Earlier this summer, I was in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. That day, and for the next two days, my attention continued to be drawn to the hills that encircle the city. One of the reasons Hiroshima was chosen as a target 70 years ago was because those hills would intensify the destruction.
The Spokesman-Review’s July 31 editorial on the Manhattan Project Historic National Park promotes a popular view that the atomic bombs were dropped to end the war with Japan. A careful examination of history makes this position questionable.
I started exploring this question after reading “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2007). The authors report that Oppenheimer, the key architect of the bomb, came to believe the bombs were not dropped to end the war. As early as May 1945, and unknown to Oppeheimer, “military intelligence in Washington had intercepted and decoded messages from Japan, indicating that the Japanese government understood the war was lost and was seeking acceptable surrender terms,” the book states. Japan had already been brought to its knees by the devastating firebombing of Tokyo and other urban areas in spring 1945 that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Even the argument that the atomic bombs were dropped to make an imminent invasion of the Japanese homelands unnecessary falls short of the mark, since the earliest time being considered for an invasion was November and already in May 1945 President Truman was told the Japanese were trying to find a way to end the war.
Robert Butow also points out in “Japan’s Decision to Surrender” that the Japanese government, in response to the emperor’s request of June 22, 1945, was already seeking assistance from the Soviets, the only nation with which Japan had a neutrality pact, to mediate an end to the war, a fact often overlooked today.
When Oppenheimer later learned about this and other information, he was stunned and deeply angered to learn that his work had been used to create an unneeded atrocity. Public records of the time suggest that a primary reason for the bombs was to send a message of America’s might to the Soviet Union. However, what the U.S. decision to drop those bombs actually did was to begin the gigantic nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union that left both countries with the power to destroy the world many times over. Far from dissuading the Soviets, the bombs catalyzed furious atomic development.
Some might still argue that the nuclear arms race was a necessity or that it was a product of the thinking of the times. But there is something that can’t be argued. This nuclear arms race has left us with an overwhelming inventory of nuclear arms and nuclear waste that we don’t know how to safely store for the next 10,000 or so years!
I spent six years on the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council for Hanford in the 1990s and watched plan after plan for dealing with the waste fall apart. At one point, the U.S. government was spending $4 million a day trying to figure out what to do. The main lesson I learned was that we have very few clues about what to do with the waste.
At one of the Hanford sites, there are 177 tanks with 53 million gallons of nuclear waste on the banks of the Columbia – and many are already leaking toward the river. What’s more, these tanks hold only a portion of the total nuclear waste on the Hanford site. Bottom line: We don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste.
These sites are already shrines to our hubris and our folly. Perhaps that is enough. I’m very skeptical about which truths would be told at a Manhattan Project National Historic Park. There are many, many questions present in our history – substantially more than there are clear-cut answers.
The Spokesman-Review’s editorial suggests that we have much to be proud of. That may be true. We have much to atone for as well.
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