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This past Friday, National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" aired an anniversary interview with Paul Tibbets, pilot of that fateful flight. Tibbets said "Where we had seen the city on the way in, I saw nothing but a bunch of boiling debris with fire and smoke...it was devastating." The scientists had told him about the force of the blast, but nothing could have prepared him. He said he thought it would be a real big bang, "and that's what it was."
Three days later, another bomb was dropped. The original target that morning was the city of Kokura where a major weapons arsenal was located, but a cloud cover over the area and a fuel shortage on the strike plane caused a mid-air reassessment. Thus, the city of Nagasaki entered history, an afterthought on the day of its ordeal and a footnote ever since as the second city to be hit by an atomic bomb, this one almost double the power of the first. 74,000 people were killed instantly.
It had been hard on Japan before the bombs. Starting on March 9th with a fire raid on Tokyo, American planes systematically torched Japan's wood and paper cities. Tokyo (about as big as New York) was 50% wiped out. Kobe (the size of Baltimore) was 55% in ruins. Osaka (the size of Chicago), 35% destroyed; Kofu (the equivalent of South Bend, Indiana) 78% obliterated; Okayama, Hitachi...13-million Japanese were homeless, and people were slowly starving on a diet of 1300 calories a day. Japan was defeated, but would not quit. The suicidal defense of Okinawa that spring in which a garrison of 100,000 troops was annihilated showed the Japanese would fight to the death in the name of Emperor Hirohito rather than surrender.(1)
Amazingly, even after the bombs, Japan's War Council was equally split whether to continue the fighting, all the more remarkable considering Russia had attacked in Manchuria with overwhelming force the day before. Nonetheless, the Council adopted its "fundamental policy" that anticipated the "honorable death of 100 million." National suicide. But deep in his bomb shelter under the Imperial Palace, Hirohito had had enough. "The time must come when we must bear the unbearable," he said. World War II was finally over.
There was joy, of course - people danced in the streets in Washington and London. But there was foreboding as well. Edward R. Murrow on CBS said, "Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure, and that survival is not assured." The New York Times' Scotty Reston wrote, "In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan, but have glimpsed the future of America." NBC's H. V. Kaltenborn, the dean of radio news commentators, said, "For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein."(2)
On PresbyNet I was interested to read the reflection of a retired United Church of Canada minister who happens to be of Japanese extraction. His name is Tad Mitsui. He now lives in Montreal. He wrote:(3)
I was 12 years old when the war ended. My mother and three sisters and I were in the mountains, after the fire bombings of Tokyo. My Methodist preacher father remained in the burned out hollow of the church.No doubt, Tad Mitsui agrees with General Sherman: "War is hell." There is even a theological truth in the statement. Over and over in scripture we find God referred to as the God of Peace; at least seven times in the New Testament alone we find such a description. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. Psalm 46, that wonderful hymn of comfort and courage, has God caring for us "though the earth should change, though mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult" (sounds like a bomb). The Psalmist goes on: God "makes wars to cease...breaks the bow, shatters the spear, burns the shields." God does not destroy the warriors, just weapons. Clever way to stop the madness, don't you think? If our understanding of Hell is separation from God, this God of Peace, then war most assuredly IS Hell.
Moral concerns have abounded with every conflict, but once the atomic bombs began to explode, the concerns took on a new urgency. In Switzerland, the Zurich newspaper Die Tatcriticized the use of the bomb and urged the Swiss government to protest the weapon. There is a "Christian distinction between legitimate and illegitimate weapons of war," The Catholic Herald of London editorialized on August 9th. It called the bomb "utterly and absolutely indefensible."(4)
Our own General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1946 (the Assembly immediately following the war) stated, "The great new factor during this generation is the use of the atomic bomb. Its potentialities for destruction were tragically illustrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever may be the extenuating circumstances, the inescapable fact is that we, a professedly Christian nation, must bear the moral responsibility for the first use of the atomic bomb. Christians know that war is evil. The use of the atomic bomb means that war reaches a degree of destruction which multiplies this evil beyond human concept."(5)
Those moral arguments have been with us for 55 years. There are those who look back through time and try to convince us that those two bombs were the most evil acts ever launched against humanity. They point to the pain and suffering of innocent Japanese civilians. As General Tibbets said in that interview Friday, "There is no morality in warfare; war is immoral." Over against this perspective are those who look back and defend the action based on the projections that many more deaths would have occurred without the use of these powerful weapons. Who is to say?
The conflicting views played themselves out once more five years ago at the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian as the world looked back through a half-century of nuclear history - that controversial display of the Enola Gay with accompanying photographs and text which highlighted the devastation and suffering. The Japanese were depicted as sad victims. If you recall, veterans groups screamed. The ensuing changes proved once again the old axiom that history is written by the winners.
Still the arguments continue. Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell's book, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial(6) - an excerpt from the introduction:
You cannot understand the twentieth century without Hiroshima...The subject is charged with emotion. When the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, Americans felt both deep satisfaction and deep anxiety, and these responses have coexisted ever since. Fifty years later, Americans continue to experience pride, pain, and confusion over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. Part of each of us wishes to believe that the decision to use the bomb was reasonable and justified, but another part remains uncomfortable with what we did.This much is clear: Hiroshima changed everything. If there is any such thing as a defining moment in a century, August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM qualifies as that moment for the 20th. From that moment until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the globe lived in nuclear terror. Remember the air raid drills in school? Did you or your neighbors build a fall-out shelter underground in the backyard? Do you remember the "dog tags" that were used in certain parts of the country back in the 50's when there was such anxiety about atomic destruction? Children wore them so that when the atomic attack came, and the bodies were incinerated beyond recognition, the "clean-up" crews could come through and identify the victims. We never suffered a nuclear attack, but the terrors, nightmares, fears that inhabited the minds of children in those decades continue to haunt people, even today.
Hiroshima changed war, but it did not eliminate war. Within a short time following Japan's surrender, armies in China turned their guns upon one another, France marched its army back into Indochina, the Indian sub-continent erupted, Israel emerged under the gun, the Korean conflict began - all within a five-year period. A pattern of armed conflict was established that is now so entrenched as to be taken for granted. Its characteristics include: the involvement of civilian populations as legitimate targets of violence, the displacement and/or internment of non-combatants, the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel weaponry (such as land mines), conflict along lines of religious belief. The type of war the atom bomb was intended to stop has never stopped; it has spread and is alive and well in places like Rwanda, Chechnya, the Middle East, and yesterday the Philippines. Somehow, because people are dying by means of gunpowder and not plutonium, we breathe easier.
No, no nuclear bombs, not for 55 years. But the ongoing "conventional" conflicts have killed millions, displaced whole nations from their homes, diverted precious resources from frail economies, left farmlands desolate while populations starved, deepened ethnic and religious intolerance, hardened old hatreds. And after five-and-a-half decades our sensibilities seem eroded so that we no longer react as we did in 1945 to the sights of mass slaughter, maimed children, raped women, concentration camps, and shallow civilian graves.
What we are more tolerant of is violence; in our entertainment, on our streets, in our homes. The news media bring us our daily dose of human beings doing one another in. It is a reality that we must face. It needs to change.
In the period immediately following the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the accession of Harry Truman to the Presidency, it was widely reported that Mr. Truman felt inadequate for the job. In one of his informal conversations with White House reporters, he said tearfully, "Boys - and it was all boys then - Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now."(7)
That was not an unreasonable request. The Apostle Paul writes in our lesson, "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." What could be plainer? Do you and I want quiet instead of turmoil? Then we must pray for our leaders. Do we want godliness instead of immorality? Then we must pray for our leaders. Do we want integrity instead of chicanery? Then we must pray for our leaders. Do we want peace instead of war? Then we must pray for our leaders. Within a matter of months, America will have new leadership in place, and whether it turns out to be Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore, the issues will continue to be incredibly complex. Those responsible for crafting our foreign policy need ALL THE HELP THEY CAN GET! They have every right to expect our prayers. They deserve our prayers. They need our prayers.
In 1955 citizens of Hiroshima built a Peace Park in the center of their bomb-destroyed city. To more than 300,000 victims of that single weapon, they dedicated this pledge: "Rest in peace. We promise it will never happen again." Today, the 55th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, let us in the power of the God we have come to know as the God of Peace join with Japanese sisters and brothers in an honest pledge to all war dead and to future generations:
We promise it will never happen again.
1. Associated Press, 8/5/95
3. via PresbyNet, 7/27/95
4. AP, 8/5/95
5. PCUSA, 1946, p. 146
6. New York : Putnam's Sons, 1995
7. Evan Thomas, "Why We Did It," Newsweek, 7/24/95, pp. 22-23