avatar
On this day . . .


David Swanson's piece causes me to reflect. Hiroshima/Nagasaki have always had a personal meaning, since my father served in the B-29 command as an intelligence officer, went on the first bombing raid of the B-29's (over Bangkok, Thailand), and after the war's end went to Hiroshima to gather data on what had happened.

The War Resisters League had its 90th anniversary this weekend in Washington DC and I'd taken with me "Dwight Macdonald: and the politics circle" by Gregory D. Sumner. It brought back to me the immediacy many felt on August 6, though since I was only 16 at the time (and an enthusiastic supporter of the war) I did not grasp it's meaning until later.

For Macdonald, as for my mentors, A.J. Muste, Norman Thomas, and others of that generation, the atomic bomb was less a unique event (though God knows, it was that) than a climax toward which we had been building. I think folks can get "The World War" – a remarkable BBC series, more than thirty one hour segments, on line and can watch the war as it developed.

In the beginning radicals in the US doubted news of the Nazi death camps – it fit too easily into the pattern of war propaganda from World War I. And it was too monstrous to accept as truth – Germany, the home of Bach, Beethoven, perhaps the most civilized of the European countries.

But the pattern of German actions soon enough were barbaric – the bombing of Rotterdam, after it was been declared by the Dutch an "open city" (ie., a non-military and undefended target), the bombing of Coventry. And of course in the Far East the rape of Nanking.

How swiftly this "good war" degenerated into a pattern of mass murder on both sides. The original German attacks on London, which as a youth I remembered well, the great "blitz", paled into memory as the Allied forces thought they could break the will of the German people by systemic and total destruction of their cities – Munich, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin. We excused our actions as necessary to win against the Nazis, (and even to this day, and as a pacifist, I've never had a good answer to "what do you do about Hitler").

In Japan the B-29's had been used to level the great cities – more died in the fire storm in the bombing of Tokyo than died at Hiroshima. Civilians became the target. I remember my father, no radical, but a devout Christian who was troubled by the need for the war, telling me that the "bomb" had not been needed, that the air attacks had brought Japan to its knees, destroying the rail and sea transport. (And as we now know the Japanese had begun to send out serious peace feelers before the atomic bomb was used, and we know, as David Swanson suggests, that one reason for using the bomb was as an early warning to the Soviets – the seeds of the Cold War contained in the ashes of World War II).

And so on August 6th, and again on August 9th, the United States destroyed children, mothers, the elderly – in far greater numbers than any military trapped in those cities. We could have responded to the Japanese peace overtures, but the "child within us" wanted to see if this insane new toy would actually work. And, as David Swanson notes, we were, as a people, racists who saw the Japanese as less than fully human. However remember it was not just that they were Asian – we had long since taken the same view of the Germans, and would soon enough take it of the Russians.

We were reduced to players in a terrible new game which had given us death camps in Europe. David Swanson focuses on Truman and I grant that Truman was a racist in his thinking (though to his credit he desegregated the armed forces in 1948). But the problem is much deeper. It was FDR, the great liberal hero, who ordered that all the Japanese on the West Coast be sent to concentration camps for the duration of the war. Human beings were no longer in the saddle, but rather part of the machinery of insanity. We all played our parts, whether it was the infamous Soviet murder of 40,000 Polish officers at Katyn, or the Eichmann's who "only carried out orders", or, as Hannah Arendt pointed out to the dismay of many Jews, the leaders of many of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe who cooperated with the Nazis to help run the camps more efficiently. Or us, a nation so proud to call itself Christian, which in the flash of seconds destroyed tens upon tens of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The insane toy worked. And now the toy is in charge.

Now today we are almost "used to the bomb". How appalling that Israel, whose founders lived through the Holocaust, have armed themselves with such weapons. Or that the Soviet Union, which had been born in a revolution against the old order, should so soon
pride themselves on having it (for "self defense" of course). And then the Chinese and, in a supreme act of meaningless and petty arrogance, the French and the British.

Dwight Macdonald felt, as the old order crumbled, that perhaps the best we could do, in an existential way, was to choose between resistance and collaboration. He would have liked to choose revolution (as would I) but that is not on the immediate horizon – not then, and not today. Albert Camus put the matter well when he said we must choose to be "neither victims nor executioners". At whatever cost, and no matter how difficult and lonely, to seek a third camp of people – individuals and civil groups across the world – who would withdraw their support for mass murder, and seek each other out, across borders. Then as now, from the moment we launched upon that "good war" now so celebrated, the end of such good wars is death.

We cannot set government policy. In political terms we must act within the limits of politics. But we can, as individuals and as groups, say that we want the United States to unconditionally surrender the nuclear weapons, even if no other nation does so. Our politics in this regard is not "realistic" but it is necessary – some things require us to be unilateral.

Leave a comment