“It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued from Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with a fighting skill of which they have already become well aware.” - President Harry S. Truman, speech (6th August, 1945)
Thus was the era of nuclear war introduced to the world this day some 63 years ago. And for the past few years it seems to me that the world has lost sight of the horror, the sheer inhuman horror of that era.
When the so-called “Cold War” ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall citizens of the world have been lulled into a kind of torpor and perhaps moral quietude about this issue. Maybe all the other horrors of the modern world have eclipsed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder about that.
I wonder if racism could be involved. I wonder if Japanese lives are less valuable than occidental, and particularly United States, lives. Or is it a reflection of the fact that the Japanese at the time were enemy combatants, systematically dehumanised in the propaganda of war, as Islamic people are now being made victims of similar propaganda in the wake of 9/11?
Nuclear weapons have not gone away. They are still in the arsenals of combatant countries around the world, some acknowledged, and some unacknowledged. And that fact alone is extraordinarily scary.
As Jonathan Schell wrote in The Fate of the Earth in 1982: These bombs were built as "weapons" for "war," but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate man. They are a pit into which the whole world can fall - a nemesis of all human intentions, actions, and hopes. Only life itself, which they threaten to swallow up, can give the measure of their significance."
Some years ago I was in Germany at the beginning of summer and walked with a friend up a gently swelling hill covered with, I think, beech trees, and these lovely little yellow flowers all around on the soft green grass, birds twittering in the branches and the sun warming our backs as we walked. It was so peaceful, so gentle, so quiet.
And then my friend quietly remarked, “Do you know that below this hill, some metres under our feet, are many megatons of nuclear warheads?” That kind of shattered the peace of the moment for me.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who led the team which developed this terrible weapon, is said to have thought, at the moment of the first successful detonation of an atomic device, of a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, the famous Hindu scripture, a quotation from the Eleventh Chapter, entitled Visva-Rupa-Darsana-yoga, or the "Yoga of Theophany", the chapter in which Krishna displays His Universal form—His divine Opulence—to Arjuna: “The Lord said: ‘Time [death] I am, the destroyer of the worlds, who has come to annihilate everyone. Even without your taking part all those arrayed in the [two] opposing ranks will be slain!’”
T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland in 1922, a long and ambiguous poem that foreshadowed the anguish of the atomic age. These lines from Section V: What the Thunder said, are particularly apposite:
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
It’s interesting that William Carlos Williams, the great US poet, remarked of this poem that it “wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped on it.”
Certainly literature can help us maintain the memory of atrocities and hold the hope that humanity might one day learn to live in peace, but that hope seems precarious in the face of so much naked aggression and hatred as is loose in the world today.
As time goes by and the number of survivors of that terrible day in 1945 gets smaller and smaller, we need something to keep the knowledge alive, to keep us focussed on changing, of bringing the world a little humanity, a little dignity, a little peace.
This we can only do by, to quote Gandhi, by being the change we want to see in the world. This means by treating all life as sacred, each person as an end in himself or herself, as worthy of dignity and respect and understanding.
When I think of the thousands killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on those fateful days in1945, I am reminded of other words by Eliot, this time from one of the Four Quartets, first published in 1944:
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
And then a few lines later in Little Gidding Eliot sounds a note of some ambiguous hope, some possibility of redemption:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
On this anniversary of the dawn of the atomic age, I can only cling to this shred of hope.