Dwellers of the Nuclear Age

As an early Boomer, I have been a wary dweller in the nuclear age all my life.

That is an important fact that defines all us Boomers.

The nuclear age was born 75 years ago August 6 when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, a densely populated city disingenuously described by President Harry S Truman as “a military base.”

Nearly eight thousand people died instantly in the blast, about 20 per cent of the population of Hiroshima. The horror was repeated August 9 on the city of Nagasaki.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” said Robert Oppenheimer, the principal developer of the bomb, when he realized what he had done.

“My God!” was the less poetic response of the pilot who dropped the bomb.

In 1946 John Hershey wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker that described the experiences of six persons who survived the Hiroshima fireball and lived through the devastation that followed. The articles were published that same year as a Pulitzer Prize winning book.

As seventh graders we were required to read Hiroshima. Our teacher said it was remarkable journalism. In calm, unemotional prose, Hershey simply described the facts. And the facts were devastating.

By that time in our lives the Soviet Union was developing a small cache of atomic weapons far inferior to the nuclear arsenal of the United States. But as far as we Boomers knew we were teetering on the precipice of fiery death. Every time Secretary of State John Foster Dulles strolled the diplomatic brink between peace and war, every time President Eisenhower warned that U.S. response to Soviet aggression “would not be a ground war,” there was a collective tightening of Boomer sphincters.

The nuclear age neared a denouement in October 1962 when the Soviet Union installed tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and President Kennedy ordered them removed.

Boomers can quote from memory this line from JFK’s address to the nation on October 22: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

The next morning our parents stared blankly into their coffees as they sent us glumly to school. Our history teacher greeted us with red eyes. “We adults have had our lives,” he said eschatologically. “It would be too bad if your young lives were cut short.”

Thanks to the courageous restraint of both John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, nuclear war was averted in 1962. But the missile rattling continued.

The closest I got to nuclear weapons was in the late 1960s when I served on an American Air Force base in England. It was U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny whether any of its bases had nuclear weapons, but of course they did. And every time the base had a practice exercise I stood as a security guard and watched uneasily as my fellow airmen worked feverishly to upload tactical nukes to fighter jets. But it was only practice, and we all breathed easier when the nukes were put back into storage.

In 1992 the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States declared victory in the Cold War. But the nuclear age was not over. Both Russia and the United States still maintain their nukes. China, too. Even scarier, many other nations have the bomb. Israel, though it officially denies it, is generally assumed to be nuclear capable. The world’s two most vociferous antagonists, India and Pakistan, have the bomb, and both declare they would use it if provoked.

The nuclear age is alive and well at 75.

There was a time when the most eloquent advocates of nuclear disarmament were leaders of the world’s great faiths. These days faith leaders have a lot to be prophetic about: global warming, injustice, racism, poverty, terrorism, and the general inability of God’s children to get along with one another. I hope faith leaders will not forget to be prophetic about the urgent need to put the nuclear age to sleep.

Religious leaders spoke prophetically about the issue at the very birth of the age in 1945. The nuclear infernal in Hiroshima was still raging when U.S. churches told Harry Truman he had made a terrible mistake.

Harry couldn’t agree.

The way Truman saw it in August 1945, there was a sickening possibility that the Second World War would end in an unprecedented bloodbath.

The only alternative to a mutual massacre of American and Japanese troops, he believed, was the Atomic Bomb that his scientists told him was ready to use.

Months earlier, in land battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, U.S. forces suffered 75,000 casualties. On Iwo Jima, the president was informed, 21,000 Japanese troops fought fanatically to hold the island and 20,000 were killed.

Truman was also aware that Americans were getting harsh glimpses of the brutality of the Pacific war. In November 1942 through January 1943 the Allied losses in the battle of Buna-Gona in eastern Papua New Guinea were higher than that experienced at Guadalcanal. For the first time the American public was confronted with the images of dead American troops. My father’s personal account of that campaign can be read at www.bunadiary.com.

In July, as secret plans were underway for a U.S. invasion of Kyushu, the interception of Japanese messages indicated their military build-up on the island was four times larger than earlier estimates. In Truman’s estimation, the Japanese military government was prepared to fight on until every soldier was dead or wounded.

The atomic bomb, he said, was the only way to “end the agony of war.” On his orders on August 6, an American B-29 dropped a bomb on Hiroshima killing 80,000 people. The total swelled to 140,000 as people injured and suffering from radiation poisoning succumbed. An additional 80,000 died August 9 when a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Whether the numbers fell short of projected deaths in a theoretical invasion of Japan has been the subject of debate for three-quarters of a century.

When Truman went on the radio to announce the use of the bomb, many Americans regarded it as a hopeful sign the war was about to end. But even hopeful Americans were sobered by the number of people, including civilians, women and children, who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was immediately clear that the world had entered a dark and uncertain age.

Member churches of the Federal Council of Churches were appalled by the evils the new age had unleashed. Church spokespersons such as Presbyterian John Foster Dulles – known later for his policy of nuclear “brinksmanship” as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State – urged a moratorium in further use of the bomb.

The Rev. Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary of the Federal Council, sent a telegram to the president on August 9, the day Nagasaki was bombed:

Honorable Harry S Truman,  President of the United States,  The White House

Many Christians deeply disturbed over use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because of their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts and because their use sets extremely dangerous precedent for future of mankind. Bishop Oxnam president of the council and John Foster Dulles chairman of its Commission on a Just and Durable peace are preparing statement for probable release tomorrow urging that atomic bombs be regarded as trust for humanity and that Japanese nation be given genuine opportunity and time to verify facts about new bomb and to accept surrender terms. Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.

Federal Council of churches of Christ in America, Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary

Harry Truman, in office only five months, struggled with diplomatic language in his quick response. In a letter dated August 11, he wrote:

My dear Mr. Cavert:

I appreciated very much your telegram of August ninth.

Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.

When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.

Sincerely yours,

Harry S. Truman

The nuclear age had begun virtually over night, and Truman’s twelve successors made decisions that built, expanded or maintained the American nuclear arsenal. The political rationale from the very beginning was that the bomb was needed to end conflict or as a deterrent to conflict.

But to millions of church people, the potential for “indiscriminate destruction” of God’s creation became a daily nightmare and the focus of millions of sermons, statements and theological debates.

The churches began preaching that sermon of peace in August 1945.

Seventy-five years on, I hope the sermon continues.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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