Rethinking the atomic bomb at Hiroshima memorial service

  • Sarah Pirtle speaks at the vigil for the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Sister Clare Carter of the Peace Pagoda speaks during a vigil for the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki People walk with candles through Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A vigil for the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki People walk with candles through the village of Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki People walk with candles through Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki People with candles line the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge on Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2020 3:33:59 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 3:33:47 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The ambivalent legacy of the atomic bomb has come to mind for locals, as this week marks the 75th anniversary of when the U.S. used the two bombs on Japan, effectively ending World War II.

A memorial service Thursday night in Turners Falls marked the date of the bombing of Hiroshima — Aug. 6, 1945 — and gave an occasion to rethink the continued relevance of the bombing.

Today, Aug. 8, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Greenfield Town Common, people from various advocacy groups will carry signs, plus provide information and handouts as possible. Sunday, Aug. 9, is the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. A memorial will be held at the Easthampton Library at 7 p.m.

In historical narratives, America’s decision to use the atomic bomb is usually figured as a necessary evil. Japanese culture absolutely would not have tolerated the humiliation of surrender, the story goes. The only solution was to make a show of force that would be so far beyond Japan’s capabilities that America’s dominance would be unquestionable, and the war would simply end.

Now, to tell from speakers at the Thursday night memorial in Turners, that story may be under re-evaluation.

In 1962, 17 years after the bombing, Liz Kelner, a now-retired social worker and a former director of the local Traprock Center for Peace, visited Japan to attend a conference on peace. Out of curiosity, she took a detour to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Society had re-established itself somewhat, but it had been changed. Survivors of the bomb, called “hibakusha” in Japan, still lived in the cities, but in many cases their lives had been damaged. Rates of leukemia in the cities were high, probably caused by the radiation of the bombs, Kelner said.

Among the hibakusha who were healthy enough to live without constant medical support, many had scarring, burns or diseases. Socially, they were often seen as outcasts, Kelner said. Many had trouble getting and keeping jobs, because of their health problems. Reports of children being born with deformities made it difficult for hibakusha to find marriage partners.

“All I could do when I was there was to keep my heart open as much as I could,” Kelner said. “Sometimes it was really overwhelming. It was too much. I could feel myself shutting down, and I didn’t want to.”

Later, Kelner researched the history of the atomic bomb. As it turned out, the story that Japan never would have surrendered may have been false, she said. In her research, it seemed that the U.S. government actually believed that Japan would surrender.

So why use the bomb if the war may well have been winnable without it? Military strategists apparently understood that the gesture of ending the war with the most destructive weapon ever built would establish the U.S. as the single dominant military power in the post-World War II scene, Kelner said.

Incidentally, it was also the perfect way to make sure the bombs worked as designed. The two bombs dropped on each city were different models that worked with different kinds of reactions. Military records of each bomb’s results were compared to judge their effectiveness, Kelner said.

After the U.S. used the bomb, global politics became a race among the large, wealthy nations to arm themselves with ever larger nuclear arsenals.

But this mindset did not start with World War II, said Sister Clare Carter, a nun at the New England Peace Pagoda, in Leverett.

It is better traced to the foundation of the American colonies, when the first encounters between the European colonists and the Native Americans instilled an obsession with dominance and expansion that runs through the story of the atomic bomb, and into the present, Carter said.

Coincidentally, this November will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth.

“We start to understand that the seeds of colonization planted four centuries ago have not been understood or addressed by the majority of us in this country,” Carter said. “And those unexamined and unrepented seeds have grow with time, making the dominant energy of the United States so strong, with this exceptionalism, racism and militarism. These seeds are the foundation from which the drive to make nuclear weapons, and then use them, grew.”

The 400th anniversary of American colonization, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of America’s use of the atomic bomb, may bring that legacy to our attention, like a mirror showing our destructive habits, Carter said. She pointed to the strength of current social movements, like Black Lives Matter, as a sign that minds may be changing.

“The mirror makes us stop and look and see more deeply,” she said. “We cannot go blindly forward.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.




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