Hiroshima and the Death of Denial

Throughout 1945, American political and military leaders discussed whether the atom bomb should be used. Three famous voices who spoke out against it were General Eisenhower, who called it "completely unnecessary"; General MacArthur, who said it was "completely unnecessary from a military point of view"; and Admiral Leahy, who believed that Japan would fall without even the necessity of a land invasion. Leahy later wrote that, in dropping the bomb, "we had adopted an ethical standard common to barbarians of the dark ages"; Eisenhower later told an interviewer, "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

These men, who were military heroes with nothing to prove, were able to say something then that no leader would dare say today. It seems a dramatic proof that only lesser men live today that the jingoists and bombasts, who would hound to the death anyone who shared these opinions, hold these heroes in high repute.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, a Smithsonian curator, Martin Harwit, planned an exhibit centering on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Harwit lost his job as a result, after a bloody confrontation with the Air Force Association, the American Legion, and the Contract Republicans who had just assumed power. The Enola Gay exhibit was eliminated; all that survived was the shiny, restored fuselage of the plane itself, without commentary.

What all the fuss was about was that the exhibit as planned attempted to tell both sides of the story. It quoted Eisenhower and others on the immorality of the bomb, suggested various motives why the bomb might have been dropped other than the saving of American lives, and contained photographs of Japanese radiation victims. And it contained a new estimate, based on recently declassified documents, of the number of Americans who would have died in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. It now appears that the highest estimate anyone gave Presidents Roosevelt or Truman prior to August 1945 was that 40,000-60,000 Americans would die--not the ludicrous and inflated number of one million that "everyone knows."

John Hersey's account of Mr. Tanimoto tells us:

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces.

I have some questions for the members of the American Legion who successfully howled for Mr. Harwit to be fired.

Admiral Leahy wrote: "It is not a bomb. It is not an explosive. It is a poisonous thing that kills people by its deadly radioactive reaction..."

The idea which must have driven the veterans who took the Enola Gay exhibit as a personal insult, is that what is past cannot be questioned. But it is hard to see how we can question the present, or plan for the future, if we cannot ask questions of the past and force a response. It is hard to imagine life as a human being without responsibility. Life without awareness, without self-doubt, without shame, without recognition and without the assumption of responsibility is not life, but sleep. There is no closure on a historical event that cannot be evaluated. The denial of death at Hiroshima is itself a form of death.