Friday, January 9, 2009

August 2005: The Atom Bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

I ended up doing something a little different this month. This topic crystallized very early in the month. I though I would get the letter out sooner than my usual last day of the month. As I began to review my daily writing on the subject, I thought I would present my thoughts as I wrote them each day. The August 8th entry is missing. I wrote on a different topic that day.

August 4, 2005: As soon as I realized that August 6th was the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and August 9th the same for Nagasaki, I knew what my August letter would be about. Growing up in the heyday of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile crisis, I became fascinated with what this threat was and how it worked. I began reading books about “the atom” with enticing grade school titles like “All about the Atom,” “Understanding the Atom” and such. I wrote the Nuclear Regulatory Agency expressing interest and they sent me a dozen pamphlets aimed at interesting and informing youngsters in the field of nuclear energy.

I think for three or four years in a row, I did term papers on the Atom Bomb. One year it might have been for science and the next year for history. My Mother joked that I was pretty one dimensional and perhaps a tad lazy in that I was updating the same report. I was definitely one dimensional, nothing seemed as important as our recently acquired ability to blow up the world. That kind of thing can make quite an impression on a nine year old watching the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on the television.

Beyond that, the science was pretty interesting and no one I knew could explain it. So, I became interested in finding out or, rather, finding out as much as one could reading the aforementioned books and pamphlets.

Regarding laziness, well if it were today where I access last years paper on my laptop and just edit and update it, Mom would have been absolutely correct. Back in the mid 1960’s, I re-wrote each paper from scratch by hand and then either my Mom or I typed them, mostly Mom as she was a much better typist. I don’t even think I saved the previous year’s paper to work from. Back then, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a physicist.

In doing my papers, I remember writing a little bit about the decision to drop the bombs. Well, as a school kid, it was easy to see both sides but to agree with what the school books concluded. Truman agonized over the decision but decided to proceed with the bombings in order to end the war more quickly and avoid a great loss of American lives that would have resulted in an invasion of the Japanese mainland.

August 5, 2005: Was it necessary to drop these bombs?

I would have thought the Japanese would have surrendered after that first bomb on Hiroshima. They did not. Maybe they didn't think we had any other bombs. Maybe, unthinkably, the military extremists might have prevailed with some kind of "we can tough this out" mentality. So, three days later we dropped the second and only other bomb we had on another city: Nagasaki. This got the Japanese government to take our demands seriously. They surrendered and the war came to an end.

In the past sixty years, the specter of "the bomb" has weighed on us. At first, the Soviets moved from war time quasi-ally to enemy with their annexation of Central Europe. They became a deadly serious enemy with their development of their own nuclear bombs. We began something called the Cold War.

The Cold War was a war of ideologies between the Soviets striving to make the world communist with planned economies while we were working to make the world free for democracy and commerce. Planned economies with a ruling elite proved not to work very well. On the other hand, third world economies open to global commerce didn't always deliver the best results to the working stiffs of these countries. I never understood the difference between a left wing or right wing dictator. To me they were just dictators abusing power. Arresting, torturing, and killing the opposition whether you are Castro or Pinochet is not something to be admired. But, I digress.

August 6, 2005: Today is the 60th anniversary of the atom bombing of Hiroshima. In honor of the day, I observed a moment of silent prayer. I had a modest breakfast and then rode a metric century, 100 kilometers or 62.5 miles, I rode the first 25 miles with my friend Jim Davis, then finished the ride solo. I thought a lot about the bomb until I hit the 50 mile mark. After that, I only thought about finishing the ride in the 98 degree heat and keeping myself hydrated.

I have yet to read the New York Times or watch any TV regarding this anniversary. I wanted to reflect my own thoughts first. I did read about the bombings in a article to get some facts straight such as the numbers killed instantly, the numbers that died by the end of 1945, and the numbers that have died since from radiation related inflictions. In Hiroshima, 80,000 people were killed in the blast, 60,000 more died in the remainder of 1945, thus bringing the 1945 total Hiroshima deaths to140,000. The total Hiroshima bomb related death toll as of August 6, 2004 was 237,062. This is a staggering number of people to die from one bomb.

Three days later we did it again. In Nagasaki, 40,000 people died instantly. The number that died over time was 100,000: bringing the total Nagasaki dead to 140,000. Combined with the death toll in Hiroshima almost 360,000 people were killed by just two bombs. Thank God, these kinds of weapons have not been used since.

During the Cold War, it was believed that if either the US or the USSR were to begin a nuclear war, the other side would retaliate quickly and with equal or greater force. Things would escalate quickly resulting in the destruction of both countries and their allies. Thus, it was argued that neither side would dare to use nuclear weapons. This principle was called Mutually Assured Destruction and referred to by its acronym, MAD. I loved this acronym; it was like grim satire on an international scale. I wonder who came up with it. It was definitely a bit of comic genius. Mutually Assured Destruction sounded so intellectual, conceptual, and erudite. MAD is simply what it was.

Actually, there was nothing in the Times regarding Hiroshima. Maybe tomorrow…

August 8, 2005: In the Sunday New York Times, there were two op-ed pieces on the bomb. The first by Joichi Ito, from Chiba, Japan, wrote that "the bombings don't really matter to me, or for that matter, to most Japanese of my generation." Ito is thirty-nine years old. I found the message here, while probably accurate, a bit sad and numbing.

The second piece was by Lydia Millet who has penned a book on the Manhattan Project. The gist of her piece was two fold. First, she highlighted the still living survivors of the blasts. Most were children in 1945. Many of them are fixtures in the museums and peace centers of the two cities. They are there as witnesses and to answer questions which "seem grimly repetitive: 'Where were you at the time of the bombing? What did you see, feel, do?'" Her second point was how the survivors begged forgiveness and remorse for surviving while others died or were horribly injured.

History is fascinating. Perspective changes with time. There are obvious truths, at the time of the event. Over time, perspective changes and morphs. What may have been obvious fades and other truths surface. Important events with lessons mankind should learn become irrelevant to most and obsessive to a few. With the passage of years, the mood and feel of the times is lost and colored or filtered by those of today.

What does Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean in today's world? I, reluctantly, must agree with Ito that many don't care and, even worse, many do not know much about it. The Cold War is over, so there is not much angst about a global thermo-nuclear war a la Dr. Strangelove. There is, however, a real or very well marketed threat of nuclear terrorism from either rogue states or Al Qaeda: suicide bombing taken to the nth power.

August 9, 2005: It is the 60th anniversary of Nagasaki bombing. Many know the name of the plane that dropped the Atom Bomb dubbed "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. The plane was the Enola Gay, a B-29 piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets. Far fewer, including me, know the name of the plane and pilot that dropped the "Fat Man" bomb on Nagasaki. The plane was a B-29 Super Fortress named Bock's Car. It was piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. This is the problem with being #2.

Nagasaki was not even the primary target that day. Kokura was the target but it was clouded over. Nagasaki was also under clouds but opened just enough to allow the bombardier to drop the bomb midway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and the Mitsubishi Urakama Ordinance Works. Nagasaki was the second choice for the second city.

In a speech this morning, at the Nagasaki commemoration, Fumie Sakamoto speaking on behalf of the survivors said, " Together with 260,000 A-Bomb survivors, I swear in the presence of the souls of the victims of the atomic bombings to continue to tirelessly demand that Nagasaki be the last A-Bomb site." In this regard, being the "last" A-Bomb is much more compelling and significant then being the second site.

Can Nagasaki be the last A-Bomb site? During the Cold War with the US and USSR building more and more sophisticated bombs and delivery systems, the threat of more Atomic Bombing seemed quite real. With the collapse of the Soviet Union here was a sort period in which the threat seemed to have subsided. The US and Russian governments negotiated and agreed to and implemented a plan to disarm and dismantle many of these deadly weapons. That sense of being free from the bomb only lasted, sadly, until September 11th.

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