Hiroshima: then and now

Sixty-five years ago (August 6, 1945), the first of two atomic bombs “dropped in anger” fell on Hiroshima, Japan. The nuclear bomb “Little Boy” was released from the bay of the propeller-driven Enola Gay. The immediate result was the death of approximately 80,000 people. Injury and radiation brought total casualties to 90,000 – 140,000. It is said that there are still people dying prematurely from the effects of the radiation.

Besides the human carnage, nearly 70% of the buildings were destroyed. Not so well known is that just 42 days later, on September 17, Typhoon Ida struck Hiroshima, resulting in another 3,000 deaths and injuries and the destruction of half the remaining bridges.

Some may believe that the late summer of 1945 was the end of Hiroshima. Virtually everything in the city was destroyed or contaminated by radioactivity. The psyche of the community was equally contaminated. No one knew how long the effects of the radiation would continue.

The intensity of the radiation poisoning decreased, perhaps at a rate faster than expected. In 1949 the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction law was passed, providing financial assistance for construction, with land donated by the government, because it had previously been used for military purposes.

An atomic bomb “dome,” conceived in 1949, provided a reason for Hiroshima to reverse course, aided by the Japanese Parliament, which designated Hiroshima as a “city of peace.”

Difficult as it was for some to believe, a spirit of renewal developed and reconstruction began, both of the infrastructure of the city as well as the mindset of its people. It may be cruel to say, but the city benefited from the sense of guilt that others (not just Americans) felt about the bombing. Hiroshima received international attention as a desirable location for holding international conferences on peace and social justice.

Most of the world’s people who were alive at the time of the bombing are now gone, and with them, memories of the event.  “Hiroshima Day” events still take place every August 6, but generally their presence is not on the radar screen.

The debate about whether or not the bomb should have been dropped has also subsided. The conventional wisdom was that the United States would have suffered at least one million casualties had it forgone the bomb and instead invaded the island chain.  Furthermore, the war in Europe had ended three months earlier, and America and its allies were mired in war fatigue and wanted to move on.

However, some notable Americans, in 1945, had reservations about dropping the bomb. Among them was Dwight Eisenhower, commander of allied forces in Europe and soon-to-be president of the United States. In July 1945, Eisenhower was informed that the government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. Eisenhower later wrote, “I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act.” He later stated in Newsweek, “…. the Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to ht them with that awful thing.

Another powerful military figure who opposed the bombing was General Douglas MacArthur. Norman Cousins was a consultant to MacArthur and he later wrote,

“When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

Albert Einstein’s reservations were recorded by his biographer, Ronald Clark:

“As far as his own life was concerned, one thing seemed quite clear. ‘I made one great mistake in my life,’ ‘…when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.'”.

Not dropping the bomb is one of those hypotheticals that cannot be answered. Hiroshima was devastated by the bomb on August 6; Nagasaki by another bomb on August 9,and Japan surrendered on August 15.

It is important that Hiroshima keeps monuments to that fateful day, because now it is a bustling city of well over one million. It has a major commercial port, verdant parks, shopping arcades, and vibrant night life. Residents can go to the symphony orchestra one night and see the Hiroshima Toya Carp play baseball the next evening. The city also has one of Japan’s strongest soccer teams. Hiroshima University, established in 1949, represents the unification of eight previous institutions of higher learning; degrees are offered in most areas of arts and sciences.

The physical remnants of the damage of August 6, 1945 are almost all gone, replaced by a modern city. Some people, both in and out of Hiroshia, want to remember that fateful day; others prefer to forget it. What remains true is that it was one of the most significant days of the 20th Century and a reflection, in the 21st Century, of the human spirit’s ability to heal.