And Allah knows what you conceal and what you reveal. (Holy Qur’an 16:19)
Kirchwey dialogue continued from part 1
… A new conference of the nations must be assembled to set up a World Government, to which every state must surrender an important part of its sovereignty. In this World Government must be vested the final control over atomic energy and within each nation the people must establish public ownership and social development of the revolutionary force that was thrust into their hands. This program will sound drastic only to people who have not yet grasped the meaning of the new discovery. It is not drastic. We face a choice between one world or none.
That fall, the Nation Associates—now the Nation Builders—hosted one of the first forums to discuss how atomic energy and weaponry had changed domestic and international political questions, as Sara Alpern records in her outstanding 1987 biography of Kirchwey. The British political theorist and Labor Party chairman Harold Laski, headlining the event, seconded Kirchwey’s argument, telling the crowd that only international socialism could protect humanity from destruction. “No one nation is fit to be trusted with the development of atomic energy,” Laski declared. “We must plan our civilization or we must perish.”
Several articles in the decade after 1945 explored the impact of the bomb on the ground—including a 1946 review of John Hersey’s seminal book Hiroshima and, in 1955, translations of excerpts from the recently published memoirs of several Japanese survivors.
As the decades passed and the Cold War congealed into a seemingly perpetual state of nuclear standoff, Nation writers began to consider the ways in which so much of contemporary political thinking and behavior could be traced directly to Hiroshima. In 1981’s “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” the Pulitzer-winning historian and current Nation editorial board member Martin Sherwin wrote:
The American public’s sense of powerless before a monster its own government created and used may be the single most important reason behind the easy acceptance of the idea—so vigorously promoted by the Reagan Administration—that only nuclear superiority can guarantee our national security. Even here, the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is relevant, for it is of paramount importance to those who wish to rely increasingly upon nuclear weapons that these weapons not be tarnished with a sense of guilt that could inhibit their use as an instrument of diplomacy.
However, the least obvious impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be the most important: the subtle conversion of tens of millions of people over the course of thirty-six years of nuclear arms racing to the idea that nuclear war is inevitable. The button exists and someday someone will push it; nothing can prevent that. Technology has altered our confidence in free will.
Nation writers also began to reconsider whether the bombing needed to happen in the first place, and why it did. While Kirchwey saw the post-war diplomatic implications of the atomic bomb as secondary, though important, consequences, Sherwin—and many Nation writers since—have tended to view the impending power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as the primary motivation behind the bomb’s use, if not its design:
Truman inherited the basic policy that governed the atomic bomb, just as he inherited every other policy related to the war, a point that commentators on both sides of the debate often ignore. It was therefore possible to use the bomb only because Roosevelt had made preparations to do so. Truman was inclined to use the bomb because of those preparations. But he decided to use it because there seemed no good reason not to. On the contrary, the bombs were available and the Japanese fought on; the bombs were available and precedents of burned cities were numerous; the bombs were available and $2 billion had been spent to create them; the bombs were available and revenge had its claim; the bombs were available and the Soviet Union was claiming too much.
In 1995’s “The Atomic Curtain,” the psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton and current Nation blogger Greg Mitchell, co-authors of Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, found in the ultra-secretive creation of the bomb and in the deliberations over using it the origins of the same National Security State that today identifies as a top national priority the persecution of a 29-year-old former intelligence analyst for telling the American people what they have every right to know. “Hiroshima was the mother of all cover-ups,” they wrote, “creating distortions, manipulative procedures and patterns of concealment that have affected all of American life. Secrecy has been linked with national security—and vice versa—ever since.”
Starting with Hiroshima, officials advised Americans to leave all problems surrounding the bomb to political, scientific and military leaders—the nuclear priesthood. Americans were not supposed to think critically or engage in the debate over the gravest issue of our age. Over time, we became accustomed to bowing out of that discussion, and then of debates involving other major issues. We got used to putting the greatest problems, military and social, completely in the hands of experts and political leaders who claimed to have them under control—only to recognize in painful moments that they didn’t have them in hand at all. Surrendering our right to know more about Hiroshima, and later nuclear policies, contributed to our gradual alienation from the entire political process.
The message of the official Hiroshima narrative was control: controlling the story of Hiroshima, controlling nuclear weapons, controlling history. But the official narrative also increased ordinary Americans’ sense of being out of control of their own destiny, of being out of control of the forces that determine their future.
No wonder, then, that the American people have come to feel deceived by the bomb and its caretakers. We know that ominous truths have been concealed from us—starting with Hiroshima. One reason we remain confused is that part of each of us psychologically colluded in the concealment. But our resentment at what has been concealed and falsified does not necessarily limit itself to nuclear matters but can spread, vaguely and bitterly, into just about any aspect of social and national experience.
We have to ask ourselves, then, how much of our mistrust of politicians and public officials, of the media, of our government and just about all who govern us—how much of this angry cynicism so evident in our public life in recent years—is an outcome of the Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima nuclear deceptions and concealments. To what extent do we feel ourselves a people who have been unforgivably deceived in that most fundamental of human areas—having to with how, when and by whose hand, or lethal technology, we are to die?
The streets were full of bodies after the burning.