Few words evoke more feeling than the name of that Japanese city. Seventy-one years after the shattering atomic blast that killed 140,000 people and injured thousands more, Hiroshima remains a source of controversy, searing pain and, for just a few left among the living, tempered thanksgiving.
Most of those who were alive in 1945 are elderly, or dead. My generation, the baby boomers, grew up in the direct shadow of that mushroom cloud and all that it came to represent. But for us, there was a strange relief. My own father, then a 19-year-old sailor somewhere in the South Pacific, was among the millions of young men being gathered in anticipation of a great invasion of the Japanese mainland, a military campaign that would have dwarfed D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and other major battles of the war that had just ended in Europe.
Henry L. Stimson, the Republican who served as Secretary of War in President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, had been loathe to begin that campaign. He fought as a colonel in World War I and saw the ravages of hand-to-hand combat. A peace-loving man who deserves more tribute than he has gained, Stimson was among the advisors who championed the atomic bomb as an alternative to the mutual carnage for Japanese, American and other allied lives.
Like my father, President Obama’s grandfather fought in World War II. He was part of the military invasion of Europe. Had the Japanese land invasion occurred, Stanley Dunham no doubt would have been transferred to the Asian theater, as it was elegantly called. He left a baby girl back in America, a youngster who would grow to become the president’s mother.
Surely President Obama grew up with these stories, as I did. And no doubt thoughts of his grandfather were on his mind when he made the historic decision to be the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima since 1945. Although some people are complaining, many of us commend him for the decision.
The Holocaust and Hiroshima are the two legacies of that war that do not fade. And should not fade. Each offers searing reminders of the deadly results of national greed, hatred and ignorance. The activities of the Germans and the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s were hideous. The atrocities of the Germans toward the Jews are well documented. Less well-known are the appalling acts of the Japanese toward the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and Southeast Asians, not to mention the British, American and other allied soldiers they captured.
I made my peace, of sorts, with Hiroshima two decades ago, when I joined a tour of American editors of Japan. The city booms today, and we were settled in a four-star hotel where the garden bar made the best martinis I’d tasted since leaving the U.S. But what we saw in our tour made that kind of comfort disconcerting. I slept little that night.
Hiroshima is now a city of peace. Paper swans float across a lake of memory, folded over the decades in the manner of a tiny child injured in the atomic attack. At the site of the bomb’s detonation, a display almost clinically describes the bomb “dropping from the sky,” as if it were a raindrop or a hailstone.
But that bomb didn’t just drop. America’s finest political, scientific and military minds launched it and engineered its detonation. This child of the first nuclear generation is glad they did, despite the terror the bomb unleashed and the tragedy of the civilian deaths and injuries it caused at Hiroshima, and a few days later, at Nagasaki.
During my visit, I carried with me a paperback copy of John Hersey’s account of the bombing, which when originally published in The New Yorker consumed the entire issue of August 31, 1946. It remains perhaps the most vivid bit of war reporting even written, as vivid today as it was seven decades ago. In trying to come to terms with what happened, and what it meant, I recall his words:
“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”
President Obama will have the opportunity to invoke that memory when he represents our nation at Hiroshima in a few weeks. It is memory that keeps contemporary people from repeating mistakes, but sadly, memory fades as those who shared history pass from the scene. I have to wonder how many children today have a vivid response to Hiroshima. For them, is it much different from Waterloo, Gettsyburg, Ypres, Austerlitz or other notable sites of carnage in wartime?
Perhaps not. But the visit of President Obama will help us to remember, and perhaps lead us to reflect again on the need to make Hiroshima a word that invokes care with nuclear weapons in a world which remains unsettled because they exist. May those who listen join together to repeat the same phrase that Holocaust survivors still declare: “Never again.”
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
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