NEW YORK – When Mark Hatfield, who had served as a U.S. Senator from Oregon for three decades, died in early August, obituaries noted that he was one of the first U.S. soldiers to visit Hiroshima not long after the atomic bombing of the city, and that experience led him to work for nuclear arms control later, after he became a Senator.
As it happened, the day of Hatfield’s death, Aug. 7, fell between the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the day it did on Nagasaki, in 1945.
His death occurred, in fact, when an annual round of commentaries on those deeds were appearing. Among them, the historian Gar Alperovitz wrote to point out that “the vast majority of top American military leaders in all three services” argued after the war that the U.S. “did not need to use the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan in 1945” (“On the Sixty-Sixth Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima”).
So, I turned to Hatfield’s autobiography, “Against the Grain: Reflections of a Rebel Republican” (2001). Hatfield did not say his country did something unnecessary, but did say what he saw in Hiroshima changed his outlook on war and nuclear weapons.
A navy lieutenant when the Allied Powers defeated Japan, Hatfield was sent, along with several others, to “observe” Hiroshima “just one month after the bomb. The destruction … in Tokyo couldn’t compare here.” (He had attended Japan’s surrender ceremony on Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2.) “The devastation lay indiscriminate and the people cowered at our arrival in patchwork clothes. Well over 100,000 of their neighbors had been incinerated by one bomb.”
Later, two Japanese men took him and a fellow officer on their bikes and peddled them through “narrow trails cleared of rubble — no streets remained.” Among the spectacles Hatfield remembered seeing were “glass, fused together by sheer heat, and scorched, bar-like markings on a bridge indicating the direction the miles-away nuclear heat had scarred. … Buildings were in ruins, patches of the city still smelled of dead bodies, and rubble revealed bones and household implements.”
He apparently did not see any surviving victims. But the experience would forever mark his “deepest thinking,” he wrote.
So, in 1965, during the National Governors Association meeting, Hatfield, then governor of Oregon, became just one of two members of the group who openly condemned President Lyndon Johnson for escalating the war in Vietnam.
Ironically, it was during Jimmy Carter’s administration that Hatfield decided to do something to deal with the very cause of what he called “the Age of Anxiety” — the mindlessly expanding nuclear arsenal. Carter, the only U.S. president in recent memory who did not start a war, proposed to adopt the neutron bomb.
Hatfield and his Senate almost passed anti-neutron bomb legislation but lost by just one vote. Fortunately, Carter himself later killed his own proposal.
Ronald Reagan, who took over from Carter, came up with another “plague”: “Star Wars.” Hatfield, with Sen. Ted Kennedy, decided to prevent the grandiose scheme from moving ahead.
What was the use of further multiplying nuclear weapons, each one “many times more powerful than what we had unleashed on Hiroshima or Nagasaki”?
The effort led by the two Senators failed, but the two would continue to work on a nuclear freeze. As the Arms Control Association’s website describes it in its tribute to Hatfield, it was an arduous process, though in the end successful.
Thus Hatfield was one American politician who was awakened to his profound sense of humanity when he witnessed, as a young man, the horrendous destruction the first atomic bomb brought. In contrast, the perpetrating entity, the U.S. government, has not evinced any such awakening toward what it did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was, after all, only last year — 65 years after the fact — that the U.S. government sent an official representative for the first time to the annual memorial ceremony in Hiroshima (an ambassador) and, this year, to Nagasaki (a charge d’affaires). Even then, it took care not to suggest anything like remorse, let alone an “apology” by that act.
In truth, the U.S. government from the outset had moved to “cover up” the evidence of its own deeds.
As Greg Mitchell recounts in “Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made” (2011), Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme ruler of Japan after the country’s defeat, sent a team to film the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (in that order) in early 1946 but classified the result. MacArthur also confiscated and classified newsreels the Japanese had made right after the bombings of the two cities.
Why did the U.S. engage in the “cover-up”? That was Mitchell’s question. He has pursued the reasons and consequences of atomic bombings for three decades, writing, with Robert Jay Lifton, “Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial” (1995).
At least two men on the filmmaking team that MacArthur dispatched to the bombed cities had known of the existence of the film footage all along: Herbert Sussan and Daniel McGovern, Mitchell found.
But Sussan, a pioneering TV director, for all his efforts, failed to bring the footage to the public. It was after he happened to go to an exhibit at the United Nations mounted by Tsutomu Iwakura and told him about the footage that it was located and brought to light. That was in 1979, just about the time Sen. Hatfield started to contend with the nuclear threat. Iwakura had started “an association to create a peace museum.”
McGovern, who, unlike Sussan, had stayed on with the military and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, knew the higher-ups had forbidden making the footage public. Both the Atomic Energy Commission and those involved in the Manhattan Project were adamant about it.
Asked why the U.S. government “deep-sixed” the footage, McGovern responded: “The main reason it was classified was because of the horror, the devastation. The medical effects were pretty gory. One of the most terrible things was the body burns.
“The attitude was: Do not show any medical effects. Don’t make people sick.”
Robert Fisk, the great journalist on the Middle East who had spent years in Belfast, recently said of the British Army’s conduct in Iraq: “It wasn’t the brutality that was ‘systematic.’ It was the lying.”
Applied to the U.S. dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, you can say both acts of brutality and hiding were.
Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator who lives in New York.
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