Like most people, we Americans remember dates related to our heritage. We celebrate July 4, 1776, with a day off, picnics, beer and fireworks. Judging from my former junior and senior university students in history courses, I calculate that most Americans can articulate one or two sentences about that wonderful day — “It was about independence from England, right?” “Wasn’t George Washington involved in that?”
September 11, 2001, means a day of mourning because of 19 suicidal, mostly Saudi, fiends with box-cutters and a mysterious bearded plotter hidden somewhere in Pakistan.
The new age of fear in which we became victims of “what those jihaddists did to us” has not led the majority to ask what our country has done to others.
History classes from grade school on up do not often emphasize the fact that the United States ended the war in the Pacific by dropping two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities, which killed several hundred thousand civilians and left disease and destruction in their wakes. When informed by the Secretary of War about the plan to drop the atomic bombs, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, said the bomb was “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” After the war he said, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
We celebrate. We learned that the gutsy President Truman saved lots of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. We don’t learn in most history classes that Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, later called the bomb a “barbarous weapon” that was unnecessary. Leahy explained, “the Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…In being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” (Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, 1996)
Few Americans have a clear memory of our nuclear history — part of our heritage, just like the cruel deeds of 9/11/01.
In December 1945, radiation sickness gripped tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Top U.S. policy mavens nevertheless decided to conduct more nuclear “tests” — in Nevada and Bikini Atoll.
In early 1946, a U.S. military governor of that atoll in the South Pacific informed the natives their home would become a test site for nuclear bombs — for the purpose of making a contribution to world peace.
Bikini residents sailed to another island. Don’t worry, the U.S. spokesmen assured them, within months you can return; everything will be the same.
For the next twelve years, the U.S. tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Island zone. In 1954, they exploded a hydrogen bomb “with power equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.” (Peter Cohen, In These Times, October 2010)
The fallout from the tests oozed over islands in a 7,000 square mile area. Rongelap and Rongerik atolls don’t appear on tourist vacation maps. Radiation had saturated the palms, beaches, and lush vegetation along with people. Some of the radioactive venom even “reached Australia, India and Japan.” (Cohen)
Decades later, some islanders testified at the International Court of Justice (The Hague) and revealed details of our common heritage; U.S. tests killed and sickened people in a U.S. Trust Territory in which Washington “intended to promote the welfare of the native inhabitants.” (Cohen)
The testimonies offered details of “jellyfish babies” born without bones or “purple grape babies.” My friend Paul Jacobs reported similar horrors in the 1970s. He traveled to the Nevada test site and told of the damage caused by fallout when winds blew radioactive particles over southern Utah and northern Arizona. (“Clouds Over Nevada,” The Reporter, May 16, 1957)
Doctors believed that Paul, a non-smoker, must have inhaled a plutonium partile that became lodged in a lung during his research in “hot” areas. Before cancer killed him, Jack Willis and I filmed Paul in St. George, Utah; he re-interviewed other cancer patients exposed to the toxic material.
Paul had also discovered the details of Bikini tests. By 1972, U.S. officials assured residents the islands were safe. By 1975, however, scientists found palms, beaches and coral reefs contained dangerous levels of radiation. (Jack Niedenthal, A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll)
The natives had to leave Bikini again, now a UN heritage site, “for its environmental, cultural and historic value,” said UNESCO’s Dr. Visesio Pongi. “It has strong cultural and historical connections particularly in relation to a testing site in the U.S.” (http://australianetworknews.com/)
“Testing” is also part of U.S. heritage, along with the distinction of being the only nation to use nuclear weapons. Over decades, hundreds of thousands have died from those war and peace tests, yet security experts continue to demand more testing; even some environmentalists promote nuclear energy as “clean.” Have they forgotten? The nuclear gang has enjoyed more lives than the proverbial cat.