Your history or mine?

Posted in Society at 11:21 by RjZ

Intended for publication 10 August, 2007. Sorry for the delay.

History isn’t consistent. It shouldn’t be a surprise that what we take as an accounting of what happened is strongly colored by our culture and not a little bit by what we want to hear. Yesterday (9 August, 2007), NPR had a story about Rudi Bohlmann. Mr. Bohlmann was on one of the very first ships to sail to Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb attack. In NPR’s story he describes the stench and destruction in visceral detail. At the end of the story, reporter Curt Nickisch, says that Mr. Bohlmann remembers the bombing as “above all, the end of the war. It meant that he could return to the family farm.”

And that’s just how it was taught to me too. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, starting the atomic age, and killing several hundreds of thousands of people, but they did so to end the war. It was a horrible thing, of course, but at least it ended the war. The United States made the courageous decision to execute such a horrendous act in an effort to spare lives. That’s how I remember learning about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that’s how I’ve heard from others too.

Thing is, that’s not what people around the world learned about it. While generations of U.S. Americans imagined pained decisions and proud patriots doing what they have to do to save people everywhere, Soviet citizens, for example, felt that they had already forced the end of World War II by invading Japan and that the U.S. was sending a clear message about the power they possessed. My colleagues in Germany shared a similar view and would occasionally mention that it was ‘typical’ of Americans to flex their muscles even without justification.

Then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote of his misgivings about dropping the bombs “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” General Douglas MacArthur joined Eisenhower. Pacific Fleet Commander Chester Nimitz declared the “atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military view, in the defeat of Japan.”

I can’t remember when I first discovered this other way of seeing the bombings, but I was surprised to learn that we might not be heroes engaged in the necessary evil of dropping the bomb. I won’t suggest schools must ensure history is strictly politically correct or that the lofty goal of reporting it without bias is even a very likely end. Indeed, whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki we’re actually justified is still debated. Perhaps the best thing to notice is simply the very fact that there are quite possibly more than a couple of interpretations of the ‘facts’ we’re presented in school or even in the news.

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