It was threatening to rain when we got to Nagasaki, a picturesque town at the western tip of Japan, the tip nearest to both Korea and China. When Japan withdrew from the world in 1636, and to enforce the ban on Christianity that had begun in 1587, an artificial island was built off Nagasaki harbor called Dejima, to house the remaining Portuguese. Dejima became Japan's only window to the Western World for 200 years. It is ironic that one of the most Western cities in Japan was the site of the second original Ground Zero.
It was raining when we concluded our business and headed over to the Atomic Bomb Museum, which is mostly below street level, tucked into an otherwise bustling neighborhood. The Peace Park memorial is on a hill a little ways away, easy to miss when going about daily activities. Ground Zero is tucked in between the hill and the museum. Nagasaki is a busy place, well built up, and perhaps does not wish to be reminded of its place in history.
The A Bomb Museum is sobering, as it was designed to be. We were taught that it was a little bomb, only 20 kilotons, and it was dropped off target, with much of its blast effect shielded by the many hills that surround this delightful seaside town. Back then Nagasaki was built up both sides of a river valley, up from the harbor. The bomb was dropped in an airburst up the valley, rather than where it was supposed to be, at the harbor. It almost wasn't dropped at all, but the clouds parted for just enough time to get a bearing. In 3 seconds, the area was seared. In 20 seconds, the area was leveled. In the next few hours, what remained burned to the ground. The pictures of the aftermath have been censored, but here are some recently released ones from both cities with incredible next-day pictures of Nagasaki (caution: graphic). For such a little bomb, 150,000 casualties in a city of 240,000. As you leave the exhibit, you walk past a Wall of Megatons, showing how many additional weapons of 1000 times the size of that little bomb had been built since. You walk out wondering what peculiar madness gripped us during the Cold War. It is almost unimaginable what a 20 megaton bomb would have done, let alone 50,000 of them; the 20 kiloton bomb pretty well devastated the city.
The major part of the exhibit shows the remains of the Christian Church that was one of the major structures near the hypocenter, the place on the ground directly below the airburst. It certainly connects the event to visiting Westerners. It loses a bit of impact when one reads the fine print: the major church in the most Christianized of Japanese cities had but 12 parishioners in attendance on Sunday morning at 11 am when the bomb hit. Nagasaki was a very Japanese city, indeed the company town for Mitsubishi, the leading ship and plane builder in Japan - a 'Haliburton' of its day, but of much bigger importance - which even today touches 10% of the GDP of Japan.
The other somewhat incongruous part of the exhibit is the Causes of War wall, which was mostly in Japanese, unlike the rest of the exhibit, which is largely in English. One can only speculate how the Japanese are told of the reasons for the bomb, or the events leading up to it. Were they told of the American experience rooting out very tough fighters from every cave and trench in Okinawa, at great losses? And of the Kamikaze planes, who did more damage to the US Navy than had the Japanese Fleet post Pearl Harbor? Or that after the Hiroshima bomb, the Japanese military apparently still wanted to fight?
If we had not dropped The Bomb, our most likely course would have been to destroy the Japanese railway system, throwing the country into starvation. (After Okinawa, the Project Olympic invasion of the southern island seemed too costly.) Perhaps 10 million would have died before the war would have ended. Stalin would have taken all of Korea and the northern Island of Japan. The Bomb saved lives, and saved Japan from a worse fate.
The Bomb is a peculiar thing. Tolkien warned us of it. When asked after Nagasaki, he denied the Ring of Doom was specifically the Bomb, but it certainly is a metaphor for that object of overwhelming power. There were no Hobbits left in 1945. Clearly Man cannot be trusted with such power. In the past we have always used it. Iron let Rome conquer the world. Stirrups spurred the horse peoples of the steppes to terrorize Europe. Gunpowder helped Europe colonize continents. And Atomics enabled the US to bring the war to a close without the need to see if all of Japan would be another Okinawa.
We almost came to a nuclear war in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Supposedly all of Kennedy's advisors recommended a military strike in Cuba, except for his brother, Robert, who urged caution. How the President found a middle way in such an environment is hard to imagine. (Our most recent President showed no such patience with his Ring, the overwhelming Info Army, when he rushed it into Iraq.) Barely 30 years later, the Soviet Union was in the dustbin of history. We found since then looking in their archives that the Cubans had nuclear tipped missiles, and the ability to arm them. If Kennedy had followed his advisors, we would have lost cities up the Atlantic Coast, and who knows what would have followed. What passions of the moment would have been worth that, especially given the Fall of the Berlin Wall within a generation?
Back in the USA, at an EcoSalon session on nuclear threats, the discussion centered on a small 1 kiloton bomb being set off by terrorists in the heart of the San Francisco financial district. The dry PowerPoint presentation went through blast zones, fallout and overall deaths. You can marvel at how clinical we can be about such an event, which would be more impactful and horrific than the body count can ever convey.
The decision to drop it is also an event worth pondering. Reportedly, Truman had no remorse, no moral qualms. It is often said, inaccurately, that the firebombing of Dresden, or of Tokyo (which, odd to say, Robert McNamara was involved with), caused more damage, as if to justify the Bomb as just another weapon. The debate that has raged ever since shows this to be too facile.
Under what circumstances might a terrorist resort to the Bomb? Would they have any qualms over using it? Truman's decision came after years of relentless warfare and 50 million deaths across the whole world. Perhaps terrorists would hesitate before taking such a step, to maintain the moral high ground. Or perhaps they would reach a moral compromise: since of all nations, we are the one to have used the Bomb, we might be the one who could be subjected to the Bomb.
In Nagasaki, they understand Karma.