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New Book: Americans In “Denial” Over Hiroshima

August 5, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ The atomic bombing of Hiroshima snuffed out tens of thousands of lives in a single, blinding instant, bringing the world face to face with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The authors of ``Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial″ argue the bombing also seared the American psyche, with dangerous consequences for our society and democracy.

``Hiroshima in America″ (Grosset/Putnam) explores the roots of what authors Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell call our ``nuclear entrapment″ _ America’s simultaneous embrace and dread of nuclear weapons.

``The largest impression (from writing the book) was the tremendous impact of Hiroshima on ourselves, on our mindset, our policies, even our government and democracy and our psychology as a people,″ said Lifton, interviewed before leaving for Hiroshima to attend the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

Americans, the authors say, are in a state of ``denial″ _ unable to face the human effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and moral dimension of dropping weapons of mass destruction on highly populated cities.

``We have a particularly strong need to see ourselves as a decent people,″ said Lifton, author of ``Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima.″ ``What we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki conflicts with that.″

In the most compelling section of the book, the authors use information culled from official documents, diary entries, letters and interviews to probe the motivations of the small group of men who pioneered the creation of the bomb and orchestrated its use.

Like others before them, Lifton and Mitchell conclude that the bombings were unnecessary, that American leaders were told that Japan was on the verge of collapse in August 1945 but dismissed the alternatives and went ahead with the bombings.

Why? The authors argue the answer lies in part in ``nuclearism″: a fascination and identification with the bomb’s astounding power. For the United States in 1945, this translated into the power to end the war quickly, ``repay″ the Japanese for the attack on Pearl Harbor and intimidate the Soviet Union.

The nuclear ``power surge″ found a receptive audience in President Truman, profiled in the book’s second section as having an overpowering need to act decisively. Truman spent the rest of his life justifying the bombings and denying he had second thoughts while, the authors say, there is evidence he privately struggled with misgivings.

America’s ambivalence about the bombings was expressed, the authors say, in the embrace of the weapons _ the development of the hydrogen bomb, for example _ and government censorship of the human effects of the bombings in Japan and nuclear testing and research in the United States.

In fact, Lifton and Mitchell say, the government effort to justify the bombings has created what they call a ``moral inversion″: the creation of an ``official narrative″ justifying the bombing as a way of avoiding an even bloodier invasion of Japan.

The slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then, becomes an act of virtue, a saver rather than destroyer of lives. While Americans justify _ and even celebrate _ the bombing of Japan, they also fear nuclear holocaust.

The legacy of the bombings are still with us today:

``The cumulative effect of Hiroshima turns out to be much greater than most Americans suspect,″ the authors write. ``Indeed, one may speak of the bomb’s contamination not only of Japanese victims and survivors, but of the American mind as well.″

Lifton and Mitchell link _ at times unconvincingly _ the psychological effect of the bomb to today’s social ills: supposed American ``numbing″ toward atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, hopelessness about the future and moral decay.

More convincing is the explanation of more concrete effects of the bombings: government obsession with secrecy surrounding atomic research and bomb production, radiation tests on citizens, the poisoning of workers at nuclear plants and environmental contamination.

This legacy, which the authors argue can be directly linked to our embrace and guilt about the bomb, constitutes a national betrayal and a violation of American democratic principles.

Lifton said that only by confronting our past and the immorality of nuclear weapons can we overcome the denial that has distorted our democracy.

``Hiroshima is a valuable source of knowledge and wisdom,″ he said. ``It’s more a need to understand what happened ... to prevent it from happening again.″

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