Coming to terms with The Bomb

Allan Fotheringham August 7 1995

Coming to terms with The Bomb

Allan Fotheringham August 7 1995

Coming to terms with The Bomb



Some years ago I was in Hiroshima and my guide was a young Japanese lady who was nine years old when the bomb fell. She had been playing in the garden and her mother, for some inexplicable reason, had just called her to come into the house.

“Otherwise,” she explained, “I wouldn’t be here today.” She would have been fried into a cinder like some 70,000 others. How do you measure fate?

Harry Truman, president for only four months, announced to the American public—and the world—that Hiroshima was “a military target.” It wasn’t, of course. It was chosen because Gen. Leslie Groves, in charge of the Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert, worried that the B-29 bombers had so devastated Japan’s four largest cities that he would have difficulty finding a city not previously damaged to showcase his terrible new weapon.

Hiroshima, surrounded by hills, was the perfect target since being in a valley the blast damage was echoed and increased. The 100,000 victims, most of them nonmilitary, died instantly. Some 50,000 more perished within months from radiation poisoning and burns. Truman’s Secretary of War, the patrician Henry L. Stimson, a 77-year-old gentleman of the old school who had agonized endlessly about the decision, had a heart attack two days later.

Historians will argue no doubt for centuries the call by the bantam rooster Harry (“The buck stops here”) Truman, who slept a sound sleep the night after giving the nod and maintained until his death that he would never give it second thought.

Fifty years after Aug. 6, 1945, Americans are even now still attempting to come to grips with being the only people who have used The Bomb. ‘We have discovered,” Truman wrote in his diary, “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Area, after Noah and his famous Ark.” Harry knew his Bible.

It may indeed have been. The world was so frightened of it that it has never been used again after that August of 1945.

The Japanese parliament, 50 years later, still cannot utter the “apology” word about their sickening atrocities—Americans still remembering the wire photo of a Japanese officer with a huge samurai sword beheading an Australian POW. German youth still wrestle with incomprehension over the Holocaust that their grandfathers orchestrated. And Americans now are arguing.

There has been a seminal debate in Washington over what was meant to be a thoughtful tableau over Truman’s decision. The Smithsonian Institution’s display of the actual bomber plane, the Enola Gay, attempted to pose the innocent question whether the incineration of all those Japanese civilians could be balanced against any “ordinary” invasion of the mainland.

Veterans’ organizations were so outraged—Congress hawks suddenly alerted— that the whole philosophical discussion was trashed and the curator involved had to resign, his career ruined.

History books tell us that Emperor Hirohito had already decided to surrender before the second bomb—falling on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima—fried another 70,000 and as many of our prisoners of war (some 250) as Japanese soldiers.

The insanity never dies. Jacques Chirac, trying to imitate Charles de Gaulle—rather like Truman trying to live up to Roosevelt?— is off with his vainglorious insistence on blowing up yet another South Pacific atoll.

The inanities continue. The news reports say the Greenpeace guerrilla battle against the French navy is led by Dave McTaggart, the “Vancouver founder of Greenpeace.” He was never near the birth.

Bob Hunter was my office mate at The Vancouver Sun, the first counterculture columnist in Canada. One morning he came in, explaining that the night before in a church basement he and his environmental mates had decided to organize an expedition to thwart an American—not French— nuclear test on an island called Amchitka off Alaska.

As he left the meeting, he raised his arm in the standard Sixties salute: “Peace.” Somebody yelled out: “Make it a green peace.” And so the movement was born.

McTaggart, of a social Vancouver family, five times Canadian champion in the social sport of badminton, reached an epiphany and de8 cided money and fame t weren’t as important as the o environment. Protesting a French nuclear test in the Pacific, he was beaten by French sailors, lost the eyesight in one eye and spent a decade in Paris courts before getting his just victory. Hunter is now the environment reporter with Toronto’s City TV.

Never mind. Both are in the cause. In August, 1946, a year after Hiroshima, The New Yorker, under the brilliant Harold Ross, devoted the entire issue—the first time—to just one article, the author John Hersey’s examination of what happened to six “survivors” of The Bomb. It stunned Americans—and started the guilt.

Harry Truman said his decision had saved 250,000 lives, the invasion of Japan having been saved. He later raised this to 500,000. Who knows? We know only one thing. Fifty more years from now, the historians may have a better perspective. They will still be arguing. That nine-year-old girl presumably is still alive.