Before and after the A-bomb

By Susan Van Haitsma

Just after dark on August 8, 2004, I watched from the leafy banks of Barton Creek as a beautiful, ephemeral fleet of luminarias floated silently upstream from Lou Neff Point. Each handmade luminaria had been carefully launched by participants in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Ceremony of Remembrance held in the Zilker Park Peace Grove. Although the night was still, there must have been a faint breeze out on the water that moved the glowing lanterns quietly, steadily against the current.

Across town, another image of peace appeared last year in relation to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Installed as a permanent mosaic outside Brentwood Elementary School and created by local artist, Jean Graham in collaboration with Brentwood students and teachers, the artwork depicts a flock of beautifully diverse birds flying together around the words, “I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.”

This quotation from Sadako Sasaki, who died of radiation poisoning at age 12 as a result of the Hiroshima bombing, comes from the well-known story of Sadako’s passion for life as she strove to fold the 1,000 origami cranes she believed would heal her. When she died, her friends completed the task, and a statue to Sadako’s memory in Hiroshima Peace Park is strung with origami cranes that persons all over the world continue to send. Inscribed on the monument is a plea from the children of Japan, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”

This month, feature articles in Time, Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines commemorate the 60th anniversary of the test of the A-bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, its use three weeks later against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. Every story credits the bomb with ending the war. Claims the Time cover story, “An awful weapon had saved lives; a terrible instrument of war had brought peace.”

One of the Smithsonian articles, entitled “It’s Over!” is a compilation of readers’ mostly enthusiastic accounts of where they were and how they responded when Japan surrendered. Only one response, sent by a Japanese-American, mentions effects of the atomic bombings on the
people of Japan.

Another Smithsonian article, adapted from the new book, “American Prometheus,” about atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, recounts the dramatic moments leading up to the test and use of the A-bomb. While recognizing the moral dilemma faced by Oppenheimer and his colleagues, emphasis is clearly on the “success” of what Oppenheimer benignly called “the gadget.” Only briefly noted are the estimated 70,000 people killed instantly in Hiroshima. The article does not give a number for deaths in Nagasaki or for the tens of thousands more who died from radiation sickness.

Entitled, “Living With the Bomb,” the National Geographic story includes four dramatic photographs of nuclear weapons tests, one captioned with a description of the “terrible beauty” of the mushroom cloud. The article refrains from describing the effects of the bombs on human beings. Only Time magazine offers photographs and accounts of Japanese Hibakusha, survivors of the A-bomb.

Significantly, the Time and Smithsonian features discuss the critical shift in US policy leading to justification of the atom bomb. Citing the massive incendiary bombing of Japanese cities during the spring of 1945 that killed an estimated 100,000 in Tokyo alone, Time author and historian, David Kennedy concludes, “The US had already crossed a terrifying moral threshold when it accepted the targeting of civilians as a legitimate instrument of warfare.”

Smithsonian agrees, “The firebombings were no secret. Ordinary Americans read about them in their newspapers.” Today, when ordinary Americans read about ordinary Iraqis killed by US military forces, the underlying justifications that have propelled such policies for 60 years continue to give the message that the lives of Americans are worth more than the lives of others.

Americans decry terrorist bombings that target civilians. But we must also acknowledge how we intentionally target civilians through military force. On this 60th anniversary of the use of atomic weapons, will we continue to insist that bombs save lives? Or can we take an honest look at the human costs of every lethal weapon, affirm our most basic American principle that all lives have absolutely equal value, and conclude that no life can be traded for any other. Our cry and prayer, the words written on our wings and pushing us steadily upstream, must include this essential truth if we are ever to replace terrorism and militarism with lasting peace.

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation.