Have just left Ground Zero in Nagasaki, Japan; the very spot, above which, the second thermonuclear weapon ever detonated against humans, was released. The experience has been awe-inspiring. Like many of us, I wondered before hand if you could actually go to Nagasaki — i.e., was it safe, were there ambient radiation levels, etc. In that this second nuclear bomb was plutonium-based, it made sense to assume that this city ought still be uninhabitable. But for reasons unpredictable, radiation levels are officially at a non-threatening level. Great pains were made to “clean” Nagasaki for many years following the atomic blast.
Not much remains from the original city. Millions of tons of radioactively-contaminated rubble and organic (human) matter was systematically removed while the city was fastidiously rebuilt in nothing more than yet another Great Wonder of man. We may imagine the pyramids or the Great Wall of China to be the apex of man’s dynamism. But to fully gut and rebuild a nuclear-contaminated city, while the surviving residents continue to perish, is no less than miraculous.
On the morning of August 9, 1945, three days after the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, a second B-29 bomber released a plutonium-based nuke called “Fatman”. At 11:02 AM, “Fatman”, with the explosive force of 21,000 tons of TNT, lit up the skies some 1,600 feet above Nagasaki. In the blink of an eye, 40,000 Japanese people were vaporized — their shadows embedded into rock and walls like x-ray photography while their physical bodies vanished the same instant. Tens of thousands more in Nagasaki had flesh seared off like onion layers, human skin hanging off bone like skin curtains. At the time of the blast, there were 240,000 Japanese living in Nagasaki. Six months later, 150,000 were dead of injuries, disease, radiation poisoning, or had been vanquished during the initial detonation. The area where our ship docked was meant to be the actual ground zero (ground zero technically known as the hypocenter), but the B-29 bomber called the “Bockscar” chose to drop the bomb farther in, where there was less cloud cover — or so the story goes.
For some reason, discussing this nuclear attack is controversial — as if even minor scrutiny were patriotic mutiny. There is a sense of desperateness for our culture to believe and support, at all costs, the notion that there was absolutely no other alternative but to irradiate not one population, but two–several days apart. To my mind, the controversy stems not from rationalizing mass slaughter; but rather, from history recording the Japanese having already sent emissaries to offer a beginning surrender some months earlier. That surrender was denied unless the “Japs” dethroned their Emperor as frosting on the surrender cake.
In an interview with an 11-year-old boy, which I conducted at the Atomic Bomb Museum, I asked him what he was taught in school as to why this happened. It was a relevant question, in that he and other kids were on an education trip to understand their history. He replied that he had no idea, but he remembered seeing something on TV saying that the bomb was used as an experiment.
This piece of information was uncannily prescient in that history equally recalls that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were purposely left alone during many bombing missions preceding the double atomic drops. The purpose of sparing these two cities, while devastating other populated targets, was to have the two in untainted form so that the full impact of this never-before-tested weapon could be scientifically measured in a virgin residential and industrial setting (Petri dish). His teacher, in a follow-up interview, said he taught the children how resilient their people are — and nothing about the reason behind such a vast annihilation for which this museum was the constant reminder. When coping with trauma or ongoing PTSD, it’s understandable that focusing on overcoming truly impossible odds is heroic, which, indeed, it is. Rebuilding not only a culture, but then seeing it surpass its neighbor nations only to end up the third-largest economy on Earth.
The noted historian, Howard Zinn, in his book “The Bomb”, published posthumously, presents a thesis supported by testimony and internal memoranda from the War Department which suggests that the double-detonation was a muscle-flex aimed at the growing Soviet Union. Billions of dollars had already been spent on the Manhattan Project (code-named such, to build these atomic weapons). Against the wishes of many and in support of many others, Pres. Harry Truman elected to actually try out this experimental technology. Within 24 hours, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, ordered his scientists to develop the same technology. And four years later, the arms race was in full swing. A shortsighted mistake? An oops? A planned scenario?
As the 11-year-old, flanked by his two buddies, tried to wrestle an issue for which he had never been invited to imagine a cause, his teacher had shown him the partial remains of the Shiroyama elementary school which had been located about 500 yards from the hypocenter blast. 110 students were killed, 29 school personnel were killed, while another 1400 students died in their homes. We Americans are officially taught that Nagasaki was some sort of island military complex and that the quarter million dead must have therefore been a quarter million enemy combatants–or something–sitting around somehow disengaged while their country was at the peak of battle. (The Germans were given similar historical emollients). Our official narrative continues with the bombing imperative and the sanitized notion that 1 million lives were saved by destroying half that many somewhere else. What is real is the destruction of a half 1 million people. The saving of 1 million is a number pulled out of a hat — and a wobbly hat at that — since a theoretical invasion by 1 million American troops against a diminished and defeated, half-surrendered Japanese army would have been a near slam dunk.
Interviews today at the Atomic Bomb Museum were extremely difficult for me to get. All museum staff declined. The A-Bomb Museum, which operates under the auspices of the City of Nagasaki, runs a guarded operation. While it brings forth with vigor, the atrocity of the event, it does so in a pleasingly sanitized way. To get permission to conduct some basic perspective interviews with staff or spokespeople was harder than dealing with an A-list celebrity agent. They wanted to know whom I was with; was I with a religious group, what exactly was I going to ask (and in what tone), and why I wanted to do any interviews at all. Quite clearly, as I explained, many of us in North America may believe Nagasaki is uninhabitable, less, that it is a major international port and thriving urban setting. Also, virtually no Americans have likely visited Nagasaki themselves, and this might be the only access many might have to such an experience — for most — unreachable, distant, unsavory.
It seems the official narrative at Ground Zero is polite and palatable. I couldn’t help but wonder what level of influence a conquering country might quietly exert on the skew of an exhibit. It seemed unlikely to me (granted, I come from a Western perspective) that violence so devastating as a double atomic bombing would not contain some probing analysis of the bombers themselves. Nonetheless, that particular curiosity isn’t worthy of overshadowing the larger experience. The management person who so generously translated for me, and who requested anonymity — along with that for campus-adjacent interviewees, was sophisticated and accommodating–despite management skittishness. I am very grateful to her for her kind translation skills and for wrangling several real people for this story.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of all was not at the ruins themselves, nor within the museum and its artifacts, but while standing next to an elderly Japanese docent who was explaining to a group of children the contents of a black-and-white photograph which revealed complete and utter devastation, as far as the eye could see. I realized at that moment that my previous estrangement from the true reality of this event was gone forever. I looked into the faces of these children and realized that if I did not fight for an alternative to the establishment solutions which might rightly again threaten their survival, then I might be unwittingly a co-participant in all the madness and political terrorizing that has so seamlessly become the new normal. As the docent slowly gestured over the photograph of a single pole still standing standing in a sea of blackened earth, I suddenly broke emotionally–quietly crying, but not quietly enough. The woman’s tone changed, almost imperceptibly, into a more sympathetic style. The respectful young eyes of these children politely looked but did not wish to embarrass. Perhaps a cultural trait from an area where so much unceasing agony and suffering has been a decades-long way of life.