Last week I found myself on a tram in Hiroshima, heading to the stop “A-bomb dome”. I was surrounded by Japanese passengers, and for the first time in Japan I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. I am an American working at Los Alamos, the literal and figurative birthplace of the atomic bomb. Memories of my visit to Trinity Site are still fresh. The weight of history is unavoidable. As in a classic Bruegel painting, however, nobody seems to pay particular notice. Everyone moves forward with their lives. A few days after the bomb, they restored streetcar service to parts of the city. There is no evidence of that terrible instant. None, that is, until you get off the tram stop and confront the dome. You’ve seen images of it countless times. But standing in front of it, surrounded by the bustling city of Hiroshima, is an altogether different experience.
There is a museum near the dome, with the impossible task of presenting the bomb to the residents of Hiroshima, the inhabitants of Japan, and the rest of the world. The museum is split into two parts. The first focuses on the history of Hiroshima, and the build-up to war. It dwells on the extended decision-making process through which Hiroshima was selected as the first target. The city had strategic significance. The city hadn’t been (conventionally) bombed, which meant that the full effect of the new device could be estimated. It didn’t have significance for the post-war reconstruction plans (in the way that Kyoto did [and the US Secretary of War apparently honeymooned in Kyoto, and had a sentimental attachment]). It didn’t contain American prisoners-of-war. Hiroshima ended up at the top of the list. One thing I found surprising: the museum implies that the timetable for the bombings was heavily influenced by the Russians. The US wanted to pre-empt Russian participation in the Pacific, and were hoping to elicit a Japanese surrender before the Russians could formally enter the war. The other half of the museum focuses on the immediate aftermath of the bomb. It contains artifacts from the day, including stopped watches and bits of clothing and hair. And countless stories, almost entirely of children returning home to their parents in horrific condition, and dying in the subsequent hours or days. There is a focus, both in the museum and in the memorial peace park which surrounds it, on the youngest casualties.
Sixty-five years ago the first atomic bombs were used in war. There is something depressing that humanity finds it necessary to develop such terrible weapons. But perhaps there is something hopeful in that, in the ensuing half century, we’ve had enough sense not to use them again.