Let me tell you a little story about Hiroshima and me:
As a young man, I was anything but atypical in having the Bomb (we capitalized it then) on my brain, and not just while I was ducking under my school desk as sirens howled their nuclear attack warnings outside. Like many people my age, I dreamed about the bomb, too. I could, in those nightmares, feel its searing heat, watch a mushroom cloud rise on a distant horizon, or find myself in some devastated landscape that I had never come close to experiencing (except in sci-fi novels).
And my dreams were nothing compared to those of America’s top strategists who, in secret National Security Council documents of the early 1950s, descended into the charnel house of future history, writing of the possibility that 100 atomic bombs, landing on targets in the United States, might kill or injure 22 million Americans. And they were pikers compared to the top military brass who, in 1960, in the country’s first Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear strategy, created a scenario for delivering more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would, if all went according to plan, cease to exist. Official estimates of possible casualties from such an attack ran to 285 million dead.
An American obsession with global annihilation undoubtedly peaked when President Kennedy came on the air on October 22, 1962, to tell us that Soviet missile sites were being prepared on the island of Cuba with “a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” Listening to his address, Americans everywhere imagined a nuclear confrontation that might leave parts of the country in ruins. Such fears, however, began to fade when the Cuban Missile Crisis was defused.
In 1979, however, after the reactor core of a nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania partially melted down, the bomb returned to me in an odd way. Then a book editor, I went to lunch with a potential author who had been on one of the panels set up by President Jimmy Carter to investigate that accident. She told me of a Japanese journalist who testified before them about interviewing the mothers of young children and pregnant women belatedly evacuated to an iceless ice rink in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. None of them had heard of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Shocked by this, I started searching for a book to publish on what had happened in those August days in 1945 when two Japanese cities were wiped out by a new weapon and the nuclear age began. With the help of a historian and friend, I finally came across a Japanese book of images drawn by Hiroshima survivors, few of them artists, sometimes with school materials borrowed from their grandchildren. Each drawing, accompanied by a personal description, caught a moment experienced on that terrible day when Hiroshima was wiped out. Many of the images were in pastels, or even crayon, and looked inviting until you read the horrific accounts that accompanied them. That book, Unforgettable Fire, played a small role in the massive anti-nuclear movement that arose in those years. Unfortunately — and this tells us something — it’s now long out of print.
A couple of years later, I was invited by Japanese publishers to visit their country. Only on arrival did I discover that the man who had shepherded Unforgettable Fire to publication — and who was shocked to discover that an American editor wanted to publish it in translation — planned to take me to Hiroshima.
As a former atomic dreamer who knew a good deal about the history of the dropping of the bomb, and who was the editor of possibly the only mainstream visual record in the U.S. of what had happened under that mushroom cloud, I was touched by the gesture, but somewhat bored by the idea. After all, it was the era of “Japan as Number One” mania and there was so much to see in a few brief days — and I, of course, already knew pretty much what was to be known about the experience of the first A-bombing. (That’s just how plain dumb I was!)
The trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with its carbonized children’s lunchbox and permanently imprinted human shadows was, to say the least, horrifying. It left me literally speechless, so much so that, although I returned to New York babbling about Japan, I found, for a long time, that I couldn’t talk about what I had seen in Hiroshima.
And that, mind you, was only the museum, which means it was next to nothing compared to what actually happened on that now-distant day. When American strategists in the 1950s confidently began, in Herman Kahn’s famous phrase, “thinking the unthinkable,” they, too, undoubtedly had no idea what they were incapable of imagining. By and large, in the Trump years, they still don’t. As TomDispatch regular Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, indicates today, weapons so powerful that they put the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki to shame are still deeply embedded in our world and should be a focus of our attention for all the grimly obvious reasons.