Pearl Harbor. Normandy Beach. Hiroshima. Names, places, memories, and lessons we should never forget.
Last week I was moved beyond words by time spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Garden and Museum in Japan. In fundamental ways the experience mirrored my reactions during visits in recent years to Pearl Harbor and Normandy Beach.
The world at the time of those earlier visits seemed more stable than it does in 2019. Just a few years ago we didn’t have out-of-control individuals in positions of immense power in the United States; individuals threatening to use nuclear weapons against other nations and people just because the capability exists. Instead, we had leaders who sought, at least at some fundamental levels, to try and unite us as a people and as a world. There seemed to be adults in charge who had the memories to understand the horror to humankind of nuclear war.
As John Hersey, the author of the landmark 1946 piece on Hiroshima in The New Yorker, once wrote:
“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, as much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”
Hersey’s piece, the only single-content edition of The New Yorker in the history of that publication, was the subject of a pre-tour lecture I attended by Harvard Professor Werner Sollors*. In his talk, Professor Sollors spoke to the impact of Hersey’s reporting and how it led the U.S. government to revise its narrative about why dropping the bomb was necessary. The report was serialized in some 70+ newspapers (back before all the major newspapers were owned by a small handful of conglomerates), turned into a book (never out-of-print), produced as a national radio reading, and became a touchstone for the nuclear non-proliferation movement. I bought a copy of the book at the Hiroshima museum and finished reading it in two nights. Sollors’ lecture was a powerful preface to visiting the place where the world’s history changed.
A visit to Hiroshima begins at the A-Bomb Dome, a 19th century industrial building made of steel and brick that survived the bombing and has been left as a ruin to dramatize the scale of the destruction. On the day of our visit, the dome—and every other element of the peace garden and museum—was flooded with Japanese students. A visit to Hiroshima is a key part of education in Japan, and the message focused on the need for peace and non-proliferation is powerful.
Hiroshima is a very different testament to the destructive power of war when placed against Pearl Harbor and Normandy. Yes, both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima were attacks carried out in surprise. But in the case of Pearl Harbor—and also at Normandy—the targets were largely military. Hiroshima was one of a handful of major Japanese cities that had been spared from large-scale bombing, and was chosen for the A-bomb attack in part for that reason. Almost 100,000 people—largely civilians—died on August 6, 1945, the day of the bombing, or shortly thereafter. The overall toll came to more than 140,000. The museum effectively shows the massive destruction, unlike any seen before during a single day of the war, and the impact on the people of the city, the country, and the world.
At Pearl Harbor, I saw the floating memorial to the individuals killed and buried in the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona. I walked among row after row of headstones at the American cemetery at Normandy, stones with the names of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and some, who made the same sacrifice for country, but whose names are known only to God.
At Hiroshima, it is different. There is a simple memorial in the shape of a burial vault, with the names of the citizens of that city who died in the attack. Many lost their lives in an instant. John Hersey said the survivors described the atomic bomb as “a noiseless flash” that, unless you were several miles away from ground zero, gave you no time to react. His description of the experience of Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk for the East Asia Tin Works, describes the horror felt by tens of thousands.
“She thought that before she began to make entries in her lists of new employees, discharges, and departures for the Army, she would chat for a moment with the girl at her right. Just as she turned her head away from the windows, the room was filled with a blinding light. She was paralyzed by fear, fixed still in her chair for a long moment (the plant was 1,600 yards from the center).
Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in a tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
Crushed by books in the first moment of the atomic age. It is a scene powerful and alive with meaning. The world changed. But Hersey’s telling of that story is given further resonance because we have come to know the place. And the place that is Hiroshima in 2019 tells of the horror not only of 1945, but of the potential horror today and in the future if the world refuses to learn the lessons from this act. The places we choose to preserve, even when they are of unspeakable tragedies, have the power to tell us about who we are as a people and what we can do differently in the future. Pearl Harbor, Normandy Beach, and Hiroshima provide individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time, to create identity for individuals, communities, nations, and the world. We can choose to shape that identity because Hiroshima remains as relevant today as it was in 1945.
But we have to want to learn the lessons, else we are destined to repeat the mistakes.
More to come…
*Professor Sollors and Professor Alide Cagidemetrio are currently at work together on Face to Face with Antiquity, which examines visitors to global sites of antiquity.