitor. “Throughout the 50 years following 1945, the average rate of creation of nuclear weapons in world arsenals was the equivalent of about 70 Hiroshima bombs per day, every one of those 18,250 days.”
The threat of nuclear annihilation remains real. Yet the irony of our age is that for the first time in human history the science, technology, manufacturing and agriculture exist to eliminate all want. But in the context of a world also driven by the acquisition of corporate profits and deep-set class and nationalist divisions, the world’s people instead face an increasingly uncertain and violent future. Or even the possibility of no future.
When the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the famous physicist Albert Einstein publicly protested. The U.S. government responded by adding Einstein’s protests to his FBI file. Now we have a President who effectively abandons nonproliferation treaties for a vision of a new generation of tactical nuclear and other weapons. The President who attacked a country based on a blatant lie also considers it his prerogative to warn non-nuclear states even they are not safe from his willingness to initiate a nuclear attack. Is it really that hard to grasp why such policies will invariably engender more nuclear proliferation and more jihadi terrorism?
No doubt there is plenty of reason to despair. But then there is also the story of young Sadako Sasaki, who did not deserve to die at age 12. Sadako’s story is only one among countless millions of tragic accounts of “man’s inhumanity to man,” of the innocents whose lives over the last century have been cheap fodder for the killing machines of state power, whether of the democratic, fascist, or other variety.
During her months of hospitalization Sadako undertook a project to fold a thousand paper cranes in the hope that, according to Japanese legend, her prayer for life would be granted. It was perhaps just the wish of a child. But Sadako never gave up and folded the cranes up until the day of her death. In Japan, after her death young people inspired by her story organized to collect money to build a statue of Sadako, which was unveiled in Hiroshima Peace Park in 1958. There is also a statue of Sadako in Seattle’s Peace Park.
At the bottom of the statute in Japan of Sadako holding a golden crane is the inscription, “This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.”
Sixty-two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, they remain words to remember and live by in this mad age.
Mark T. Harris is a journalist living in Bloomington, Illinois. He has written for Utne, Dissent, Chicago’s Conscious Choice, and other magazines. Email: TheEditorPage@aol.com. Website: http://www.Mark-T-Harris.com.