Published in the Bay View Compass, July 2005
On her deathbed, Sadako Sasaki dreamt of a cure. She survived the atomic bomb at age two, but a leukemia—probably caused by the radiation—made her dizzy at age eleven and killed her when she was twelve. As her health failed she kept her fingers busy with squares of paper; she told her visitors that she would recover if she folded a thousand cranes.
Japanese children, bearing leis of origami cranes, visit her Hiroshima memorial near ground zero. The origami crane is today the worldwide symbol of our belief we must rid ourselves of nuclear weapons.
America, however, fell in love with and married the Bomb.
The bomb—some deeds are so awful that an apology suggests guilt. Nuclear bombing, with horrendous survivor stories—skin and eyes liquefying, parents trapped in their burning homes telling their children to flee to the river, river water poisoned by uncountable dead bodies. These reports were evidence of war crimes.
During the year after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki our government was alarmed to hear criticism of the bombs from Christian leaders (the Federal Council of Churches with Reinhold Niebuhr, Georgia Harkness, Henry P. Van Dusen), military people, and politically conservative commentators (Raymond Swing had a radio audience of 15 million).
And so, Henry Stimson, Secretary of War who presided over the bombings in 1945, was asked to defend the government’s decision. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine in February 1947, Stimson, reworked facts from 1945 and silenced bomb critics for decades.
Revealingly, he quoted a bomb planning committee that in June 1945 described the “ideal” target as one that includes civilians, “a dual target—that is, a military installation or war plant surrounded by or adjacent to houses and other buildings most susceptible to damage…” And so it happened. Two airplanes brought instant death to 90,000 civilians; tens of thousands slow deaths from burned flesh, and—after some years of normal health—uncounted deaths of people exposed to the the black polluted rain that fell immediately after the bombings. Two planes. Two cities. Two towers of smoke.
America appeared for years to have accepted Stimson’s explanation. In 1995 an attempt by the Smithsonian Institution to mount an exhibit reflecting a more thorough view of that war’s ending was howled down in a year-long media war during which the museum curators were excoriated with lies and accused of treason. History lost in 1995, but facts do prevail, and someday a new generation of Americans may look at the bomb with honest eyes.
Does Hiroshima have meaning today? Remember that American threats of “shock and awe” preliminary to our attack on Iraq were overtures to the memories of Hiroshima. As we are learning again in Baghdad, air-power bombing often backfires strategically. Attacks from the air on Pearl Harbor, Dresden, London, and New York reinforced the will of the ordinary citizens to resist.
Contrarily, America allowed itself the illusion that the A-bomb “worked.” Air-bombing has become our creed for security—nukes, always our fall-back option. At one time we owned over 20,000. To what end? On the one hand we cannot use them and on the other hand we are pathologically paralyzed to get rid of them. The use of ever more monstrous “conventional” weapons is justified because they are “not nuclear” weapons.
Targeting civilians in a war was once a behavior that “civilized” leaders would eschew, calling those who did that “barbarians.” Hiroshima reminds us that if you choose a lower standard of morality for yourself you lose the right to call other nations to a higher standard.
As you pick up and read this Compass mid-July 2005, keep in mind the birth of all nightmares. Sixty years ago, July 15, 1945, the first A-bomb was exploded on the Alamogordo bombing range, New Mexico.
Today I think of Alamogordo whenever I clumsily attempt an origami crane. My Japanese friends, students of both mass death and origami, can do the folds while walking. In a strange way, our nations seemed to have switched places. Japan, today, looks more like the demilitarized pre-war America; America more like the Japan that attacked us—politically smug, empire-building, ruled by nationalistic fervor.
Can we recover from bomb-mania? Can we return to civilization based on agreements and paper—diplomacy, treaties, negotiations, and fair trade—instead of confrontation and bombs? Can we learn the crane fold—perhaps before a dying child shows us how?
You and your family are invited to Lanterns for Peace, Milwaukee’s annual memorial of the bombing of Hiroshima. Pere Marquette Park, August 6, late afternoon until dusk. Origami, music, and picnic. Floating lanterns on the river. Sponsored by Peace Action Wisconsin, 964–5158.
You can reach Bill Sell at the author’s eMailbox .