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Monday, September 1, 2014

Trying to put nuclear genie back in the bottle

Two weeks ago was the 68th anniversary of the American attack on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. On Aug. 9 of that year, the U.S. deployed the first plutonium bomb, a.k.a. Fat Boy, just three days after dropping the first uranium bomb on Hiroshima.

What can an American think while standing at ground zero at Nagasaki? Some years ago I toured the city’s memorial museum, and viewed photos taken the day before we dropped the atom bomb and the day after.

Seventy-three thousand people, mostly civilians, were killed instantly. Tens of thousands of others were blasted with enough radiation to make them sicken and die of various kinds of cancer in the years that followed. Pictures of deformed babies, burnt-out schools and smashed temples fill the museum. The photos and descriptions are unflinching and graphic. But the feeling of the exhibits is neither anger nor a desire for revenge. The feeling is one of overwhelming sadness that this is what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Outside, elegant gardens feature peace sculptures sent from children around the world. A lovely sense of beauty and quiet pervades the grounds.

We all know that Japan could have surrendered after the bomb fell on Hiroshima and been spared the second attack on Nagasaki. We all know that the Japanese started the conflagration with their unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor. Many believe that American lives were saved by dropping the bombs.

We can know this and still feel regret for the innocent lives lost. We can still summon empathy for the victims who didn’t wear uniforms, but paid a huge price with their health and peace of mind. The memorial at Nagasaki isn’t political; it is humanitarian, and the plea is for peace.

As time passes, the lens changes. We view the history of World War II with less raw emotion and more intellectual process. Most of the victims have died. The bomb makers, military leaders and pilots who flew the missions have, also.

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