The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration Committee and the
Published on Monday, August 3, 2009 by The
Reinterpreting Early August
by James Carroll
In the 17 years that I have been writing this column, my privilege has been to say what I think, even knowing readers might disagree. Most years, in this first week of August, I have observed the anniversary of the
When it comes to the atomic bombing of
Many of the letters I receive convey versions of what the historian and former Marine William Manchester wrote about his reaction to the bomb: “We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.’’ After Hitler’s defeat, hundreds of thousands of young Americans were braced for a bloody denouement in the Pacific, and, in a snap, it was over. They and their families could feel only relief. The end of the war brought the nation its first feeling of unbridled happiness in years. And why shouldn’t that stamp the memory of early August forever?
But what is memory anyway? Not merely a mode of returning to a past moment and reliving it, like a fossil stuck in amber. Memory is the faculty by which humans actively interpret experience. What Aug. 6 meant in 1945 is not what it meant in 1946, when John Hersey published his searing article “Hiroshima’’ in The New Yorker; in 1948, when the US Air Force institutionalized atomic attack as strategy against Moscow; in 1949, when the Soviets obtained their own atomic bomb; in 1952, when the hydrogen bomb (“the genocidal weapon’’ as opposed physicists referred to it) was born. And so on. At each point, in looking back, the meaning of what happened in 1945 necessarily changed, and that process has continued until today, when humanity stands at the threshold of the Second Nuclear Age.
To remember is to reinterpret. Therefore, it takes nothing away from the authentic and unforgettable experience of the World War II generation to suggest that Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb was far more complex - and morally charged - than either he or his contemporaries thought at the time. The bomb was justified as necessary to bring about the Japanese surrender, but historians conclude now, with varying degrees of consensus, that diplomacy could have done the job. There are good reasons to conclude that Truman was at least as concerned with heading off Soviet aggression as he was with finishing off Japanese resistance. And today, it can be acknowledged that
The point of the annual early August commemorative exercise has never been to look back judgmentally on the past from the saddle of a moral high horse, as if - had we been there, knowing what they knew, feeling what they felt - we’d have behaved differently. The urgent task of moral reckoning is not about the past, but about the present and future. To conclude that the United States and the world - not to mention Japan - would be better off had the atomic bombs not been used is to raise a fundamental question about the nuclear arsenal on which American power has depended ever since. To firmly regret atomic use in the past is to invite absolute renunciation of nuclear weapons in the present and future. That there was an untried way to act then means there is an untried way to act now. The World War II survivors, in fact, testify that human survival is itself the new moral imperative that changes the meaning of early August.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs