A Tragedy—and a Continuing Embarrassment

Free Inquiry - October/November 2010

You can't get The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back by Charles Pellegrino at a bookstore. Amazon has used copies at ridiculous prices. A library might have it; I have a review copy. The publisher, according to the author, has recalled most copies — not to the warehouse but for pulping and recycling (I have not yet been asked to return my review copy). A revised edition is being readied for publication outside the United States. The why and how of all this is not pretty.

In the decades since the atomic bombing of two of Japan's cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans have been presented with voices for and against the horror of the attack (all sides generally agree on the horror), from John Hersey's 1946 Hiroshima, through many later and lesser accounts, claiming:

1. The invasion of Japan would have cost too many lives, American and Japanese, as the enemy would have fought to the last — therefore, better to finish it with fewer deaths.

2. We spent all that money to use the weapon against at least one of the Axis powers, but we ran out of one enemy when Germany surrendered.

3. Stalin had to be deterred (at least from carrying out his obligation as an ally to invade Japan); but there was risk that a mere demonstration, for him or for the Japanese military, would have been seen as a trick of some kind. Stalin in fact took the bomb as merely a bigger explosive until he was made to understand the scale of destruction and numbers of dead. The weapon was no worse in destructive power and casualties than the firebombing of Tokyo, Hamburg, or Dresden, but those required many more bombers and paled in strategic and economic efficiency compared to a single bomb.

And on and on. Once you have correctly, and to some degree justly, demonized your opponent, you can think and act as you wish. Bomb civilian populations lest they continue to support their regimes, permit the destruction of even your own (Coventry, England) to preserve your military secrets, and lock up your own civilians (Japanese- American citizens) before they run amok and defeat you from within with sabotage and assassination. There is no end of rationales based on fears of pure possibility

Without even attempting to answer the many questions about whether The Bomb should have been used on Japan or not, this book makes the case against without the need for justification. It does so vividly, as if the tortures at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere had been televised in 3-D, which is why efforts were made to prevent all those pictures from being released. They are on the Internet, but the powers that be console themselves that unexpurgated photos were not on CBS and Walter Cronkite was no longer on the air.

Some cases make themselves. Every war movie is an antiwar film to the knowing viewer, however jingoistic. The horror of what the images show sends doubts into even the most thoughtless minds. There is no great leap from the internment of Japanese-American citizens at Manzanar to the doom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their names might just as well have been Fire and Frying Pan.

Pellegrino's book takes the reader there as no other book has ever done and does not need to make any other case against what happened — indeed, against all warfare.

People who fled Hiroshima's death to the illusory safety of Nagasaki arrived in time for the second blast, and this book is a series of eyewitness accounts. "Tsutomatu Yamaguchi, who is still alive, is the only person known to have survived the full effects of the blast at Ground Zero both times. The second time the blast effects were diverted around the stairwell of a building in which he had been standing, placing him and the small group of people standing with him in a shock cocoon, while the entire office building disappeared around them."

Pellegrino sought personal contact with the survivors, as a human being and a scientist, and that is what makes this book both enlightening and embarrassing to the inheriting American powers that be, who if they do not repudiate the past only make a new compact with its crimes, hundreds of which still wait to be faced in the records of Korea and Vietnam, not to mention the looting of Europe after World War II. At the time of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, General Colin Powell assured his superiors that there was "nothing to it" in the report. As James Cameron points out, Pellegrino's book "combines intense forensic detail — some of it new to history — with unfathomable heartbreak. The author unflinchingly chronicles these most devastating events in Japan, the only times nuclear weapons have been used against human beings, and begs us to hold hands and to pray that it never happens again. A must read for anyone with a conscience." The words of the director of Titanic only remind us of how that ship's sinking emerged out of the hubris of a humankind that imagined it knew what it was doing and continues to repeat the blunders of delusion. In fact, nuclear weapons have been used repeatedly against human beings, in the hundred or more poisonings of people from above-ground tests, the cost of which has never been measured. General Eisenhower, when he heard of the atomic drops, said that he could not believe that "they" had dropped that terrible “thing” on people. Eisenhower's words, implying that the cost of every weapon in our arsenals is a theft from the lives of Americans, still accuse us today.

Readers should take this book personally, as much as that is possible in the generational gaps of our shared humanity. I was born in 1945 and grew up with an awareness of great solemnity about the term atomic bomb. It seemed to have always been there, from all time — as in fact the physics had been waiting for us since our universe began. I remember watching two self-congratulatory and solemn Hollywood movies of the times about the bombings, Above And Beyond (1952) and The Beginning or the End (1947). When the mushroom cloud appeared on the television screen, a high school friend who was watching it with me cried out to my horror, "We've done it! We've destroyed them again!" He approved of the continuing memorialization of the bombings.

I wondered at the time what might have happened if more atomic bombs had been available. Would Japan have been bombed back into the Middle Ages, as some wanted to do with Germany but with less extreme methods — dividing the European heartland into agricultural provinces, in the manner of Ghazi Khan's vision of a world pasture for his animals? The Romans destroyed Carthage out of pique; they would not tolerate a competing empire on the inner sea and sowed the ground at the site of Carthage with salt. Ironically, the site of Carthage became a center of commerce soon after and has been so ever since. World War II in the Pacific was a war over resources and empire, and the future nuclear empire won by cutting off the other's resources, a precipitated war "that had to come, sooner or later." As with Carthage, Japan again rose as an economic power soon after its defeat. The war with Germany could have been prevented at the peace conference after the First World War, nipping the hatred of the battle-shocked corporal in the bud and denying a future Japan its military ally. Nuclear technology might have developed outside the pressure of war, much delayed, and perhaps been confined to power reactors and even to workable fusion generators.

But that would have been hoping for too much. In 1914, in The World Set Free, H.G. Wells foresaw this type of weapon and called it an "atomic bomb." He not only forecast nuclear power and atomic war as the result of an arms race but also gave Leo Szilard, a physicist, the notion of how fission might work. Szilard, seeing how Germany was moving toward both nuclear and political critical mass, visited Einstein at Princeton and convinced him that nuclear power was more than "moonshine," which was what Einstein himself had recently called it. They drafted a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the rest we know

In later years, Einstein lamented putting matches into the hands of children, in these very words. When J. Robert Oppen heimer confessed to Harry Truman: "Mr. President, we physicists have known sin," the president told his staff that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer again, asking who he thought he was, since it was the president who made the decision to bomb Japan — but the truth of it was "Yes — and no."

One cannot but wonder at the denying motives of those who have frightened the publisher of this book into withdrawing it on the basis of its single admitted mistake, thus encouraging the non sequitur of denying its major point. "Almost everything we know about the bombings turns out to be wrong," Pellegrino writes. "For all its fury the Hiroshima bomb was less than half as powerful as the one dropped on Nagasaki."

Pellegrino has long since admitted to being duped by one witness who seemed to be genuinely convinced that he had been on one of the planes. Record keeping about the nuclear bombings left enough holes for Joseph Fuoco to claim that he had been aboard the Hiroshima mission's photographic escort plane, Necessary Evil. What may have started as a prideful white lie led Fuoco to collect photographs and documents to support his presence on that plane and to convince both himself and his wife of his invented reality. Fuoco's imagined past heroism served him well to help his troubled family. Hundreds of people showed up at his funeral when he died of a sudden heart attack in 2008.

Both the man and his documents told a consistent, convincing story to Pellegrino. "None of us will ever know," writes Pellegrino, "if he was intentionally lying to me in 2008. The man I met was living by a code of service to others. Having placed himself aboard a mission he never flew (and having assembled convincing documentation, all those years ago), although this clearly began as a mean-spirited act, I want to believe — and almost have to believe — that by about 1955, perhaps through the mutation of memory, what began as a lie had become Mr. Fuoco's reality" (from the revised edition of The Last Train from Hiroshima).

All Pellegrino's other evidence from eye witnesses has held up. A revision of this book has been completed. Historians and scientists correct their mistakes. But it is again quite clear that the attackers of his work will not be satisfied.

The author is noted for unveiling the histories of subjects many of us have imagined that we knew enough about, from the story of the Titanic and the archeology of the ancient world to the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. The author's honest, Doctor Who–like personal style throws stuffed shirts into paroxysms of invention and false accusations that sooner or later collapse into apologies that seem more like fresh accusations. Few if any corrections are later offered, even in major newsprint.

The recall of this volume is a great, revealing blunder, regarding both Pellegrino's persecution and the denials of American military and foreign policy. Given the decades-long investment in nuclear bombs by the nuclear powers, it is not surprising that the defenders of deterrence, and now the exponents of tactical use who seek to make nuclear weapons "acceptable" in the public imagination, still face the perpetual moral embarrassment of these two atomic bombings and would seize upon any objection to the book's details (not to mention the fallacy of ad hominem and factually incorrect attacks on the author). Among some of the angry discussions following this book's brief availability is the notion that since the bomb killed so many it could not be described as a failure, as judged by falling short of its predicted explosive yield.

There have been decades of rationalization, prevaricating military justification, and outright falsehoods about these bombings (beginning with General Douglas Mac Arthur's censorship of facts), and it is no surprise that a historian was fooled by a witness who was either deluded or seeking glory. Fuoco's removal from the text does not change the book, except to remove a detail about the attacks by those who would use anything to discredit the author. In fact, the author does not take a stand for or against the bombings; he lets the survivors speak for themselves. Such an impassioned and objective appeal to humanity seems to be more threatening than any advocacy for or against.

The publisher's incompetence in separating mistaken details from proven substance has led to a withdrawal and pulping of the first edition. The history of malice against Pellegrino is one of personal attacks, willful ignorance, and finally collapsing charges. Why did the publisher leap from the swirling nonsense of other publishing frauds to include this book? Are publishing employees simply C-students struggling in the snake pits of editorial departments to please their corporate masters?

One can only lament the dumbing down of America that now extends to the publishing world, where even nonfiction publishers cannot tell nonsense from fact and that the unwelcome aspects of this work have so easily been tangled up with other issues and welcomed by those who needed some way to attack the author, through various confusions of documents concerning his credentials and accomplishments (all doubly confirmed), moving in a masterly wave of disinformation to vast un supported conclusions.

But more remarkable is how the publisher has withdrawn this book and is unable to accept the overwhelming evidence in favor of the author, ignoring the dozen other publishers around the world readying to publish the revised edition. The vendettas and animosities that have plagued Pellegrino for years have all collapsed under the weight of their own defects. Their only purpose has been to do the kind of damage that cannot be easily expunged from credulous minds, which is the infectious accomplishment of all disinformation.

One wonders at this alliance of rivalries against the author and the troubling subject of Japan's nuclear bombing-not to mention the guilty event of the firebombing of Tokyo, Hamburg, and Dresden, all highly questionable according to the Geneva Conventions — all coming together against this book.

I do wonder at the conscience and feelings of the departed man who came to believe that he had been on the escort plane and passed this "mutation of memory" on to his relatives to fool the future. In his own inner history, he was on that witnessing escort plane. Alas, too many of us were there with him and are still on board our bombing mission of empire.

©George Zebrowski 2010