Remembering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings

The View from 2020

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Seventy-five years ago this week, the United States became the first, and so far, only, country to use atomic weapons during wartime. The heat, fires, and radiation released by these devastating weapons killed somewhere between 110,000 and 210,000 people, almost all civilians, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exact total is probably unknowable. What we do know is that the use of atomic weapons unleashed unthinkable violence on two Japanese cities. We also know that it launched an arms race that dominated global politics for the rest of the twentieth century, permanently contaminated the soil and water of nuclear weapons production sites, and continues to threaten human survival today.

Commemorations of the anniversaries in the U.S. media have traditionally focused on issues of responsibility, choice, and legacy. Could the decision to use the bomb be justified? Given the scale of firebombing and the expense of the Manhattan Project, was there even a “decision” per se? Who, if anyone, could have stopped it? How many weapons now exist, who controls them, and how do you keep other countries from getting them? What do we do about the estimated 13,410 nuclear warheads that still exist? And last but hardly least, how do you convince the public and policymakers that nuclear war remains a terrifying threat when fewer and fewer people have witnessed a nuclear detonation?

These questions categorically center the agency, responsibility, and experience of decision-makers and experts in the United States. But this year is different. Maybe it’s the uprising in the streets. Maybe it’s the tyrant in the White House, or the dawning realization that the United States, with its uncontrolled pandemic, blocks’-long lines at food banks, collapsing postal service, and botched elections, is about this close to being a failed state. Or maybe it’s because an increasingly global media environment makes it easier than ever before for Americans to read and learn from international sources. Whatever the cause, this year’s commemorations in the United States have had—at least so far—a darker, more critical mood that place the use of atomic weapons within the larger history of U.S. violence and white supremacy. Every piece that I’ve read begins with the deaths of Japanese civilians; to the extent that they even mention the now-hoary claim that the bombs “saved American lives,” it is only to dismiss it.  

This is, in my opinion, as it should be.

I have so much to learn from these framings. In my earlier work, particularly Competing with the Soviets, I replicated historians of science’s traditional focus on weapons scientists themselves as the most interesting and important people to talk about when it comes to atomic weapons. I deeply regret this. By the time I was finishing up my second book, Freedom’s Laboratory, I had realized that centering the scientists, rather than either non-expert activists or the people on the receiving end of nuclear threats, was a problem, but I didn’t know how to solve it within the framework of an account so relentlessly focused on elite actors. I settled on a chapter that explored how constrained even supposedly anti-nuclear scientists’ thinking had become when they began to value their access to power more than their original goal of nuclear abolition. This was better, but if I had that book to write over again, I would try harder to integrate critical and oppositional voices into the account from the beginning.

It’s only Tuesday. Who can say what the pieces published later this week will look like. But in the meantime, here are four insightful pieces/projects, some published this week, some earlier, that deserve your attention and may very well change your thinking about the bomb:

“The Hibakusha’s 75-Year Journey to Ban Nuclear Weapons.” ICAN (The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) has converted the landing page of its website into a moving, multimedia tribute to the bombing survivors who have dedicated their lives to eliminating nuclear weapons.

“Memorial Days: The Racial Underpinnings of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings,” by Elaine Scarry, places the United States’ use of atomic weapons within the longer history of state violence against racialized, defenseless civilians.

“Why the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima Would be Illegal Today,” by Katherine McKinney, Scott Sagan, and Allen Weiner, argues that the use of atomic weapons in Japan should be considered a war crime.

This piece on Downwinders, by journalist Kelsey Atherton, looks at the long struggle of New Mexicans to obtain acknowledgement and compensation from the U.S. government for the harms caused by the Trinity Test.

This is only scraping the surface of what has become a much richer and more pungent way of talking about nuclear weapons and their legacy. I’d love to hear what you’re reading and learning from.

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ICYMI: Science journalist Sarah Scoles had a fantastic piece in the New York Times on the tangled history of astrobiology with military research that references an article I wrote a long time ago on Joshua Lederberg and exobiology. To my everlasting delight, the NYT article includes the comment, “Dr. Wolfe notes that even neutrality is, of course, a political goal. And no science, not even the purest, exists in a vacuum.” And now I can die happy.

Pub day for Freedom’s Lab, the paperback! No book is perfect, but two years out, I’m proud of the previously hidden story I managed to tell in Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Since its publication in October 2018, this book has helped change the conversation in the United States about what it means to talk about science as an apolitical enterprise. And, as of today, it’s available in paperback. Thank you, so much, to everyone who’s read it, talked about it, wrote about it, or listened to me talk about it. Writing’s hard, and I’m so grateful for your support. <3 <3 <3