In recognition of today’s entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with 81 signatories and 51 states parties, I’m republishing the essay below, which I posted at my Gloss site on August 10, 2020.
“There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
I spent yesterday reading, for perhaps the 3d time in my life, “Hiroshima,” the 30,000-word epic published in an August 1946 New Yorker. This time around, it’s the 19-word sentence quoted above that stuck in my mind.
Among this article’s many remarkable facets is the absence of overt commentary. It narrates the first atomic bombing not in the voice of author John Hersey, by then a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist who’d covered World War II alongside US troops. Instead, Hiroshima is revealed through the eyes of 6 unknowns:
- Miss Sasaki, a young clerk caught in the rubble at the tin factory where she works;
- 2 physicians, Dr. Sasaki (no relation), a Red Cross Hospital surgeon who treats the clerk’s mangled leg, and “hedonistic” Dr. Fujii, who runs his own private hospital;
- Mrs. Nakamura, whose husband, a tailor, had enlisted in the Army and died at Singapore 3 years earlier; and
- 2 clerics, an Emory-trained Methodist, Reverend Tanimoto, and a Jesuit priest, Father Kleinsorge.
Each was stunned by the bomb’s “Noiseless Flash” at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, and over the next year, and each managed to eke out a kind of survival.
The article reads like a matter-of-fact recitation of the experiences of these 6. Yet the facts, as marshalled, leave little doubt of Hersey’s point of view: 12 months on, the clerk is “a cripple”; one doctor is “not capable of the work he once could do” and the other has “no prospects of rebuilding.” The pastor has lost his both his church and “his exceptional vitality,” while the misnamed priest (in German, Kleinsorge = “little worry”) is “back in the hospital.” And these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima.”
The choice of voices is itself a commentary. These are ordinary people. Two are reading newspapers when the bomb drops. They differ from Hersey’s own readers only because all are citizens of Axis countries, of vanquished Japan and Germany. “Hiroshima” humanizes them, and so upends the Allies’ postwar mindset.
Hersey reports that on the 1st anniversary of the bombing, many, though not all, in Hiroshima “feel a hatred for Americans which nothing could possibly erase.” Hypocrisy surfaces, too, for US-led proceedings before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East already were well under way:
“I see,” Dr. Sasaki once said, “that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all.”
Within that sentence, of course, lies a central conundrum of international criminal law – a sin of omission that dogs international criminal justice to this day.
Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary not of Hiroshima, but rather the atomic bombing 2 days later of Nagasaki. Together these conflagrations forced the surrender to Japan and ended a war begun with another bombing, that of Pearl Harbor, on a date that Truman’s predecessor declared would “live in infamy.”
In victory, Allies worked to mute misgivings about their own bombing raids – carpet bombing of cities in Europe and Asia, as well as the Hiroshima-Nagasaki nuclear moment. But misgivings existed, as my own research on participants at the Nuremberg trials has revealed. Sometimes they surfaced in commentaries and in longer writings by Hersey and others. Yet questioning has remained sporadic, and much more needs to be done.
On this anniversary, what I find myself pondering the sentence quoted at top: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” At a site where workers produced (no doubt for war matériel) a metal that humans first had forged in the Bronze Age, the centuries-old storehouse of human knowledge revealed itself quite literally to be a weapon of the Nuclear Era.
Would that so much human effort were applied to the ends of peace.