By Telma Luzzani – Aug 6, 2020
The picture of a man, with his back turned, watching the devastation, scared. Stone over stone, he sees only death. It was August 6, 1945, at the time of the morning when there were more people in the street. Unexpectedly, an atomic attack raised the temperature to 3,000 degrees Celsius and everything burned to the ground within a four-kilometer radius. As the American newsreels of the time boasted, “Hiroshima had been wiped off the map”.
Today, 75 years later, the question of how this was possible is still alive. How did hundreds of people, still aware of the damage they were causing, manufacture, transport and load an atomic bomb so that someone could finally drop it on a defenseless city where there were only children, women and old people because the men were all on the front lines? How can anyone consider that a normal act? How could it be a desirable genocidal outcome?
The American historian H. Bruce Franklin sought to understand the deep reasons for America’s violent idiosyncrasies and its fetishistic cult of weapons. In his book War Stars, The Superweapon and the American Imagination, he traces the origin of that structural doctrine for American thought and action, according to which to help a country you have to bomb it. “Even those responsible for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he says, “convinced themselves that their actions were humanitarian, to save lives and restore the reign of peace.”
The first to promote the use of a highly lethal weapon to establish a reign of peace and prosperity was Robert Fulton (1765-1815), a pioneer of submarine warfare. From that point on,” explains the historian, “a macabre triad between technological and arms development, morality and culture slowly took hold. Without an effective cultural battle, it is not possible to overcome the moral rejection of mass crimes (and the fear of death itself) and without having overcome this limit, the common citizen would reject not only the scientific development of weapons, but also the fact that his tax money would go to the Pentagon.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the guiding lines of works of fiction were foreign aggression against the country, the world domination of the United States, apocalyptic terrors and the abolition of war thanks to the existence of a definitive super weapon. “That doctrine which shaped our national policy was first presented in the cultural imagination by the novels of the futuristic wars,” wrote Franklin, based on the analysis of a vast body of literature and film.
A story published in 1910 anticipated the extermination of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion”, the action takes place in 1976. China has risen to become the world’s leading power and the United States must defend itself. The final solution is to liquidate all Chinese men, women and children by bombing them with a “rain of infection”. Franklin writes: “The Japanese and Chinese hordes in the texts of the first half of the 20th century pose such a great threat that they legitimize a genocidal air war.”
According to the Japanese government, approximately 166,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 60,000 in Nagasaki. The radiation left lesions and cancers of all kinds. The American cultural apparatus, once the crime was committed in real life, put all its strength into minimizing it. In the semi-documentary The Honor of His Name (1952), for example, the horror and human tragedy are reduced to the domestic anguish of an American couple. “Colonel Paul Tibtets (Robert Taylor), commander of the B-29, could not tell his wife (Eleonor Parker), about the secret weapon he was preparing to launch on Hiroshima and this temporarily ruined their bond. The film presents a subtext that urges civilians to accept the secret, not to meddle in military affairs and to be grateful for the bomb,” Franklin discusses in his book.
Before World War II, the propaganda effort was directed at promoting nuclear activity, after the war, in order to make the arms race “friendly”.
In 1942, the Manhattan Project succeeded in building the first nuclear bomb. In that decade, the government and a wide sector of the industry deployed a massive campaign whose motto was “atoms for peace”. At that time, the Atomic Energy Commission and the General Electric Company were preparing the contents of exhibitions, films and even texts for certain high school subjects. The father of the atomic bomb himself, General Leslie Groves, provided the information, for comic strips for the newspapers.
After 1945, the US elites appealed to both hard and soft power in favor of the military industrial apparatus. “There was a sophisticated system of coercion and propaganda against those who questioned, especially in the influential field of culture, and they were silenced. Texts or works that opposed the arms race were outlawed and there were purges in the media, in education and in the unions,” says Franklin, who points out that Hollywood produced only two films with a pacifist content: Five, directed by Arch Oboler, and The Day They Paralyzed the Earth, by Robert Wise, both in 1951. All others were banned. “From 1952 to 1958, films about atomic weapons became pro-Cold War pamphlets.”
While the ordinary citizen was provided with arguments to abandon his ethical prurient, at the top of power moral cynicism was rampant. This is clearly seen in Errol Morris’ extraordinary documentary, “Fog of the War”, a military expression that alludes to a particular situation of mental confusion that soldiers often suffer in the midst of war to the point that they lose all reference point and can head for the enemy front thinking it is their own.
The film is a conversation with Robert McNamara. Already an octogenarian, the former U.S. Defense Minister not only exposes his musings during the Vietnam War but details the perverse syllogisms that underpinned the genocides in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“In March 1945 I was on the island of Guam. I was analyzing how to make the bombing more efficient, not in the sense of killing civilians but of weakening the adversary,” McNamara tells the camera. By the time he was 29, the Air Force had recruited him to the university because of his brilliant mind for statistics. “In one night we burned 100,000 Japanese alive; 135 square kilometers of Tokyo burned because their houses were made of wood and we threw firebombs. I was part of a broad mechanism that recommended it. Was that moral? Was it necessary to drop the atomic bomb when we had already killed 50 to 90 percent of the people in 67 cities in Japan,” the documentary asks the statistical genius.
Although in Europe, Nazi Germany had capitulated in May 1945, Japan was still at war. The official story is that President Harry Truman ordered two bombs to be dropped as a way of ending the conflict. However, the magnitude of the attack smacks of racist retaliation with a mafia-like message.
Not without cynicism, McNamara reflects to the camera: “We dropped two bombs. Was it disproportionate? For some, yes. The general who gave the order told us that if we had lost, we would have been tried as war criminals for our immoral acts. Why is it immoral if you lose and not if you win?”
Seventy-five years after the worst crimes of contemporary history, it is time for a campaign in the US demanding NEVER AGAIN. In difficult times of hegemonic transition, this is the time for a profound global reflection in favor of peace.