Hiroshima and the World: Awakening America’s "Moral Responsibility to Act"

by Peter Kuznick

Peter Kuznick
Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He was born in New York City in July 1948 and received his Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctoral degrees from Rutgers University. His doctorate was earned in History, in 1984, and he began his work at American University in 1986. He is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America and co-author of Rethinking Cold War Culture. Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and U.S. Perspectives, co-authored with Professor Akira Kimura, will be published in Japanese later this year. He is currently writing a 10-part documentary film series with Oliver Stone titled "The Secret History of the United States" that will air in January 2011. He and Oliver Stone are also co-authoring a book by that title. He is now serving his third term as Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

Awakening America's "Moral Responsibility to Act": The Hibakusha as Teachers and Role Models

More than 100 A-bomb survivors (Hibakusha) visited the United States last month to attend the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations. They came as living reminders of what even two very small and primitive atomic bombs can do to human beings. They came not as victims, but as the conscience of humanity—indefatigable crusaders against the scourge of nuclear weapons that still threaten the life of every living creature on this planet. They came with one message: never again—and one determination: that they live to see the day when all nuclear weapons are wiped off the face of the Earth.

They came as ambassadors of peace and reached many thousands of people during their stay. They spoke at conferences like the one that I helped organize that brought Hibakusha together with victims of the 9/11. They met with community and peace groups. They addressed delegates at the United Nations, where they created an exhibit and met with UN officials and government representatives. They enlightened children of all ages at schools and colleges. They marched alongside thousands of others demanding the eradication of nuclear weapons. Throughout this time, they were followed everywhere by a large contingent of Japanese media. But the Hibakusha were almost completely ignored by the major U.S. corporate media, who must have believed that Americans were still not ready to confront what their country did 65 years ago.

I know first-hand the power of the Hibakusha message. I began bringing students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1995. My student Akiko Naono, whose grandfather was killed in Hiroshima and whose mother and grandmother survived, and I launched American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. I taught classes on nuclear history and culture and we brought students to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum canceled its Enola Gay exhibit after conservatives complained that the exhibit undermined the official U.S. narrative that the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of American lives by ending the war without an invasion. Historians castigated the museum's capitulation to the advocates of historical cleansing, but our protests did not succeed. So when officials from Hiroshima and Nagasaki asked if American University might display some artifacts that were intended for the Smithsonian, we jumped at the opportunity to host Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s only exhibit outside Japan on the 50th anniversary.

That summer I brought my first group of students to Japan and began my friendship with Atsushi Fujioka, Professor of Economics at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, who made most of the arrangements. I had taught about Hiroshima for years, but being there for the 50th anniversary was an inexpressibly moving experience for me.

My students often say that our annual two-week Peace Tours in Kyoto, Hiroshima and, since 1998, Nagasaki are life-changing experiences. The events of that first summer certainly changed my life. I had been a civil rights and antiwar activist from the age of 12 and had long favored nuclear abolition. My scholarship mainly focused on political activism among scientists. I was, at that time, writing a book about U.S. scientists and the Vietnam War. After visiting Hiroshima, my interests turned almost exclusively to the atomic bombings and nuclear history. The annual study-abroad class in Japan became a collaborative effort in which my students and Professor Fujioka’s students from Ritsumeikan and Asia Pacific University live, travel, and study together. The program got a special boost in 1996, during our second visit, when I met Ms. Koko Kondo, whose father Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto was one of six Hibakusha profiled in John Hersey’s classic 1946 book Hiroshima, which for the first time humanized the victims for American readers. Koko-san, who was only eight months old during the bombing, was a distinguished graduate of American University. She shared her heartrending story with my students that summer and has done so ever since. She now spends the entire time we are in Japan with our group.

Educating Americans about the history of the atomic bombings is an essential but challenging task. More than one-third of young Americans don't know that Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bombing or that their country used such weapons against Japan in World War II. One survey from last summer showed that 61 percent still approved the atomic bombings and only 22 percent were opposed. While that may be construed as progress when compared with the 85 percent who felt that way in 1945, it is still very frustrating. I confronted this again very personally in 2003 when I spearheaded the protest against a new Smithsonian display of the Enola Gay. The museum director announced that they were going to display the plane "in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement." Many of us, including a delegation of Hibakusha, thought that obscene and let our feelings be known. Again, despite the condemnations of hundreds of scholars, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and Pulitzer Prize winners, our protests fell on deaf ears.

Yet there have been some encouraging developments. President Obama has put nuclear abolition back on the global agenda. And in his inspiring Prague speech of April 2009, Obama declared, "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." Acknowledgement of America’s special responsibility is an important first step.

Second, while last summer's survey showed 73 percent of those over 55 approving Truman's actions, only 50 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 did so. Younger Americans, much like my students, are open to understanding why six out of America's seven five star admirals and generals who earned their fifth star in World War II believed the atomic bombings were either morally reprehensible or militarily unnecessary.

If trying to change U.S. citizens' understanding of nuclear history can be extremely frustrating, bringing students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been the perfect antidote. Meeting with Mayor Akiba and Japanese experts is always inspiring, but hearing directly from the Hibakusha is an experience my students never forget. Many examples stand out, but I will only tell about one—a woman in her thirties whose grandfather was on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after having delivered the first atomic bomb to Tinian in July 1945. Most of the crew went down with the ship or fell victim to shark attacks or drowning while awaiting rescue. The student had grown up hearing her grandfather's stories about this incident and his anger at the submarine captain for not rescuing the victims. In our discussions, she strongly defended the atomic bombings. Within days of arriving in Japan, she began expressing doubts. By the end of the 2008 Peace Tour, she was a passionate critic of the bombings and is writing her doctoral thesis on aspects of the Hibakusha experience. She will be returning for her third Peace Tour this summer.

While most students don't undergo such a dramatic transformation, several have gone on to careers in disarmament and arms control or have written on nuclear topics and almost all have become passionate advocates of nuclear abolition. I always make sure my students learn one lesson. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while war crimes of the first order causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and inflicting horrible suffering on survivors, were done by primitive bombs. The United States soon developed hydrogen bombs. During the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s, America's nuclear arsenal grew from 1,750 nuclear weapons to 23,000. In 1961, the Soviet Union tested a nuclear weapon of over 50 megatons, more than 3,000 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The world's nuclear arsenals soon exceeded 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs in destructive capability. Twenty-three thousand frighteningly accurate and powerful nuclear weapons remain. Were they ever to be used again, what happened in 1945 would pale by comparison.

Fifty-five years ago, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell wrote that if London, Moscow, and New York were destroyed the human species would recover in a few hundred years. But, they warned, an all-out nuclear war would leave no survivors. That danger still haunts us today. The possibility of human extinction is the real meaning of the nuclear age. Nothing could justify such a risk. We must heed the message of the Hibakusha and eliminate them now, while we still have the chance.

(Original published on June 28, 2010)

To comment on this article, please click the link below. Comments will be moderated and posted in a timely fashion. Comments may also appear in the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper.