The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity


IMAGE: The elderly Edward Teller sits in a plush red chair at his desk, holding up a paper and examining it
Edward Teller, 87, preparing a paper, "The Future of Physics" in his Hoover Institution office in Palo Alto, Calif., says he prefers not to be called the "Father of the H-bomb."

HIROSHIMA and Nagasaki claimed yet another victim in May.
   This time it was Martin Harwit, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the United States. Harwit resigned to defuse criticism by conservatives in Congress over the museum's initial plan for exhibiting the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 that bombed Hiroshima, Japan.
   The Air Force Association that led the attack on the Smithsonian wanted an exhibit commemorating the knockout punch that ended the war.
   Smithsonian curators wanted a broader exhibit, one that recounted the horrors of the two bombings and the dawning of a terrible new age.
   "When people look at the Enola Gay, they bring lots of messages with them," said Thomas Crouch, a curator for the exhibit. "The controversy started before the first script was completed. This one was just enormously difficult. These issues are enormously complex."
   And sometimes surprising. Consider, as examples, the feelings of Ken Nakano, a Boeing engineer who lives in Kirkland and who was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing, and Edward Teller, the famed hydrogen-bomb physicist and Cold Warrior.
   Nakano thinks the Hiroshima bombing was necessary.
   Teller regrets that scientists didn't push for a demonstration explosion as an alternative.
   The 64-year-old Japanese American was born in 1931 in Portland and adopted by the Nakano family of Tacoma. He is one of about two dozen atomic-bomb survivors who live in the Seattle area.
   In 1937 his adoptive family decided to return to Japan, and he lived in Hiroshima until 1952. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, he was lined up with his seventh- and eighth-grade classmates preparing to work in a sweet-potato field about 1 1/4 miles from where Little Boy would detonate. He saw two shiny bombers fly high overhead, and then the white parachute that slowed the fall of the bomb so the planes had time to dive away.
   "A few seconds later, there was a tremendous explosive sound and the wind knocked everybody down," Nakano recounted. He was wearing a jacket and hood, which helped save him from serious burns. "I opened my eyes - all the surrounding area was fire and smoke." His hood caught fire as its black color absorbed heat and he had to shake it off. His face and hand were burned.
IMAGE: Nagasaki survivors    His biological mother, who had also returned to Japan, would die four days later of massive radiation poisoning. His older sister was cut by flying glass. Nakano's home was four miles from the blast, far enough to survive, and he took a circuitous route around the burning city to reach it. "I almost stepped on the arm of a child. That was the worst thing I experienced."
   "My parents were so happy to see me return to my home. My mother immediately took care of my left hand and left face by (applying) American medicine. Our family friend Key Okigawa provided me with a vitamin injection. Vitamins were very scarce in those days. Most survivors didn't have medicine. . . . It took me over two months to recover from the wound."
    Nakano has not developed any long-term disease from the radiation exposure. Eventually, he used his American citizenship to join the U.S. Army, attend the University of Washington, and work for Boeing on civilian jets and Air Force One. "I never worked on a military airplane."
   Despite having half his classmates wiped out by the bomb - older classes were working closer to the city center, clearing fire lanes for the conventional bombing that was expected to come - Nakano thinks Hiroshima was necessary.
   "Japan had time to surrender before that happened," he said. "We in Hiroshima never thought Japan would surrender."
   There were 43,000 soldiers based in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki was an industrial city that had turned out the torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor. Its shipyards had built some of Japan's biggest warships.
   Japanese troops had fought to nearly the last man on island after island in the Pacific. Japanese civilians on Saipan hurled themselves off cliffs rather than surrender. Kamikaze pilots at Okinawa had inflicted on the U.S. Navy its worst losses of the war. Japan still had 2 million troops and 8,000 potential suicide aircraft.
   Estimates of U.S. casualties in an invasion of Japan were in the hundreds of thousands. In the context of the times, Nakano argues, "I don't think there's a need to apologize. Japan hit first. The revisionist historian idea that the Japanese will soon surrender is a very wrong guess."
   That has long been the mainstream view. Argued Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold after the war: "We had had 100,000 people killed in Tokyo in one night of (conventional) bombs and it had seemingly no effect whatsoever. It destroyed the Japanese cities, yes, but their morale was not affected as far as we could tell, not at all. So it seemed quite necessary, if we could, to shock them into action" with the atomic bomb.
   Still, many historians argue that the bombing might have been avoided. Japan's navy was destroyed, its cities were being reduced to ashes by conventional firebombing and its coast was blockaded. The Soviet Union had just launched an offensive against Japanese troops in Manchuria. Did Americans give other pressures a chance to work?
   Certainly there was confusion and delay on both sides. Nagasaki, for example, had leaflets dropped on it warning of the power of atomic weapons and urging surrender, the day after it was bombed.
   No scientist has been more intimately connected with nuclear weapons than Edward Teller, who worked on the Manhattan Project, was an early proponent and developer of the hydrogen bomb, and later argued for the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. Teller, 87, still has offices at Stanford University and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California and keeps up a vigorous travel and speaking schedule. A staunch anti-communist, he believes the nuclear-weapon standoff bought the time necessary for the Soviet Union to collapse.
   But while Teller believes the American development of nuclear weapons was necessary, he is less sure that their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary.
   "It was not the scientists' decision how to use the bomb," he said in a still-strong accent from his native Hungary. "But I have one very great regret in connection with the bomb. We should have worked out, in detail, a way to demonstrate it. To work out an alternative was the scientists' job."
   What could the United States have done? "I generally like the idea of a nuclear-bomb explosion over Tokyo Bay, at 8 p.m. in the evening, with a clear sky. It would light up the whole sky for 10 million people to see. They would hear a sound like they had never heard before. And we would say, `Give up, or we will use this on your cities.' The emperor would have seen it."
   The idea of a demonstration was briefly discussed by American decision-makers but apparently dismissed because only two weapons were ready. There was concern that a fizzle would harden Japanese resolve.
   Historians are still arguing whether other factors also influenced American thinking, including the desire to impress the Soviet Union, the $2 billion cost of the Manhattan Project, or simply revenge for Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and savage island warfare in the Pacific.
   Historical opinion has been cyclic. Historians initially tended to justify the decision, then criticized it in a revisionist wave during the 1970s and 1980s. A new wave of books this year defends the decision again, arguing it probably saved more lives, both American and Japanese, than it cost.
   Barton Bernstein is a Stanford historian who advised the Smithsonian curators on their initial exhibit. He is critical of estimates of high U.S. casualties in an invasion of Japan, suggesting a figure of 63,000 dead instead of half a million. He considers the atomic bombing a horror that went beyond conventional firebombing because of its radiation aftereffects on residents and the unborn.
   But would the Japanese have surrendered without the use of the bombs? "I don't think it's knowable," Bernstein said.
   The historian says the initial script for the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit "was reasonably on target" and I would agree. My conclusion after reading it was that the museum got a bum rap.
   If displaying the Enola Gay was meant to celebrate victory in World War II and a remarkable airplane, then veterans had a right to complain. The Smithsonian exhibit intended to go far beyond that into the difficult historical questions of the bombing.
   One passage of the ill-fated script, seeking to put the bombing into context, understandably drew fire when quoted out of context. Because of Pearl Harbor, the script contended, "For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy - it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism."
IMAGE: Hiroshima survivor Ken Nakano    But those are two sentences in a first draft of more than 400 pages that explore Japanese "naked aggression and extreme brutality" in some detail, as well as the horror of the bombing. To my reading, the planned Smithsonian exhibition (it opened June 28) was an honest attempt at balance now lost to political acrimony. Instead, the forward nose of the Enola Gay is being displayed with little comment.
   In that sense it is like Bock's Car, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Placed at the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio in 1961, Bock's Car has since been visited by about 1 million people a year without controversy - but also without meaningful museum comment.
   Half a century after the bombings, feelings are so strong that each of us is left to make up his or her own mind.
   Ken Nakano has made up his. Regardless of the necessity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said, "The meaning of the 50th anniversary is that we not use nuclear weapons again against human beings."

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