I recently heard an interview with Stephen Jenkinson, also known as the Griefwalker, who was asked about the influences on his life and his upbringing. Stephen noted that he was born just nine years after the liberation of Auschwitz as the world was entering what he called, “The Age of Forgetting,” that is, humanity’s frantic attempt to remove World War II from its memory.
The same year in which Auschwitz was liberated, I was born into an age that humanity wishes it could forget but that has left a permanent and unforgettable curse on the Earth, namely, the nuclear age. On the morning of August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets took off from the Pacific Island of Tinian in an airplane named Enola Gay and headed north toward Hiroshima with “Little Boy” on board, that is to say, the first atomic bomb in human history. In the wee hours of August 8, 1945 I was born, and the following day, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki. Born between Little Boy and Fat Man on the tail of Enola Gay, I arrived on this planet.
Like Stephen, I was born into the age of heroic celebration of victory, but the hypocrisy post-Hiroshima may have been even more stunning than in the aftermath of the liberation of Europe’s death camps. Oh yes, the United States ended World War II in the early days of August, 1945, but historians still debate the “necessity” of dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to achieve a Japanese surrender. In Peoples History of The United States, Howard Zinn writes:
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, set up by the War Department in 1944 to study the results of aerial attacks in the war, interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, and reported just after the war:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.
But could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is, clearly, yes. The Japanese code had been broken, and Japan’s messages were being intercepted. It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.. ..” Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes: “Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American Intelligence was able to-and did-relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a conclusion.”
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender–that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place-the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
Why did the United States not take that small step to save both American and Japanese lives? Was it because too much money and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it? General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described Truman as a man on a toboggan, the momentum too great to stop it. Or was it, as British scientist P. M. S. Blackett suggested (Fear, War, and the Bomb), that the United States was anxious to drop the bomb before the Russians entered the war against Japan?
For the past seven decades, historians have speculated regarding the use of the bomb and the United States’ intention in dropping it. An excellent article entitled “The Real Reason America Used Nuclear Weapons Against Japan. It Was Not To End The War Or Save Lives,” offers a fascinating perspective from officials involved in the decision and others on the sidelines.
Zinn makes no firm conclusion but simply asks: “The dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki seems to have been scheduled in advance, and no one has ever been able to explain why it was dropped. Was it because this was a plutonium bomb whereas the Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb? Were the dead and irradiated of Nagasaki victims of a scientific experiment?”
In his 1989 movie “Fat Man And Little Boy,” Director Roland Joffe takes us deep into the psyche of the man who headed the Manhattan Project which created the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In that remarkable film we witness the external pressure applied to Oppenheimer by the Project’s military coordinator, General Leslie Groves, and the internal pressure resulting from Oppenheimer’s all-too-human desire for scientific achievement and a Nobel Prize. Made three years after the Chernobyl disaster and during the height of the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the US, Joffe’s movie lays out a scenario in which patriarchy rules unequivocally, and matters of the heart and human compassion are incessantly deemed dangerous to national security in comparison with winning a war. Joffe devotes a significant segment of the film to the married Oppenheimer’s clandestine relationship with a known Communist Jean Tatlock in which he is ordered by Groves to stop having any contact with her. Oppenheimer makes one last trip to San Francisco to end the relationship, the encounter ending explosively as Oppenheimer and Tatlock argue about moral principles and the juxtaposition of love and war. He storms out of Tatlock’s apartment and returns to Los Alamos, the home of the Manhattan Project, choosing once again to subjugate his heart in service of creating the bomb. A few months later he receives a telegram indicating that Jean Tatlock has committed suicide.
At every turn, despite pangs of conscience to the contrary, Oppenheimer ends up submitting to the wishes of Groves, a man whom today we would consider a Tea Party member due to his fundamentalist Christian ideology and his role in organizing the construction of American internment camps for the Japanese during World War II.
The bomb is dropped, the war is won, and at the very end of the film, we see the Nobel Prize-winner riding on the roof of a car being cheered by the masses, but as Joffe moves in for a riveting close-up, we see the face of Oppenheimer consumed with despair and sorrow—an ending rendered even more poignant by the musical score of Ennio Moriconne.
In one haunting moment of celluloid, we are given what may be the facial expression most appropriate for the era into which I was born. Amid the glory and ecstasy of those first two weeks of August, 1945, for anyone who fully understood what actually happened on August 6 and August 9, just under the surface of the jubilation was the reality that while a war had ended, a nightmarish age of nuclear holocaust had just begun.
For at least the past decade, I have watched “Fat Man And Little Boy,” every year just before my birthday. It reminds me of what I was born into, but each time, without fail, it evokes the question: What on earth am I doing here? Fortunately, I have a much clearer answer to the question than I had in 1989 when I first saw the film. As Stephen Jenkinson said in the same interview mentioned above, “In some fashion we are needed right now in this world at this time. Our being here right now in this moment is not chaos or chance.” Regardless of our own needs, our obligation to the world in this era of catastrophe is to serve and to love. I do not believe that I randomly fell out of the sky and into my mother’s arms somewhere on the tail of Enola Gay between Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Forever after, my days have been replete with people whose faces mirror Oppenheimer’s in that so-called “victory” parade. What nearly ended my life at a very early age was my determination to speak the truth, even if it meant my extinction. And so today, having survived so many near-extinction events, I navigate the current possibility of the extinction of our species, endeavoring to never wear an Oppenheimer face and to assist those who do in understanding why they do not need one.
The Nuclear Age has grown far more lethal and insidious than at the first test of the first bomb at Trinity in Central New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that have been stockpiled by 9 nations around the world will not decrease anytime soon. Meanwhile, more than 400 nuclear power plants on this planet rapidly age and grow more threatening to public health with every passing day. While many organizations and individuals crusade against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and while we need the voices of people like Helen Caldicott, Harvey Wasserman, and Arnie Gundersen, what this tragedy is asking from us and has been for seven decades is deep, conscious grieving. As “Griefwalker,” Stephen Jenkinson states, what is most needed and where we ultimately find sanity is in becoming skilled practitioners of grief.
I choose to celebrate my birthday and this grim anniversary in Los Alamos, New Mexico where Oppie and the boys birthed the Nuclear Age. There, I plan to participate in a grief vigil and open ceremonies offered by the people of the Santa Clara Pueblo which is located adjacent to Los Alamos National Laboratories. I can’t imagine being anywhere else on this weekend, so momentous to me personally and to the planet.
Wherever you were born, whatever era of forgetting or hypocrisy you were born into, you are needed. Your humanity, your love, your gifts are being asked for. Whoever you are, you know how to grieve, and you know how to love. These are all that matter. Why else on earth would you be here?
The poet Antonio Machado said it best:
The wind, one brilliant day, called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’ the wind left.
And I wept. And I said to myself: ‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’