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The War Over The Bomb

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth

by Gar Alperovitz, by Sanho Tree, by Edward Rouse Winstead, by Kathryn C. Morris, by David J. Williams, by Leo C. Maley III, by Thad Williamson, by Miranda Grieder
Knopf, 843 pp., $32.50

Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb

by John Whittier Treat
University of Chicago Press, 487 pp., $29.95

Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian’s 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay

edited and introduced by Philip Nobile, afterword by Barton J. Bernstein
Marlowe and Company, New York, 270 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan—And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb

by Thomas B. Allen, by Norman Polmar
Simon and Schuster, 351 pp., $25.00


The flight of the bomber called Bock’s Car on August 9, 1945, from Tinian to Nagasaki was blessed but not smooth. In a Quonset hut at the air base before takeoff Chaplain Downey had prayed for the success of the plane’s mission. “Almighty God, Father of all mercies,” he said, “we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night.” He also said: “Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts. Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world.”

But things went wrong from the start. A fuel pump wasn’t working. So the captain, Major Charles “Chuck” Sweeney (“cheerful Irish grin”), decided to rendezvous with escort planes over Japan and refuel in Okinawa on the way back. The skies were thundery and turbulent. The rendezvous was missed: the planes lost contact and much time. The primary target, Kokura, an industrial city in northern Kyushu, was covered by smoke from a bombing raid on a neighboring city. Fuel was running low, but Sweeney flew his B-29 bomber on to the second target on the list: Nagasaki.

A thick deck of clouds had rendered Nagasaki invisible, too. “Skipper” Sweeney had to think fast. Fuel was running out. Ditching his load in the ocean was one possibility. But he decided against it. “After all,” he said, “anything is better than dumping it in the water.” He would ignore his orders, which stipulated that the target had to be visible, and drop the “Fat Man” by radar. Then, suddenly, Kermit “Bea” Beahan (“slow Texas drawl”; “crack bombardier”; “ladies’ man”), shouted: “I’ve got it. I see the city. I’ll take it now….”1

And so the “Fat Man” went down, slowly at first. It took a while for things to happen. Internal radar fuses had been activated in the bomb to sense its height. Chuck Sweeney was impatient. “Oh, my God,” he said to his copilot, Charles “Donald Duck” Albery (“a deeply religious man”), “did we goof it up?” Moments later, the sky lit up, the plane was rocking like a rowing boat in a storm, and Sweeney could relax at last. “Well, Bea,” said “Donald Duck” to the bombardier, “there’s a thousand Japs you’ve just killed.”

The “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb, exploded about three miles from the center of Nagasaki, above an area called Urakami, sometimes referred to in Nagasaki as Urakamimura, or Urakami village. The pressure generated by the bomb at the hypocenter—the point directly under the blast—was about ten tons per square meter. The heat at ground level reached 4,000 degrees Celsius. People near the hypocenter were vaporized. Others, who were not so lucky, died more slowly, often after shedding their skins like snakes. Some died weeks or months, or even years, later of various kinds of cancer. Altogether up to 70,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. About half of them died on the day itself.

The landscape of Urakami, separated by mountains from Nagasaki proper, was marked by Mitsubishi weapons factories and the largest cathedral in east Asia. Urakami was a district with a low reputation. Its population included a large number of poor Roman Catholics and even poorer outcasts. It was as though a bomb had fallen on Harlem, leaving the rest of Manhattan relatively unscathed. Some residents of Nagasaki quietly voiced the opinion that the bomb had “cleaned up” Urakami. In August 1945, there were 14,000 Catholics in Nagasaki. More than half were killed by the bomb. There are 70,000 Catholics living in Nagasaki today. Southern Kyushu is still the only part of Japan with a large Christian minority.

The first missionary to reach Kyushu was Francis Xavier, who landed there in 1549. His high hopes for Japan were not disappointed. By the turn of the century about 300,000 Japanese had been converted to the Roman faith. Even Hideyoshi, the “Barbarian-slaying” Shogun himself, was seen in his palace fingering a rosary. This did not stop him from crucifying twenty-six Japanese and European priests in Nagasaki in 1597. Like his more ferocious successors, he was afraid that Japanese Christians might help Spanish invaders take over Japan—a fear that Dutch traders did their best to encourage.

After 1612 persecution began in earnest. Christianity was banned. Men, women, and children were burned to death while singing praises to the Lord. Priests were suspended upside down in pits of excrement or boiling sulfur, cut open, and bled to death, unless they agreed to renounce their faith and trample on images of Christ. A Christian peasant rebellion in 1632 was put down (with Dutch help) so brutally that hardly any of the 40,000 rebels survived. Naturally, missionary work became impossible and priests could no longer attend to their flock.

Even so, small communities of “hidden Christians” hung on, often reverting in time to folk religion: local deities were worshiped in the name of Jesus; a kind of Christian cargo cult developed, with fisherfolk praying for the return of priests in black ships. Only after Americans (in black ships) and Europeans had pried Japan open in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Japanese Christians dare to declare themselves. But they remained an often harassed and poor minority, forced to do religiously polluted work in the meat and leather trades, which were normally reserved for outcasts. The ban on Christianity was formally lifted in 1873. Twenty years later, the Nagasaki Christians managed to collect enough money to start construction of a wood and redbrick cathedral on a hill in Urakami. It was completed in 1925. It was above this cathedral that the “Fat Man” exploded.

Twice a day, the one surviving Angelus bell rings out from the new Cathedral. Visiting Nagasaki this summer I walked from the Cathedral to Peace Park. It is built on the site of an old prison, whose foundation stones recently emerged during the construction of an underground garage. The appearance of these prison foundations caused a political row in Nagasaki: Should they be preserved as a reminder of the war (among the prisoners were Koreans and Chinese)? A compromise was reached: the car park was completed, and a slab of the old prison wall is displayed in Peace Park, among the monuments and memorials.

Compared to the one in Hiroshima, Nagasaki Peace Park is a small and subdued affair.2 There is the “Peace Statue,” a large white figure pointing his right hand at the sky and extending his left hand sideways. According to a booklet on sale in the Peace Park bookstore, the right hand points to the nuclear threat and the left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The folded right leg and the extended left leg “symbolize meditation and the initiative to stand up and rescue the people of the world.” In the rest of the park are various sculptures, some of them donated by countries that no longer exist: the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, the USSR. Two kindly ladies and an elderly man had set up a long table in front of the Soviet “Statue of Peace.” They invited “all the people who love peace,” including small children on school excursions, to sign an antinuclear petition to be sent to Washington.

But there is much less of this kind of thing than in Hiroshima, which is dominated by memorials to the bomb victims and messages of salvation. The main reason people visit Hiroshima is the bomb. This is not true of Nagasaki. Hiroshima, not Nagasaki, has become the mecca of international antinuclear activism. The Hiroshima bomb came first. It fell in the center of the city. More people died there—and few of them were despised Christians or outcasts. People say: “No more Hiroshimas.” They rarely say: “No more Nagasakis.”

Instead of dwelling on the bomb, Nagasaki has turned its history of foreign missionaries, Dutch traders, Chinese merchants, and Madame Butterfly into a tourist attraction. Nagasaki takes pride in once having been the nearest thing in Japan to a cosmopolitan city. When the rest of the country was sealed off from the outside world between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, Nagasaki kept a Dutch trading post on Dejima Island. Western science first entered Japan through Nagasaki in the form of medical texts, which Japanese scholars learned to read by memorizing Dutch dictionaries. After Japan opened up, village girls acquired Russian by serving Russian sailors as prostitutes, and outcasts acquired foreign languages by supplying the Europeans with meat. Nagasaki had a large Chinatown, now a cute, touristy pastiche of its former self. A celebrated entertainer from Nagasaki, who sings French chansons and wears women’s clothes, claims to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Christian martyr, thought to have been the incarnation of Deusu, the Lord. The most popular souvenirs in Nagasaki include all manner of Christian trinkets, as well as a spongecake called castella, introduced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago.

Nagasaki’s most famous survivor was a Christian named Nagai Takashi. He became a symbol of his city’s suffering, just as a schoolgirl, named Sasaki Sadako, became a symbol of Hiroshima. Sadako was two years old when the bomb exploded a mile from her home. She died of leukemia ten years later, but not before trying to fold one thousand paper cranes, as symbols of longevity. Her monument in Hiroshima Peace Park is covered in thousands of paper cranes, folded by schoolchildren from all over Japan.

Dr. Nagai was a professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki when the city was bombed. He had contracted leukemia before the war, perhaps as a result of his laboratory work, but radiation from the bomb cured the symptoms. Dr. Nagai was a devout Catholic and a Japanese patriot who exhorted his students to fight their hardest for the nation. He was devastated by Japan’s defeat. But then, as he wrote in his best-selling book The Bells of Nagasaki, he had a flash of religious inspiration. The bomb, he decided, was “a great act of Divine Providence,” for which Nagasaki “must give thanks to God.” 3 He declared that Nagasaki, “the only holy place in Japan,” had been chosen as a sacrificial lamb “to be burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War.” In this vision, Dr. Nagai added the Catholic victims of the bomb to the long list of Nagasaki martyrs. They were the spiritual heirs of believers who had been crucified for their faith.

How noble, how splendid was that holocaust of August 9, when flames soared up from the cathedral, dispelling the darkness of war and bringing the light of peace! In the very depth of our grief we reverently saw here something beautiful, something pure, something sublime. Eight thousand people, together with their priests, burning with pure smoke, entered into eternal life. All without exception were good people whom we deeply mourn.

  1. 1

    These quotes are all from Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb, by Frank Chinnock (Allen and Unwin, 1970). The effects of the Nagasaki bomb are horrifically illustrated by the photographer Yosuke Yamahata in Nagasaki Journey. (Note: An exhibition of Yamahata’s photographs produced by Judy Irving and Christopher Beaver is on view through October 1 at the International Center of Photography in New York City, and through September 23 at the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.)

  2. 2

    For a detailed description of the Hiroshima Peace Park, see The New York Review, October 25, 1990.

  3. 3

    I have used the translation of William Johnston, an Irish Jesuit who believes that Dr. Nagai “takes an honoured place among the great prophets of Asia and of the world.” The Bells of Nagasaki (Kodansha, 1984).

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