How Is Hiroshima Remembered in America?

Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Producer Richard Paul examines American public opinion on the bombing that ended World War II in the Pacific.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. During all those years, American public opinion about the bombing has changed and producer Richard Paul takes a look at how and why.

RICHARD PAUL reporting:

To every generation, the past becomes something different. The way Americans look at the atomic bombing of Japan that ended World War II is no exception.

(Soundbite of vintage audio)

Unidentified Announcer: The bomb was exploded above the city and, in the flowering mushroom, Japan could read its doom.

Professor ALLAN WINKLER (Miami University of Ohio): Every generation rewrites history, as indeed it must. This is simply part and parcel of the very nature of history itself.

PAUL: Allan Winkler is a history professor at Miami University of Ohio and author of "Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom." He says the different ways of thinking about the bomb emerged over a period of several years.

Prof. WINKLER: There was enormous relief at the beginning. There was a growing sense of doubt, of questioning--What have we done? Later, as people began to look at what the bomb had done against the background of Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo and the firebombing in those places which had occurred, some people began to argue that basically there wasn't much difference between dropping one bomb or dropping a hundred B-29 bombs in Tokyo.

PAUL: This is a look back at what caused that evolution in our thinking, what Americans heard and didn't hear and a lot of what they saw in the papers, like this, read by an actor, from the day after the Hiroshima bombing.

Unidentified Man #1: They declare that countermeasures are already being taken, which is whistling in the graveyard of Japan's hopes. What are the countermeasures available against annihilation?

PAUL: That's an editorial from the Los Angeles Times. It ran next to a cartoon that showed Japan being blown off the face of the Earth. Polls at the time showed 85 percent supported the bombing, believing they'd saved countless American lives and, according to Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University of Washington, of those, 23 percent...

Mr. PETER KUZNICK (American University): ...wished the Japanese had not surrendered so quickly so they could have dropped more atomic bombs on them.

PAUL: You can hear that attitude on display here, also on the day after the bombing, on the editorial page of The New York Times.

Unidentified Man #2: If Japan's war leaders are still so blind as to persist in the rejection of our mercy, they may expect, as President Truman says, a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.

PAUL: Allan Winkler says this attitude is completely understandable under the circumstances.

Prof. WINKLER: The American public was overwhelmingly positive and relieved that the bombs had brought a fairly rapid end to the war.

(Soundbite of vintage audio)

Unidentified Announcer: It was the funeral pyre of an aggressor nation.

PAUL: But even this early, with America savoring victory and still very much in the dark about the magnitude of civilian deaths in Japan, the first notes could be heard of a growing chorus of doubt.

Prof. WINKLER: The radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn talked about perhaps we had created a Frankenstein in our midst. The author E.B. White reflected in the pages of The New Yorker about the possibility that here was man meddling with God's work.

PAUL: As word began to slowly trickle out about just how many Japanese civilians had been killed, it became even harder for many Americans to feel comfortable about what had been done. A strong push in that direction came as early as 1946, when the author John Hershey published his intimate portrait of the bombing entitled "Hiroshima" and millions of Americans heard what happened from a human perspective for the first time.

Mr. JOHN HERSHEY (Author, "Hiroshima"): He moved nervously and fast, with a restraint which suggested that he was a cautious, thoughtful man. He showed, indeed, just those qualities in the uneasy days before the bomb fell.

Prof. WINKLER: John Hershey's book made a tremendous splash.

PAUL: Miami University's Allan Winkler.

Prof. WINKLER: It was read aloud over the radio. Ministers gave sermons about it. And that was the way many Americans really began to understand just what the bomb had done.

PAUL: That change of heart is reflected here in a Los Angeles Times editorial discussing a ceremonial dropping of flowers on Hiroshima in 1951.

Unidentified Man #1: We do not repent dropping the bomb, but we are sorry that we had to do it. We grieve for those we had to kill. We feel their deaths and the hurt of the survivors and we show that by our wreath of flowers.

PAUL: A year later, when a test of the hydrogen bomb carved out a mile-long hole in the bottom of the ocean, that growing sense of association with the Japanese combined with anxiety about an atomic future to bring America into a brand-new relationship with the bomb.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) The people got worried all over the land, just like folks got in Japan. Oh, I say, everybody's worried, yeah, about the atomic bomb.

Mr. KUZNICK: There's a growing recognition that the human species is faced with annihilation if we don't smarten up and do something about these weapons.

PAUL: And American University's Paul Kuznick says the reaction cut across political lines. On the left, there was a sustained call for world government, but also, according to an article in the National Review that Kuznick quotes here...

Mr. KUZNICK: "Criticism of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become part of the national conservative credo," so in the 1950s there were a lot of conservatives denouncing it, including a lot of the top American military leaders from World War II.

PAUL: Again, you can hear the change in attitude on the nation's editorial pages. Here's The New York Times in 1955.

Unidentified Man #2: The world was stunned by the frightful efficiency of its new weapon. Now, surely, there are signs that even where there is utter tyranny and cynicism absolute, even there, those who might say the word shrink from atomic war.

PAUL: Public opinion polls in the 1960s showed African-Americans and Asian-Americans were more negative in their judgments than whites. Women reported being more uneasy about the decision to drop the bomb than men. But according to Paul Boyer, author of the book "By the Bomb's Early Light"...

Mr. PAUL BOYER (Author, "By the Bomb's Early Light"): Older folks who remembered World War II tended to be quite strongly supportive of the decision to drop the bomb. Those under 30 were more critical and uneasy about the decision.

PAUL: And as the baby boom generation moved on to become scholars, opinion leaders and especially historians, they found more and more evidence questioning whether the bombing was necessary. This process of revising history has always gone on, so we can expect it to continue. But Allan Winkler says there's no need to worry that, as the World War II generation dies, their version of history will die out with them.

Prof. WINKLER: There's no right answer. There's no wrong answer.

PAUL: But historians say it's important to keep asking questions and to keep talking, even to people we disagree with. From this process, some semblance of truth will emerge, even if it only holds until the next generation comes along.

For NPR News, I'm Richard Paul in Washington.

INSKEEP: We had help on this story from member station WMUB in Oxford, Ohio. Thanks, guys.

Photos and other stories of the aftermath of the atomic attack are at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inkseep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER (Host): And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.