The decision by the United States to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II — followed by another several days later at Nagasaki — raises a moral issue I’ve grappled with often over the years. For this reason, I made sure to include Hiroshima on the itinerary of my recent visit sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the 14-hour flight from Newark to Japan I read John Hersey’s classic, “Hiroshima.” The book, written in 1946, describes the enormous suffering experienced by the inhabitants of the city on August 6, 1945, the day the U.S. dropped the A-bomb, and in the ensuing weeks and months. Some 70,000 people were killed instantly and approximately 70,000 later died of radiation poisoning. Would a visit to Hiroshima, I contemplated as I read, help clarify my thinking about whether President Harry Truman’s decision to use this ultimate weapon on a civilian population was morally justifiable? Did the ends in this case, which brought about a prompt conclusion to the war against Japan, justify the means? Or should the targeting of civilians to achieve a political purpose (the classic definition of terrorism) always be considered immoral?
Today Hiroshima is a beautiful and bustling city. All the buildings look new — and most are, as much of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed by the bomb. A remnant, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is now commonly referred to as the “A-bomb dome.” Before the bombing it served as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, but now it stands as a burned-out shell with scattered debris under and around it, left exactly where it fell on that awful day. As we slowly walked around the dome, I couldn’t help visualizing the images Hersey described in excruciating detail.
After seeing the dome, we strolled through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park toward the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, in which pictures, movies, and historical displays about the city before, the day of, and the period after the bombing are housed. As we were about to enter, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was exiting the building, her head in hands and sobbing. Perhaps she is a hibakusha, the Japanese term for survivors of the bombing. I had already been apprehensive about visiting the museum, and looking at her only enhanced that feeling.
I recalled my very uncomfortable visit several years ago to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which was called the Museum of American War Crimes until 1993. The name may have changed, but its content remains an unabashed indictment of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by U.S. soldiers during the American War, as the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War.
Would the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum similarly point an accusing finger at the American “atrocity” committed against Japanese civilians? It would not. The graphic pictures and stories were heart-breaking for sure, but the focus was on preventing the use of this weapon in the future, rather than American culpability. Hence its name.
In conjunction with the visit to Hiroshima, I wanted to engage with people in my life who experienced the war firsthand. Shortly before the trip I asked my father-in-law, Mort Chavenson, z”l, who served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed on Guam during World War II, what he thought about Hiroshima and the A-bomb.
“I was happy that the war ended, and we didn’t have to invade Japan,” he said. “That would have put my life at risk.” Sadly, Mort passed away at the age of 92 shortly after our return from Japan — and this column is dedicated to him.
My late father flew 50 missions in Europe as a B-17 pilot during World War II (I wrote extensively about his experience in a previous column, “In conversation with my father, posthumously,” Nov. 13, 2018). His plane targeted the Nazi war-making infrastructure — oil refineries, railroad yards, bridges, etc. — but he was never ordered to drop his bombs on civilians.
I don’t recall whether we ever discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I decided to speak with the last surviving member of his B-17 crew, Marty Weinstein, the plane’s navigator who lives in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. Weinstein told me that, like my father-in-law, he felt a great sense of relief when the bombs ended the war, as it meant he wouldn’t have to be reassigned to the Pacific theater. It’s easy to imagine the relief felt by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American servicemen and -women.
“We were caught up in a world of our own,” Marty said, “and didn’t think in cosmic terms.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “as the full horror of what took place became clear, my attitude changed at the margins and the sense of relief I felt then was altered somewhat.”
The visit to Hiroshima was a moving experience. Yet, I could only begin to sort out my feelings and thoughts on the issue after returning home. That process will be the theme of Part II.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.