the unthinkable for kids

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Around this time in 1998, I was asked to do an article on that anniversary for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. At the time, I was the publisher of my late wife’s magazine, The Five Owls, a bimonthly publication for librarians and parents that encouraged literacy and reading for kids. The LA Times had asked me to compile a booklist of children’s titles published in the US about Hiroshima (curiously, none at that time were about Nagasaki). Most were created by Japanese or Japanese-American authors and artists.
I recall that my article created a lot of controversy. I was told that one LA talk show host went on and on about how this was not a fit subject for children. I beg to differ. It is important for kids to grow up knowing what kind of world they’re inheriting. Maybe they will be able to do something to improve it. (God knows, our generation has failed miserably.)
This post is an adaptation of that article, minus the booklist. For that, you’re on your own.
The books on my list did put a human face on the tragedy and were aimed at children over the age of 5. Most of the stories are dramatic and very moving. Hopefully, most are doorways to compassion.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, there were echoes of World War II all around. My friends and I played with toy soldiers and sang Army songs that praised Betty Grable and ridiculed Mussolini. Sometimes my dad and I would watch Sgt. Bilko or “The Big Picture” on TV, and he’d remember his days in the Army. One day my dad opened one of the olive-drab steamer trunks beneath the basement stairs. It was full of stuff he’d brought home from Japan. A short sword. A white and red silk flag. A brown field telescope inscribed with little white characters. A guide book to Tokyo and eight English-language tourist books published by the Japanese National Railway. They were beautifully illustrated paperback books (one even with a real woodblock print) on Sumo wrestling, Odori dance, traditional Japanese architecture, and the Japanese national character. Published during the war, they showed Japanese life as it was before my dad was there, before their cities were bombed and burned. Dad let me keep those books, and I poured over them many times as I was growing up. I have kept them to this day.

I remember one time on television seeing the testing of an atomic bomb in the Utah desert; I think it was live. Dad said that dropping a couple bombs like that had ended the war. When he spoke of the “Japs,” there was a cold edge to his voice, then the pointed silence of words suppressed. It was funny. He never told me anything about his time in Japan. Only that the “Japs” got the pounding they deserved. Years later, I noticed that he’d stopped calling them Japs. He complimented me on my new Mazda station wagon. I wondered if he ever had read those books he’d given me.

Japan always interested me. When I was 5 or 6, my mother introduced me to a young woman named Yoko who was visiting from Japan. She was beautiful and wore an elegant kimono. She was from the Japan of my tourist books, a refined and ancient culture that seemed to have little in common with the simian, buck-toothed soldiers we saw in the movies and cartoons.

Yet as we all know, there had been those death marches. There had been Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians and the bombing of innocent cities. Forced labor. The beheadings of Allied pilots. The isolation box in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Those kamikaze airplanes slamming into the decks of our ships.

blownawayBy the end of the war, the United States was pursuing an annihilationist policy against Japan, fueled in no small part by a question of which race was to survive. President Harry Truman decided to drop the atom bomb because, in his words, the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.” You could see that for yourself in the old movies and newsreels. When I was young, lots of people still hated the Japanese.

When I was in high school, my mother brought home a Modern Library edition of Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946).

hiroshima-a-bomb-dome34It described, through the experiences of six survivors, the bombing of Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath. Hiroshima personified the tragedy for me. Of the 2.5-3.2 million civilians who died from the bombings of 66 Japanese cities, including Tokyo, 129,000–246,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (11.6% to 7.7%).

After reading Hiroshima, I realized that there were hundreds of thousands of lovely people like Yoko who perished because of the atom bomb. I began to wonder which side in the war seemed more inhuman.hiroshima-a-bomb-dome33

When the mother of a friend told me that the US Office of War Information had commissioned cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict to do a wartime study of the Japanese character, I read her findings in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It rounded out my appreciation for these people who had been, in Benedict’s words, “the most alien enemy the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle.”

There are many more books today about Japan than there were when I was a boy.

But there aren’t many children’s books about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or about nuclear war. Images of nuclear annihilation are generally not what a parent has in mind when choosing picture books for their kids at the library or local bookstore.

It’s a subject most of us would just as soon avoid. But it’s also a subject none of us should forget.

The world is a far more dangerous place today than at the height of the Cold War. At least then we knew who our enemies were. Now we are unsure of everything save that life and human survival are tenuous things.



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6 Responses to “the unthinkable for kids”

  1. August 6, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Yesterday evening, on the other side of the Atlantic, TV showed us an interesting documentary about Hiroshima. According to various testimonies featured in this documentary, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were absolutely not necessary. The Japanese knew that the war was lost, and negotiations had taken place through the embassies located in neutral countries. The only point of stumbling block was the maintenance of the emperor of Japan at the head of the Japan, something that Americans have never wanted to ensure. If this point had been awarded to the Japanese, the war would be ended without resort to such weapons.
    But American generals wanted absolutely to full-scale experiment their new weapons and compare the power of the uranium bomb (Hiroshima) to those of the plutonium bomb (Nagasaki). Another underlying reason for the use of these weapons was (soon proven) certainty that the Soviet ally would very quickly become the opponent of tomorrow and that it was important to demonstrate American power in the face of the world. And that is why that Paul Tibbets took off from Tinian, at the dawn, a certain August 06, 1945.

    This article (see the link below) presents the reasons of the bombing slightly differently:

    • 2 Frank Manning
      August 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Sadly, my friend, what you have seen on TV and read in The Nation tell only part of the story. They exhibit a left bias and seek to portray the American role in World War II as something just as evil as the genocidal Nazi conquest of most of Europe, including your homeland, and the equally genocidal Japanese conquest of much of China and East Asia. I ask only that you keep in mind a few facts.

      1. The Japanese military was not going to surrender. They were mobilizing the entire population to resist the planned Allied invasion of the home islands. Estimates are that up to a million Americans and some 7 million Japanese would be killed in the fighting in the home islands. So, even if one doesn’t give a damn about the American casualties, would you have preferred 200,000 dead Japanese or 7 million?

      2. The USAAF’s “conventional” firebombing of the Japanese cities that commenced in 1945 caused far more destruction on a far wider scale than the two atomic bombings. On the night of March 12, 1945, alone, over 100,000 Japanese died in the firebombing of Tokyo. The total deaths in the bombings of the Tokyo-Yokohama metro area were substantially greater than the combined death toll of the two atomic bombings. A full-scale Allied invasion and conquest of Japan would have laid waste that whole country.

      3. The Japanese remembrances of the civilian deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding, Hiroshima was a military city, and Nagasaki was a center of Japanese aircraft production, making planes that would be used by kamikazes attacking the Allied invasion forces. Hiroshima was the headquarters of Japan’s 2nd General Army, which would have played a major role in Japanese resistance to the planned Allied invasion. It also was a center of military production and was THE key command and control center for western Honshu. So no one can deny that both cities were legitimate military targets.

      4. Even after the two atomic bombings and the Soviet declaration of war against Japan, the Japanese military leadership and much of the civilian government leadership opposed any kind of surrender. Even after Truman watered down the unconditional surrender demand to allow for preservation of the emperor as head of state they still would not accept the idea of surrender. It was the shock of the atomic devastation of the two cities and fear of an atomic bombing of Tokyo that led the emperor to order the government to surrender.

      5. My own research in the U.S. National Archives indicates that we had to use atomic bombs to shock the Japanese leaders into accepting almost-unconditional surrender (letting them keep the emperor). The Japanese surrender terms offered to the USA were that Japan would retain its inner empire (Korea, Sakhalin, Formosa), the Japanese Armed Forces would oversee their own disarmament, and there would be no Allied occupation of Japan. Of course we would not accept such terms. So either we dropped the two bombs or invaded the Japanese home islands. We were ready to drop a third bomb on Tokyo itself, so the emperor’s order to surrender saved the imperial family from annihilation.

      6. After the Nagasaki bombing, the Japanese war cabinet held an extraordinary meeting with the emperor. The debate within the war cabinet ended in a tie vote, with the army and navy leaders and PM Suzuki voting to continue the war and preparations for total defense of the homeland. The other three ministers voted to accept u.c. with emperor retention. To break the tie, Suzuki broke with all precedents and asked the emperor for his opinion. The emperor expressed his fear of nuclear annihilation, then stated they must “accept the unacceptable.” Even after the cabinet communicated its acceptance of u.c. with emperor retention, and as Hirohito prepared his surrender address to the people, some junior army officers tried to stage a coup with the intent of kidnapping the emperor and preventing the announcement of surrender. They were easily thwarted by the palace guards, and the recording of the emperor’s surrender address was broadcast to the people.

      The atomic bombings were totally justified, and a morally acceptable alternative to a campaign of invasion and conquest that would have resulted in the total devastation of Japan and perhaps even the annihilation of the Japanese nation.

  2. 5 Frank Manning
    August 6, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Very nice article, Dan. My father served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, so my experiences growing up in the 1950s were quite similar to yours, with the notable difference that Pop and I sat together and watched “Victory at Sea” and “The Silent Service” (a short-lived TV series about the exploits of American submarines during the war). Pop had a box full of war souvenirs, which consisted mostly of sea shells he had gathered in the South Pacific and coins and paper money from Japan, the occupied Philippines, the liberated Philippines, Australia, and China. Also in that box was a collection of thin rice papers filled with Japanese writing. He also spoke of “the Japs” the way your father did, noting that they were prepared to fight us to the bitter end. Pop also believed that the atomic bombings were necessary, in order to end the war without annihilating the Japanese and killing a million Americans in an invasion and conquest of Japan’s home islands. In May of last year you were kind enough to publish a piece I sent you containing Pop’s reminiscences of his war experiences (the power of story, 15 May 2014).
    My father had a unique war experience: His ship ferried U.S. occupation troops to Nagasaki two weeks after the atomic bombing. He saw with his own eyes what the bomb did to that city. That collection of Japanese papers he had were the calligraphy practice of Nagasaki schoolchildren he had stumbled upon at the site where an elementary school had stood. As a boy I was fascinated by those papers, imagining the kids who had written on them and wishing I was able to read what they had written. I always wondered what had happened to those kids, hoping they had somehow been spared atomic annihilation.
    As a 20 year old protesting against the Vietnam War I was confronted with the issue of the morality of the atomic bombings. Almost all of my fellow protesters condemned the bombings as a monstrous war crime, but I had always been told they were necessary to prevent an even greater slaughter. So I went to the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., and did my own research. The original documents and transcripts I found there convinced me that the bombings were indeed necessary. I’ll go into that in more detail in my reply to the previous comment.
    My daughter, who is married to a USAF officer, lived in Japan from 2007 to 2010, when her husband was stationed at an Air Force base outside Tokyo. They visited Hiroshima and were greatly moved by the memorials there. Fortunately, in 2000 she had vacationed with me in Hawaii, and we visited the USS Arizona memorial, so she viewed the Hiroshima sites with full knowledge of why we dropped the bomb. She was not critical of the bombing. She felt bad that all those people had died, but she also knew who had started the war and what the alternative would have been.

  3. 6 matt
    August 6, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    I lived in Japan for several years (including travels to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and have great respect for the Japanese people, but I have no reservations about the decision to end the war quickly with the use of the atomic weapons. The Japanese are a very homogeneous society, possessing a singular dedication to that society which I have not seen in any of the other nearly three dozen countries I have visited and lived in. If you are not Japanese, you are gaijin or outside person, and while today, most would be polite to you, you are still an outsider to them. In those days most Japanese had not actually met a foreigner, and so believed the government’s portrayals of American foes as monsters and baby eaters, just as our propaganda machine portrayed them in horrible ways. To this day, Japan is not the blended society that most of us are used to experiencing in Europe and America, and that must certainly contribute to a “them v us” mentality. That said, I also know what I would have done had my country been invaded by its enemies, and so believe the predictions of horrible invasion losses/casualties on both sides.

    Whether you call it revisionist history or Monday morning quarterbacking, it is looking back at an event from a perspective that simply didn’t exist in real time. While it is fair to look at the morality of those events from both the Japanese and American perspectives, it would also be fair to reserve harsh judgment of the decision made by the man on whose desk the buck stopped.

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