Reflecting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Never Again

Monday, August 3, 2020, Greenfield Recorder

In August 1962, 17 years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing over 250,000 civilians, I attended the Eighth World Peace Conference in Tokyo, Japan. Several of us then traveled to Hiroshima to participate in their memorial ceremony on Aug. 6 and then to Nagasaki for Aug. 9. I was a young college student and carried with me 1,000 folded paper cranes, a gift from the young people of the United States to the youth of Japan. It was our mutual and fervent wish that there would never again be nuclear bombs used as weapons of war. I was a committed activist and completely believed in my ability to help move the world toward peace and justice.
After 17 years, most of the damage in Hiroshima had been paved over in cement and new buildings and roads. However, the reality of what had happened there lived on in the survivors, who continued to suffer and die for years and decades.
In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I visited hospitalized young girls who were dying of leukemia, their illness reflecting the increase of cancer in survivors and their children. In tears, I gave each of them hundreds of our origami peace cranes.
Subsequent research I did revealed that there was much controversy within our government about the decision to drop nuclear bombs on a civilian population. The rationale given by our government to the public — that this was necessary in order to save the lives of 100,000 U.S.soldiers expected to be lost in a land invasion was — in fact, misleading and a lie.
My research revealed that our government absolutely knew that a land invasion wasn’t needed to end the war, that Japan was ready to concede defeat. I learned that one real motivation expressed for the use of these bombs was to increase postwar influence and power for the U.S. as the sole nuclear power in the world. Another was to prevent our wartime ally, the Soviet Union, from pursuing their imminent intent to enter the war against Japan. Preventing a Soviet invasion meant that Japan would be solely within the U.S. sphere of influence post war. The lie about saving American lives made the destruction of these two cities more palatable to the people of the U.S. who were desperate for the war to end. The use of these bombs on a civilian population, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who posed no threat to the U.S. was, in truth, a horrific, criminal and immoral act.
In 1962, only 17 years after Hiroshima was totally destroyed, it had mostly been rebuilt into a modern city. A river runs through Hiroshima and some of us visitors went to the river. There we encountered very poor housing where many of the survivors of the bombing now lived. Not only had these survivors suffered unimaginable damage and loss from the bomb, they had become outcasts in their own city. Many were horribly disfigured. They were experiencing barriers in obtaining and maintaining employment because of their devastating scars and precarious health. Many were rejected for marriage because children of survivors had significantly higher rates of birth defects and increased risk of disease.
One clear and painful image I have carried with me for more than half a century was seeing survivors that day at their windows, smiling and waving, expressing warmth, appreciation and welcome to us. It actually felt unbearable. They knew we were from the United States and that we were there to help share the truth of what they had experienced. But it would have been easier for me if they had been shouting in anger and throwing stones.
I know that I don’t really know what they each were feeling, seeing us there that day.
And it doesn’t matter to me that I was a very young child in 1945 and of course had no part in the decision to commit this crime.
What does matter is that it was my country that did this and has continued to build nuclear bombs and threaten the world with them. I believed then that all I could do was to keep my heart and eyes open while I was there and then come home and tell their story, to say as I do today: “This is what these bombs do and this is what our government is capable of doing — “NEVER AGAIN!”

Liz Kelner, a Greenfield resident, is a retired social worker and lifelong activist living in Franklin County since 1981.