The Undead

By: Greg Mitchell The new Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas not only downplays the health and safety fallout from the nuclear era here at home. It also offers a misleading historical narrative on the only use of nuclear weapons against a foreign power, and it fails to mention that anyone died from that use.

In my previous column, I looked at New York Times reporter Judith Miller's favorable account of her visit to the museum, affiliated with the Department of Energy and the Smithsonian, which opened Feb. 20. As I observed, another reporter at Miller's paper, Edward Rothstein, after his own tour, struck a quite different note, citing a ?crucial flaw? at the museum: its tone of ?justification? and its leaving ?many unanswered questions about the past.?

In her story, Miller also failed to make any mention of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the museum's treatment of the atomic attacks -- this from a reporter who helped pave the way for the war on Iraq by raising the specter of nuclear annihilation. But she's not alone: I haven't seen anything about the atomic attacks in any other press coverage of the museum.

It set me to wondering how the museum tackled the only use of The Bomb against an enemy (in contrast to the hundreds of times we used it on ourselves), so I emailed a set of questions to museum director William Johnson.

This is not just one of my (many) idle concerns. I have probed the use of the bomb against Japan, and its aftermath, for more than 20 years, after spending several weeks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1985 when I was editor of Nuclear Times magazine. I've written dozens of articles on the subject, co-authored a book with Robert Jay Lifton, and last year worked on a nuclear film.

It's an endlessly fascinating subject because even after nearly 60 years honorable people honorably disagree about whether the U.S. absolutely needed to use the bomb against Japan, at that time, in that way.

According to the lengthy e-mail reply from director Johnson, the museum does not merely cover the hundreds of Nevada tests starting in the early 1950s, but goes back to the beginning of the nuclear era with the first detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico in July 1945. It then moves forward, briefly, to the atomic attacks less than a month later on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).

From the exhibits, however, you'd never know for certain that anyone died in the attacks. In an email to me, director Johnson said: "The numbers are not explicitly stated."

The museum does show a mushroom cloud and single images of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but here (as provided by Johnson) is the text of the main panel in the museum on this subject:

?In an effort to end the war with Japan quickly and with the fewest casualties, an untested uranium bomb, named Little Boy, was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. When Japan did not surrender, a second bomb of the same design as the Trinity device, named Fat Man, was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, with devastating results. Japan surrendered five days later.?

The next panel, titled ?Ending World War II,? goes back in time a bit for this narrative:

?A belief that an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland would be very bloody with estimates of American casualties alone running up to one million abounded. Policy makers unanimously concluded the atomic bomb would end the war with the least bloodshed and should be used without warning against military targets. Accordingly, two atomic bombs were detonated over industrial military targets in early August 1945. Japan surrendered shortly afterwards ending World War II, avoiding a massive Allied invasion and post-war division among the victors.?

This echoes the result of the uproar surrounding the display of the Enola Gay, the plane that carried the Hiroshima bomb, at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., back in 1995, and later when it went on permanent display last year in Virginia. After protests, mainly from veterans groups and their congressional allies, no mention of Japanese casualties -- or the historical debate surrounding the use of the bomb -- was permitted.

One might call that the immaculate deception.

Space does not permit a full discussion here of the decision to drop the bomb. But, in brief, what's wrong with the A-bomb narrative at the museum is the historical inaccuracies serving that ?justification? tone cited by reporter Rothstein.

For example, the old chestnut that an American invasion of a clearly defeated Japan (assuming it did not surrender) would have cost a million lives has been discredited by leading historians for two decades now.

Then there's the museum labeling the two cities ?military? targets or, fudging, ?military industrial? targets. Neither city, in fact, housed a critical military base, although Nagasaki did produce a significant amount of armaments. But neither city, in any case, was targeted because of its military significance: they were simply among the few cities left in Japan that had not already been devastated by U.S. bombs and so could serve as ideal test sites for the new weapon.

In fact, the aiming points for the bombs were not military bases but the very center of each city, to maximize civilian casualties. In Nagasaki there were only scattered Japanese military casualties (along with a few American POWs), and the civilian toll in Hiroshima outnumbered military deaths by about 6-1, as planned.

Finally, the museum's narrative ties the end of the war strictly to the use of the bombs, without mentioning the utter hopelessness of the enemy's cause, Russia declaring war on Japan (as pre-arranged), and the United States suddenly changing policy to allow the Japanese to keep their emperor.

Actually, there's an amazing admission in the museum's text: a rare mention (in the official Hiroshima narrative) that a major factor in driving the use of the bomb was to avoid the ?post-war division among the victors.? This oddly echoes critics of the bombing who call it not so much the last shot of World War II as the first shot of the Cold War.

This is a wholly inadequate discussion of these issues, of course, but that will have to do for now.

Given the fact that a majority of Americans, past and present, have always backed the atomic bombings -- many World War II veterans, understandasbly, feel they owe their lives to it -- my writing in this field has always focused on trying to inspire readers and reporters to revisit the historical record, to put aside emotion and conventional wisdom (as sadly reflected by the Atomic Testing Museum), take a second look at this question, weigh the evidence, and make up their own minds.

Many might be surprised, at least, to learn that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, years later, declared that there was no need to attack Japan with "that awful thing," and that Admiral William Leahy, President Truman's wartime chief of staff, who chaired the Joint Chiefs, said "the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender ... in being the first to use it, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."

Why does this matter today? How we, as a nation, regard the first atomic bombings may dictate what happens when another urgent international crisis demanding a tough response arises. It's often said that there is a taboo against using the bomb, but Americans have already made two exceptions, so why not more?


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board