In the 17 years that I have been writing this column, my privilege has been to say what I think, even knowing readers might disagree. Most years, in this first week of August, I have observed the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings by casting a critical eye back on President Truman’s order. “A mistake and a crime,’’ was one of my titles. Those columns have yearly generated more disagreement from readers than anything else I’ve written.
When it comes to the atomic bombing of Japan, our nation divides between those for whom the question remains abstract and unreckoned with, and those for whom it is intensely personal and settled. As someone with no direct memory of the events (I was 2 years old), I necessarily fall into the first category, but I have learned a lot from those whose intimate memory of the 1945 explosions remains defining.
Many of the letters I receive convey versions of what the historian and former Marine William Manchester wrote about his reaction to the bomb: “We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.’’ After Hitler’s defeat, hundreds of thousands of young Americans were braced for a bloody denouement in the Pacific, and, in a snap, it was over. They and their families could feel only relief. The end of the war brought the nation its first feeling of unbridled happiness in years. And why shouldn’t that stamp the memory of early August forever?
But what is memory anyway? Not merely a mode of returning to a past moment and reliving it, like a fossil stuck in amber. Memory is the faculty by which humans actively interpret experience. What Aug. 6 meant in 1945 is not what it meant in 1946, when John Hersey published his searing article “Hiroshima’’ in The New Yorker; in 1948, when the US Air Force institutionalized atomic attack as strategy against Moscow; in 1949, when the Soviets obtained their own atomic bomb; in 1952, when the hydrogen bomb (“the genocidal weapon’’ as opposed physicists referred to it) was born. And so on. At each point, in looking back, the meaning of what happened in 1945 necessarily changed, and that process has continued until today, when humanity stands at the threshold of the Second Nuclear Age.
To remember is to reinterpret. Therefore, it takes nothing away from the authentic and unforgettable experience of the World War II generation to suggest that Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb was far more complex - and morally charged - than either he or his contemporaries thought at the time. The bomb was justified as necessary to bring about the Japanese surrender, but historians conclude now, with varying degrees of consensus, that diplomacy could have done the job. There are good reasons to conclude that Truman was at least as concerned with heading off Soviet aggression as he was with finishing off Japanese resistance. And today, it can be acknowledged that US air assaults with conventional bombs in the last six months of the war (killing more than a million civilians) had already made moot the ethical question about using the atomic bomb. “To worry about the morality of what we were doing,’’ as Curtis LeMay put it, “ - Nuts!’’
The point of the annual early August commemorative exercise has never been to look back judgmentally on the past from the saddle of a moral high horse, as if - had we been there, knowing what they knew, feeling what they felt - we’d have behaved differently. The urgent task of moral reckoning is not about the past, but about the present and future. To conclude that the United States and the world - not to mention Japan - would be better off had the atomic bombs not been used is to raise a fundamental question about the nuclear arsenal on which American power has depended ever since. To firmly regret atomic use in the past is to invite absolute renunciation of nuclear weapons in the present and future. That there was an untried way to act then means there is an untried way to act now. The World War II survivors, in fact, testify that human survival is itself the new moral imperative that changes the meaning of early August.