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We see far too many exclamation points these days. From social media's prolific tufts of sentence-ending triple exclamation points to the hackneyed declarations that everything is somehow "unique," and by some contorted maze of specifics, "historic."

dropping the atom bomb

Most of the time, all we really mean is that something is... peculiar.

August 6th is a day when all those notions collide, in every superlative and then some. And not for any reason that's been hyped for the past two weeks or any singularities that devolve from a stage in Cleveland on the same day in 2015.

August 6th is indisputably one of the rare, indisputable dates when absolutely everything changed, not just for every creature alive in the time when the date first mattered, but forever after, into our time and beyond.

The shock and awe — words we can, for once, legitimately apply — of the age of nuclear weapons arrived seventy years ago on this very day, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the populated city of an adversary, the morning of August 6th. And, yes, it is inescapable to note the most contentious and delusional discussion in Washington today is a new manifestation of the spectre of the mushroom cloud — the rancor over whether America will stand alone against international acceptance of the agreement to prevent yet another nation — the adversarial nation of Iran — from joining the nuclear weapons "club." That mushroom cloud, once it finishes being hotter than the surface of the sun, still casts a long shadow.

So we aren't going to gush about whether a megalomanical demagogic showoff billionaire conned more simpletons than the rest of the severely delusional egomaniacs chasing a different billionaire's campaign cash, all because the clowns convened for a happy hour and then a kegger on this particular August 6th in 2015.

Historic? More like... peculiar. Even noting the irony of emphatic know-nothing politicians evoking histrionics instead of history, and the fact they are doing that on August 6th, in part to advocate blocking the only international deal that would prevent Iran, a contentious nation, from building nuclear weapons? Peculiar.

Beyond that? We won't delve into today's departure from the airwaves of the most effective and skewering pundit since Will Rogers or Mark Twain. Because the impact of Jon Stewart and his "Daily Show" four nights a week, about nine months a year, has had so many disjointed breaks that the date for his last show is really arbitrary, and no one will remember the actual date, anyway. Stewart, leaving just in time to miss a rooftop trumpeting of the overt and subtle foibles of a gaggle of self-selected presidential candidates, in what would only charitably be deemed a debate? That's not historic. It's only... peculiar. And given the wry wit of Jon Stewart, it's rather fitting.

We will, instead, bring into focus the August 6th that happened seventy years ago, and by extension, August 9th, two days when everything changed all at once, and did it in a single moment. We will consider what happened and what it meant, in the context of that time and of ours. And we will consider how our inability to process it, after all these years, has yielded pathetically naive yet emphatic convictions based on utter contradiction and confusion.

Fact is, the seeds of that confusion were planted well before a gleaming, silver B-29 bomber took off before dawn. And before it flew 1,500 miles from an improvised and quite critical airbase on the captured microdot island of Tinian on that long-ago August 6th.

A B-29 that arrived with a mysterious group of B-29s with incongrous black arrows on their tails and no assignments to enter combat rotation. A B-29 to which the group's commander had hastily had his mother's first and middle name, Enola Gay, painted on the sides of the plane's nose. No colorfully cartoonesque or busty "nose art" like every other aviator of World War II — just a name in plain-block, black capital letters.

And then a pit had been dug, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis delivered a solitary crate, and the crate vanished into the pit behind canvas curtains beneath that B-29.

When morning dawned on August 6, 1945, the curtains were gone, the crate was gone, and both the B-29 and the cruiser Indianapolis had departed, each for a date with destiny.

Seventy years ago when Americans got out of bed to start their August 6th, it would be just another day of working on the war effort, just one more nondescript day that would be one day closer to victory, to the end of the war; if everybody just did their job, did what they were supposed to do, like everybody else. Then maybe there wouldn't be as many more gold stars in as many windows, or as many crying mothers, if everybody just did their job.

Sure, some more Marines would probably get killed on some island nobody could pronounce, and some more flyboys would probably get shot down and either burn to death in the air or be tortured to death if they made it to the ground in Japan or in occupied China. But the War Department didn't say much about that.

More sailors would probably die from those fanatics crashing kamikaze planes into their ships. And you might learn about another submarine whose patrol was so long overdue that the Navy Department would list it as "presumed lost" with the entire crew. Those things were always sad. You'd sigh. You'd shake your head. You'd take a deep breath, drink your coffee, cough through the cigarettes everybody smoked, and get to work on time because everybody expected you to, and you were as patriotic as the next guy — or gal — and hey, who the hell gave you permission to be special? Don't you know there's a war on?

Just life in wartime, Mack.

Nobody but a very few expected August 6th to be any different than that. Even when that new President, Truman, came on the radio with some quick line about "The world will note today" the dropping of "the first atom bomb." Is that what he said? "I dunno, Mack, I have no idea what that is, either. Maybe something a little different with all the big fire bombings. You know they plumb near burned Tokyo to the ground the other night. In one night. And those little Japs still won't give up. Let's get to work."

That was reality in America. And yes, everyone said "Japs," because it was war and it was handy shorthand, economical in newspaper headlines and speech.

By August 6th, everyone knew it was coming. "It" being the inevitability of the invasion of Japan. Top Secret planning was well underway to do it — in excruciating detail that included assignments of specific US military units to specific landing sites, when each would land following naval bombardments from ships' big guns and air strikes, just like they'd learned to do better from each invasion landing. And the Top Secret planning specified exactly where those bombardments would come down, and what defensive facilities they were to annihilate, and who they were supposed to kill, from how many giant naval gun shells and how many planes carrying what kinds of bombs — high explosive or incendiary.

And then the Army and the Marines would head for landings on the beaches, and nothing would go as planned because it never did, and incredible carnage and unbelievable heroism and mental collapses and everything in between would take over, and for that moment, that much of the outcome would be decided.

And then the Army and the Marines would head for landings on the beaches, and nothing would go as planned because it never did, and incredible carnage and unbelievable heroism and mental collapses and everything in between would take over, and for that moment, that much of the outcome would be decided.

That would be Operation Olympic / Coronet — the methodical meat-grinding slaughterhouse invasion of the Japanese home islands, one by one. It would grind on through all of 1946, for certain. How far into 1947? 1948? All the planners could do was to know when they would be ready to start. And they set it to begin, massively, in November, 1945. It would be, by far, the largest amphibious invasion in history, dwarfing the allied invasion of Europe at Normandy in 1944 — "D-Day" on the coast of France, which had been just a year and two months to the day before today, August 6th, 1945. That day in November would be historic and fiecely terrible. Unlike this August 6th, which would, at least, be just another day in a long, bloody war.

It had taken just eleven months after D-Day to end it all in Europe. But that was with the Russians driving from the opposite side, and the earlier invasion forces moving up around the Alps from Italy. The noose had been tightened on Germany to wring Hitler's neck. And finally, at long last, with millions of dead, that was forced to a conclusion.

There was no setup like that in Japan.

The Germans had to abandon their hope of invading England. And it was an island. Like Japan. But Japan had a lot more people than England, and the English never armed their civilians with stone age weapons and gave them close-order drill, including the old ladies and children, to launch themselves as human waves into the face of a fully-equipped invading army.

The same willingness to crash an airplane into an invading ship was present in Japanese culture to launch yourself for a one-way trip into an invading army with only a sharp stick.

The Americans were not supposing that. They had experienced it at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Landing in Japan would produce carnage unseen since masses of live humans became piles of dismembered, eviscerated remains, as the cannon fodder at the end of the Middle Ages. (And, as it turned out, it would be seen in the 1980s in the human wave attacks of the Iran-Iraq War.)

After slugging it out across North Africa, up thr length of Italy, inland from the coast of France, and across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, freeing millions of people from murderous occupation and often true enslavement, what remained could not be avoided. A brutal occupying force was still in Southeast Asia, Korea, Manchuria, and China. They still held their own people under totalitarian rule in home islands, and they had Allied prisoners of war there.

They could still hurt people, and they were. You'd bomb them and bomb them to kill all the ones you could before they could kill one of you with a sharp stick. Because you'd bled enough. You'd hope that bombing them would break their spirit so they wouldn't fight, but all you'd seen told you they would fight anyway. So what was coming was inevitable and unavoidable.

Thus, just as everyone had known D-Day was coming in Europe, Operation Overlord had been a Top Secret name, as was its location in Normandy and every detail of it.

It was the same now with Olympic and Coronet, the two halves of the invasion of Japan, and everything else about it — down to individual beaches and paratroop landing sites.

This time, each aspect bore the code-name of an American-made automobile. That is, a pre-war automobile, since all the car makers' assembly lines had been converted to producing warplanes or tanks or other flying, floating, tracked or rolling combat vehicles.

It had been a long war. For Americans, three years and eight months tomorrow, August 7th, since Pearl Harbor. Of course that paled in comparison to what Europeans had endured; by the time their World War II had ended in May, they had known war for at least five years and eight months — add two years to that for anyone still alive who had been caught in the initial Nazi expansion, subjugation, and impressment into the Wehrmacht or as factory slave labor.

All that while the peoples of China and Korea had endured one of history's most ruthlessly brutal military occupations, since Imperial Japanese forces first arrived and made a daily question of life and death every day for more than nine years.

Those who survived, endured. Whether as refugees in rags, looking for displaced family members amidst the rubble of continental Europe and the cities of Russia, or as liberated survivors of concentration camps, or as Nisei troops enduring the highest casualty rate of any units in American uniforms, even as their parents looked out through the barbed wire of internment camps in remote quarters of the vast American West.

All the way to the civilian workforce who lived with nighttime coastal blackouts and ration coupons for eggs and butter and flour and sugar, while keeping the factories and the trains running and buying more war bonds and war stamps at the 25¢ movie theatre after working all day. But, hey, they had been through the Great Depression, so they'd had it worse.

Everything about World War II had been transformative. And it was a sure bet that it would continue to be that way, and along those same, by now predictable, lines.

The same excruciatingly predictable patterns of seeing more gold stars in windows of houses where mothers wept. Where daughters came home from the factories after leaving part of their paychecks for war bonds, where they carried lunch buckets, wore goggles over hair they hoped looked like Betty Grable's and wore overalls to protect legs they hoped everybody would imagine looked like Betty Grable's.

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It was transformative for these young women who wrestled sheet metal and glowing hot steel, who formed and welded, and yes, rivited, the steel and aircraft aluminum that came from America's mines and smelters and forges and mills.

Transformative, as these young women took materials and transformed the parts they made from them into precisely assembled wings and aelerons and Pratt & Whitney or Wright Cyclone engines.

Everything from plywood PT Boats and landing craft to tank treads to combat boots; to mess kits to web belts and strap buckles; to medic's bags to M-1 Garand rifles to rotating gun turrets to fuel tanks to jeep seats; to cold-weather uniforms to silk parachutes to canvas tents and stretchers.

Everything from leather flying helmets that held little round radio speakers against your head so you could hear the comms over the roar and did double-duty keeping your ears from freezing at 20,000 feet. And the thick fleece-lined high-altitude flak jackets and rubber oxygen masks that went with them. To steel pot helmets to Mae West lifejackets tothe bootlaces to G.I. socks.

It had been a long time since an American had bought anything new. Or seen a new car, whether a Hudson or a Chevy or a Studebaker or a Ford — or an Olympic or a Coronet.

And even with Hitler defeated, it wasn't likely anybody would see one any time soon.

Japan would be a tough nut to crack. They had just proved that at Okinawa, the war's biggest land-sea-air battle, where young Japanese pilots flew kamikaze planes into American ships, wave after wave, when there was no hope of winning or stopping the inevitable drive on Japan, the inevitable drive to get airfields and invasion bases ever-closer. The Japanese knew exactly what it was. It was the same thing they had done when they had so recently been the juggernaut expanding their empire in Asia.

When it had been the Imperial Japanese forces invading, there had been the infamous and prolonged Rape of Nanking and a thousand other atrocities against civilians. And now, in 1945, the Americans had come the long, bloody road from the Doolittle Raid to Midway, through Guadalcanal and Tarawa and Pelielu and Saipan, back through the Philipines, up Suribachi on Iwo Jima and through a thousand places with strange names, at last to Okinawa. Where the civilians of Okinawa rushed to fling themselves off cliffs, mothers with their children and babies, because the power of Japanese propaganda on their own people was that strong.

There is a point to remembering all this. It is because, for going on four decades, so much of it was conveniently misremembered as if it had been something else.

The era of Vietnam, assassinations, betrayals, disillusionment, suspected — even expected — conspiracies. It all gave rise to the era of the revisionist historian.

Suddenly, FDR knew all about Pearl Harbor — except he didn't. And suddenly, dropping the atomic bomb could have been avoided, and instead had been a shameful act of racial hatred and retribution.

And crazy ideas like those get traction.

It's not hard to see why. A generation that grew-up with the spectre of The Bomb — by then, the atomic bomb was simply The Bomb — had to live with the idea that the world could end in fifteen minutes.

The inescapable immorality of The Bomb as a tool of foreign policy transcended all knowledge of The Bomb. So any look back at the Manhattan Project that first developed The Bomb because the Nazis may be developing it? That had to fit the cognitive framework of nefarious lying conspirators who propelled all of us into the victimization of the world with The Bomb.

Harry Truman was a pawn. Oppenheimer was a pawn. For the villain? Edward Teller, who went on to become "the father" of the hydrogen bomb.

But the need of the popular conscience to make things make sense, in the context of their disillusioned world view, lost track of the truth.

Could Japan have been given "a demonstration" of The Bomb, in which no one was killed? Just consider that Hiroshima was on a list of cities not previously bombed, so the damage from a single atomic bomb would be unambiguously clear. And after the nearly total destruction of that city and many of the people in it, and shockingly grievous burns to survivors?

The Japanese still would not quit.

What dismisses the argument that "a demonstration" would have been enough is simply that it took a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a second previously undamaged city. Even then, the Emperor was nearly overthrown in a coup when the militarists initially refused his instructions to end the war.
There is another argument from the revisionists that Japan was defeated, prostrate, helpless when The Bomb was dropped. If that was true, why did estimates of American losses go upwards of one million troops killed or wounded in the coming Olympic / Coronet invasion?

And if Japan were militarily helpless, let's remember the USS Indianapolis that delivered the Hiroshima bomb to Tinian. That ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in what became, because of the two atomic bombs, the final days of the war. "Indy" sank so fast her lifeboats could not be launched. Her crew spent days in the water being devoured by sharks. A horrible tragedy, a dark mark on the US Navy for failure to search for the missing ship, yes. But it happened as an act of war from an enemy still very capable of striking deadly blows, not limited to kamikaze attacks.

Such willfully erroneous efforts have sadly been common on the part of the revisionists. They pick and choose facts and ignore the big picture of the war and how America saw it, which we took pains to present.

We said at the outset that America has remained confused by our inability to process our nation's decision to twice drop The Bomb, and "after all these years, has yielded pathetically naive yet emphatic convictions based on utter contradiction and confusion."

Revisionist histories sell. But let's look at a specific to see how... peculiar our confusion continues to be.

The Smithsonian Institution kept the B-29 "Enola Gay" disassembled in crates for decades. The nation's museum was certain it would face outraged protests should it ever display the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. When the decision finally came to do it, after the huge "annex" to the Air & Space museum was built at Dulles airport, there were, indeed protests.

Yet the B-29 named "Bocks Car," the one that dropped the second atomic bomb, the Nagasaki bomb? It has been displayed for decades at the Air Force Museum in Ohio, and a longtime museum staffer reported, "I don't think we've ever had a single expression of protest or a problem."

Death toll estimates vary widely from both bombs. There simply are not bodies left behind to count when human beings are vaporized, though sometimes a permanent shadow is left on the concrete or stone to mark their last instant alive.

There are much more reliable numbers for those who died of the effects of the two bombs, either rapidly from horrific burns and radiation sickness, or from cancers and organ failures that took longer to manifest.

Yet, even here, there is at best, confusion, and it becomes dishonesty. An Associated Press story early this morning cites 297,684 "hibakusha," the Japanese term for those who survived either of the blasts but died later from the bomb's effects. The problem comes when the AP story asserts, "5,359 [of the hibakusha] died in the past year."

But the average age of the hibakusha is now over 80. We are willing to think that someone who survived the atomic bomb and lived into their 80s ultimately succumbed to The Bomb?

Certainly that says nothing about the quality of life an individual had. And it says no more about whether they experienced a lifetime of psychological or emotional trauma — any more than chronological age at death speaks to those things for any survivor of any war. But assuming, as does today's AP story, that thousands of octogenarians who died seven decades after exposure had all succumbed, specifically, to The Bomb? That's... peculiar.

But then, our relationship with all things atomic has always been... peculiar. From Slim Pickens bull-riding The Bomb, whooping with his cowboy hat from the bomb bay of an Air Force B-58 in "Dr. Strangelove," to the '50s and '60s "duck-and-cover" drills at every elementary school, to the latest apocalyptic action movie, to the reality of Chernobyl and Fukushima as far more likely visions of nuclear disaster.

Only recently has human society become knowledgeable enough to regard nuclear risks as the ultimate kind of environmental catastrophes. And after a decade of "friendly atom" propaganda (or was it simply dangerously naive wishful thinking?) it's no wonder we were slow on the uptake. That "Friendly Atom" stuff even included a casual but very public suggestion that we dig a new Panama Canal by detonating atomic bombs.

Next week, August 14th will bring national cimmemorative events to mark the end of World War II. When you see te-enactments of the famous kiss that happened in Times Square that day in 1945, the sheer joy and exhuberance of that long-ago moment just might speak to us again. When you see it, think how improbably, unexpectedly, unpredictably miraculous it was, coming just eight days after Hiroshima and five days after Nagasaki. Instead of a million lives lost in the initial phases of Olympic / Coronet, instead of all of 1946, and who knows how much of 1947 and '48 consumed by that war had those bombs not been dropped.


We must not confuse the specific history of a time that tortured the world, a time that will not and cannot ever come again, with the perspective we must carry forward.

Our abhorrence at the thought of nuclear weapons is necessary. The megatonnage is not survivable. Those things were not true in 1945, nor could they have been.

We are in possession of more facts and better science. We need to find paths to nonproliferation. We have a responsibility to the international assemblages with whom we have negotiated and achieved consensus to sign the agreement to keep a contentious nation free from nuclear weapons.

History is a teacher. It is rarely a model, because when we bend it for our needs, we do that at our peril.

One connection from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Iran and Israel? A nuclear weapon will still generate temperatures hotter than the sun, and it will still vaporize living humans and leave only their shadows — in a wasteland too toxic for anyone to go see those shadows.


As we remind ourselves of all this, surely we must think we have come to know more. The question is, have we learned anything and are we any smarter?

Larry Wines