Shinichi Tetsutani loved to ride his beloved tricycle outside his house in Higashi-Hakushima-Cho, a neighborhood in the Japanese port city of Hiroshima.
Shin-chan, as his family affectionately called the three-year-old, was doing just that on the morning of August 6, 1945 when there was a brilliant flash in the sky.
The boy was about a quarter mile from the hypocenter of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon to be used in anger, the consequence of a frightening new technology that its creators were all too aware would change warfare -- and civilization -- forever by the omnipresent threat of unimaginable death and destruction.
Shin died that night, one of about 140,000 people to perish in the atomic bomb explosion and from associated effects, principally radiation poisoning. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, taking about 74,000 lives. Kyoto, the original target of the first bomb, was spared because the U.S. officials and generals who were so desperate to end the war remained sensitive of its cultural significance.
A third atomic bomb was being readied, but by August 15 the conciliators in the Japanese government had won out over hard-line militarists who had had the tacit backing of Emperor Hirohito, who was not the pitifully manipulated figurehead the Japanese claim, and is the villain of this story. In any event, Japan capitulated and World War II finally was over after some 234,874 Americans had lost their lives in the Pacific theater alone.
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There is no military-political action in modern history laden with as much baggage as President Truman's decision to twice use the atomic bomb.
Those who have approved of Truman's decision offer these arguments:
* The bombs ended the war months sooner and saved an estimated half million American lives that could have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland.
* Millions of people under Japanese occupation in the Philippines, New Guinea, Borneo and elsewhere who faced starvation, including hundreds of thousands of POWs from the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, were freed.
* The hard-line militarists had adamantly refused to surrender although it was obvious that the war was lost. It was the Soviet entry into the Pacific war, combined with the bombs, that forced the emperor to capitulate.
Those who have disapproved of Truman's decision offer these arguments:
* The bombings were immoral, a crime against humanity and constituted genocide.
* In a contemporary context, they were an act of terrorism.
* They were militarily unnecessary because Japan was essentially defeated and ready to surrender.
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The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is situated at one end of a park. At the other end is Ground Zero and the so-called A-Bomb Dome, the concrete and wire framework of a government building that was destroyed by the blast. I saw Shin's trike on my first visit to the museum and it is seared in my memory much like the frozen hands on a pocket watch in an adjoining exhibit that will forever read 8:15, the moment that the atomic bomb exploded.
My second visit to Hiroshima included an extensive tour of the hospital and laboratories of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which was established and funded by the U.S. in 1948 in an act both altruistic and a reflection of the need to better understand the horrors visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For the next 36 years, the commission studied the latent effects of radiation among the bomb survivors, including the outcome of pregnancies one and two generations later. As sobering as the tour was, the trip ended on a delightfully memorable note: A side trip to an island in Hiroshima Bay where the famed oysters of the region -- the most delicious that I have ever eaten -- had just been declared safe to consume for the first time since the end of the war.
I would have been unprepared for the gracious reception that I received in Hiroshima had I not befriended Hiroshi, a native of that city who ran a small bar near my apartment in Tokyo. On some nights I would stay after the bar closed, leaving from a secret door that led to a narrow back alley after she would regale me with stories about being a teenager during the war whose military family had been evacuated to the country.
It was Hiroshi's view that few Japanese felt enmity toward the U.S. for the atomic bombings, as well as the firebombings that incinerated Tokyo and so many other cities that there were relatively few unscathed targets to drop atomic bombs on by August 1945.
While I did experience hostility, usually in small villages well off the beaten track, Hiroshi was right. Although they would never admit it to a gaijin (foreigner), most Japanese were will aware that their government, in the thrall of those hard-liners, had started a war that brought out the worst in them. The payback was a bitch, of course, but the Japanese who have toiled to remember the bombings -- from putting Shin's trike on display to working to try to insure that there are no more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis -- have brought out the best in them.
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The question of whether it will ever be justified to visit the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki upon a sworn enemy of the U.S. raged anew during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign following Barack Obama's declaration that he would not use such weapons to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I happen to think that was a no-brainer response. Even using tactical nukes against terrorists is insane and should never be part of the counterinsurgency playbook, although it was briefly considered by the Eisenhower administration in Vietnam. Hillary Clinton's rejoinder that Obama should not rule out the so-called doomsday option was even sillier given the context.
But that is not the point.
The point is that Truman made the right decision in 1945 under circumstances so extraordinary that it is difficult to imagine them being replicated in the future.
I pray that I am not wrong.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom):The Hiroshima A-bomb cloud, Hiroshima in ruins, Emperor
Hirohito, President Truman, Hiroshima watch, Hiroshima
dome; Hiroshima survivor, Barack Obama.