Peter s. Canellos: 60 Years After Hiroshima, America Still Lives In Fear

Roundup: Talking About History

... Amazingly, of all the horrible genies let out of their bottles during World War II from genocide to totalitarianism to German and Japanese aggression the threat of nuclear annihilation, ushered in by the United States, seems to have emerged as the most pressing worry for Americans today.

In honor of the anniversary of the atomic bombings, Time magazine ran gritty portraits of survivors, the shock still etched in their faces. The men and women offered their stories how they happened to turn away from the explosion and, therefore, saved themselves from being blinded, for example and the magazine soberly recorded their distance from the blast, their proximity to hell.

These kinds of testimonials are usually reserved for victims of war crimes, and while Time does not make the link directly, it does not completely resist it, either. An accompanying essay by historian David M. Kennedy notes pointedly that the United States "crossed a terrifying moral threshold" when it targeted Japanese cities, killing as many as 900,000 civilians in the two atomic bombings combined with fire-bombing raids on Tokyo and other population centers. The targeting of civilians in wartime is currently a violation of international law.

Most Americans do not question President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs, which was largely based on his gut feelings, without any official consideration of longer-term consequences. Truman's first concern was for military victory, and his first responsibility was for the numerous US troops who would have been killed in an invasion of Japan. It is hard to argue with placing those priorities ahead of future arms races and terrorist threats. And the nuclear age probably would have come to afflict the world anyway, even if Truman had held back.

But the country's feelings about nuclear weapons have clearly changed over the past 60 years, and the reason for most of today's sober assessments is clear: Sept. 11, 2001, and the fear of nuclear terrorism.

In the years immediately following World War II, the atomic bombings were footnotes to the joyous end of the war. Some accounts of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the still-present fear of radiation sickness were not widely distributed due to censorship by the US military.

From the 1950s until the 1990s, nuclear weapons were regarded more with fear than with pride, as the arms race with the Soviet Union made a nuclear attack a realistic possibility. But nuclear weapons were also the source of security: As long as the nation could promise an automatic nuclear response to a Soviet attack, there would be no benefit to a first strike. The balance of power ended up keeping the world free from nuclear attack through the entire Cold War.

Now, with the threat of terrorism paramount in American minds, there is no comfort in having nuclear missiles in the silo. No suicide bomber will ever be deterred by the threat of a retaliatory attack. In combating terrorism, nuclear weapons are almost useless to the United States, but a boon for attackers seeking to inflict as much terror as possible.

So as the United States considers the 60th anniversary of the nuclear age, it does so with a certain amount of fear and regret....

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