2016/05/30

Headlines from the Future: Message from Hiroshima



A recent discovery is shedding light on the century of relative peace that prevailed after the first atomic weapon was used. The document that was recently found on a small memory drive buried in layers of rubble may tell us something about the intellectual climate that prevailed in the years leading up to the great cataclysm. The document is concerned with the atomic attack on Hiroshima and the subsequent hopes to live in a world without nuclear weapons. It seems to have been delivered in Hiroshima as a speech at some time after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945. However, according to archaeologists who are analyzing the text, there is a frustrating lack of clues as to who wrote these words, and there is a conspicuous, seemingly deliberate avoidance of reference to specific historical figures, events, nations and contentious ideas about how realize the goal of a nuclear-free world. One historian noted:

Aspirational essays and speeches like this began to appear within months of the bombing in August 1945, so it could have been any time over the next century. These documents were remarkable for the degree to which eloquence was combined with boilerplate, vapid, aspirational drivel that managed to refer to no actual events or serious approaches for resolving the problem under discussion. As far as this new discovery is concerned, we would love to know who spoke these words and when. For now, it at least seems to shed light on the declining culture that led to the global upheaval. Several theories are bouncing around. References in the text tell us the speaker was American, and the mention of the “genetic code” suggest it dates to the 1950s when DNA was first understood. Some believe it was authored by a beauty pageant contestant, or a high school student in a speech competition. It may have been such a person, someone who would have had little knowledge about current events, only a vague knowledge of the outline of world history, and definitely not any critical awareness of it. Another less likely theory is that it was delivered by a highly placed political figure who was painfully constrained by several factors such as public opinion, power projected through dominant bureaucracies and financial interests, as well as his or her own cognitive dissonance—the gap between long-ago stated goals and the actual record of achievement.   

The newly discovered text follows:
______ 
 
… years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.
Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.
Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind. On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.
The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.
In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.
Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.
How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.
Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.
Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.
Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.
The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.
That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.
Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.
Someday, the voices of the hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.
And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war. The nations of Europe built a union that replaced battlefields with bonds of commerce and democracy. Oppressed people and nations won liberation. An international community established institutions and treaties that work to avoid war and aspire to restrict and roll back and ultimately eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.
Still, every act of aggression between nations, every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world shows our work is never done. We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.
We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.
And yet that is not enough. For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.
For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.
We see these stories in the hibakusha. The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.
My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.
That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here… years ago.
Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.
The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening. 
______

If you’ve read this far, the jig is up. You know this is the Hiroshima Statement read by US President Barack Obama on May 27, 2016. For the sake of setting up the satire, I deleted the two references to “seventy-one years ago.” Other than these two indications in the original, the point made here remains. This long statement is stripped of context and importance. It says nothing of substance about nuclear disarmament. The best thing to come out of the president’s visit is the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki received so much attention from the world media and the visit provoked many writers to make excellent analyses that were infinitely better than the statement delivered in Hiroshima Peace Park:

Adam Taylor, “It’s not just Hiroshima: The many other things America hasn’t apologized for,” Washington Post, May 26, 2016.

Eric Draitser, “Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy,” Stop Imperialism, May 20, 2016.

Gar Alperovitz, “We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

Jack Mirkinson, “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

Miki Toda and Mari Yamaguchi, “Japanese Don’t Expect Apology from Obama During Visit to Hiroshima,” Global News, May 11, 2016.

Simon Wood, “Obama Does Hiroshima,” Dianuke.org, May 28, 2016.

  

2016/05/17

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: You can't apologize for some things

-Remember who you're talking to. Master of the S.S. Samaritan... whose handsthese very hands—flung seven German officers into her fiery furnace.
-You did not.
-One after the other, kicking and squealing.
-The tale gets taller each time he tells it. Geoffrey, you know very well you didn't. The British Navy doesn't give medals to murderers.
-Well, I might have done it. I was the commanding officer responsible. You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know.
 
Under the Volcano (film dialogue)
by Malcolm Lowry

The news has just come over that for the first time a sitting president of the United States will visit Hiroshima. This has provoked the question (and the fear of many Americans) of whether Barack Obama will apologize for the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A poll showed that the majority of Americans see no need for Obama to apologize, but it is impossible to know what this means. Many of the people who feel this way obviously hold onto the belief that the bombs shortened the war or saved lives, or other such myths, while others might also believe that the attacks were a crime against humanity, but they just don’t see how an apology would serve any useful purpose.
In Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the protagonist Geoffrey Firmin declares emphatically, “You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know.” This is what he says about his guilt for having been commanding officer of a British ship on which seven German prisoners were flung into the ship’s furnace. Although his conscience was haunted and it fueled his fatal alcoholism, he could find no way to apologize. Any apology would sound hollow or incomplete, and its sincerity would always be suspect. Perhaps this is why some Americans feel no apology should be made. You can apologize when you bump into a stranger, but for Hiroshima? Where would one begin, and when would one finish?
The best we can hope for at this stage is that we finally learn how to have an honest conversation about what the historical record has made clear. The need for post-hoc rationalizations will hopefully recede into the past. Below is a list of some of points that President Obama could acknowledge in Hiroshima, if he wants to make progress in his quest for a world free of nuclear weapons.

1.        The project to build the bombs was itself a recklessness endangerment of the people who made the bomb, as well as the land, flora, and fauna of America, and later the world.
2.        The bomb was recklessly developed before anyone fully understood DNA and the biological mechanisms that are harmed by radiation, before anyone understood how the nuclear age would impact all life henceforth.
3.        One of the purposes in dropping the bombs was to achieve a dominant position in the world order that would come after WWII.
4.        Peaceful alternatives were not pursued. A negotiated surrender was possible. President Truman used the bomb too hastily after it had been tested.
5.        The entry of the Soviet Union into the war was a major consideration leading to Japan’s decision to surrender.
6.        President Truman and his advisors did not listen to scientists and high ranking military commanders who advised against using the bomb on both moral and practical grounds.
7.        The atomic bombings were clearly war crimes under the laws of the day.
8.        The bombs were used partly because the Manhattan Project had too much bureaucratic inertia. No one had a plan for how atom bombs should or should not be used. Leslie Groves, the military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project pressured his scientists to finish the bomb out of a fear that the war would end before it was ready or the Soviets would "get in on the kill." He and others in the government feared the political fallout of not using the products of such a costly military program.
9.        The American public and intellectual class went to great lengths to lie about and rationalize the decision to use the atomic bombs.
10.     After the bombs were created, insufficient effort was made to avoid an arms race before it escalated out of control.

Admitting all of this would be better than any official apology that would only invite a counter-productive, heated reaction from American nationalists. But the main reason is you just can't apologize for some things, and this doesn’t mean the perpetrator is unaware of or unburdened by what he has done. It’s a mistake to expect an apology for such a colossal act of murder. There is a reason such things are called unspeakable acts, and I suspect the Japanese know this. They have decided that there is a distant goal more worthy than the selfish satisfaction of hearing an apology. If president Obama prefers, he could refer to the historical record as “mistakes” or “tragic alternatives not taken,” or whatever he wants to call them. He could even use that word that Japanese officials love to use whenever sorry seems to be the hardest word in a conversation about the Japanese Empire. It’s all just so damn regrettable (ikan'na遺憾な), isn’t it? Let’s just leave it at that. President Obama would do the world a service if he would just set the record straight once and for all, and maybe show some appreciation for the historians who have examined the fake controversy and rationalizations for the last seventy years and found evidence for alternative explanations.
     But who am I kidding with this contorted proposal for getting around the need to say that emotionally loaded word "sorry"? By definition, a good apology consists of an admission of misdeeds and the suffering they caused, as well as a promise by the apologizer that the misdeeds will not be repeated. This promise is logically implicit in the admission, so the proposal outlined above would actually be a de facto apology that only lacks mention of the words "sorry" and "apology." In fact, this de facto apology would be better than just a vague apology that refers to nothing specifically. Unfortunately, the ten-point list above includes many elements of contemporary defense doctrine that America and other great powers adhere to (such as refusing to negotiate toward a peaceful settlement, disobeying international law) to advance their strategic interests in the world, so President Obama will avoid making any admission of past mistakes because he does not want to imply that America has given up these old habits. He will come to Peace Park in Hiroshima, bow his head at the appropriate times, and say a few platitudes about working toward a world without nuclear weapons, but the implicit message in everything said and unsaid will amount to "Sorry, not sorry."  

Other views:

Adam Taylor, "It’s not just Hiroshima: The many other things America hasn’t apologized for," Washington Post, May 26, 2016.

Eric Draitser, "Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy," Stop Imperialism, May 20, 2016.

Gar Alperovitz, “We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it,” Salon, May 12, 2016.
President Obama will finally visit Hiroshima. Moral leadership suggests both sides apologize for unspeakable acts.

Obama will become the first sitting president to ever visit the site of one of America's greatest crimes. 

Miki Toda and Mari Yamaguchi, "Japanese Don't Expect Apology from Obama During Visit to Hiroshima," Global News, May 11, 2016.

2016/04/29

650 Chemical and Rad-Waste Dumping Expeditions off the Northeast US Coast, 1946-1958




This obscure find from the pages of Readers Digest and the Saturday Evening Post is a curiously open and honest report from 1958 on the dumping of radioactive waste at sea in the US Northeast. It appeared at the emergence of widespread environmental consciousness, and the dumping was not yet illegal or banned by international treaties. In this article, the reporter writes nonchalantly on what would, in a few years, be seen as an outrageous crime against nature. He seems to have written it without fear of government officials or editors who would have sensed the topic was too hot to handle. The contractor interviewed in the report, the person responsible for hauling the nuclear waste, also seemed unconcerned about any negative consequences that could come from the public becoming aware of his activities. Today he would be very aware of the non-disclosure clause in his contract.
Perhaps there were some officials in the Atomic Energy Commission who kept a closer eye on left wing radicals and didn’t suspect Readers Digest would give the game away. There must have been some sensitivity about letting such information get out to the public, but this story seems to have got out before security was tightened and public vigilance was aroused. Thus this unusual report from 1958 provides a rare glimpse into the candid thoughts of people who earned their living in the nuclear industry. Soon after this time they became aware of the need to say as little as possible.
The report also offers some insight into just how well they understood the problem even back then. For example, the journalist learned of the problems of latent heat in radioactive waste, which could cause underground fires and leaks into the environment, and the other problem of corrosion of containment vessels. These problems have not been solved in the last seventy years, but contemporary media reports on nuclear waste plans usually fail to mention them. The experts interviewed on the topic don’t offer this information, and the journalists don’t know enough about the issue to ask the right questions. It is ironic that one has to go back to Readers Digest of 1958 to find the frank, unguarded comments of insiders who were still oblivious to the risks of public disclosure.

From Readers Digest, April 1958:
Saturday Evening Post, January 25, 1958, Vol. 230 Issue 30, p. 36
Condensed from the Saturday Evening Post
John Kobler
Readers Digest, April 1958

ABSTRACT
Focuses on the job of skipper George Perry to tow and dispose toxic wastes that were collected from atomic research centers and industrial plants in the U.S. Use by his crew of photographic film to measure the amount of radiation they may have been exposed too; Efforts of Perry to administer the disposal of a batch of cans of zirconium which have the tendency to explode; Disagreeable experience of Perry with metallic sodium.


He holds one of the world’s newest, riskiest jobs: getting rid of radioactive waste that is almost too hot to handle.
As dawn broke over Boston harbor one day last fall the tug boat Irene-Mae waddled out into the Atlantic on a strange mission. Forward of her wheel house rose a tall crane and at the end of her tow line rose a huge scow. Her destination lay 27 miles due northeast, marked on the coast and geodetic navigation charts “foul area explosives.” Her owner and captain, George Perry, had delayed departure two days until the weather bureau forecast clear skies and calm seas, for her cargo demanded smooth passage. Aboard the scow were hundreds of tons of reinforced concrete block, each encasing a steel drum full of radioactive waste. Collected from atomic research centers and atomic energy using industry plants all over the United States, this toxic rubbish included decaying radioisotopes, contaminated tools and clothing, and partly depleted fissionable raw material. 
When the dowdy craft reached its destination, Perry, a bull-lung, 51 year old salt, slowed the engines and Jim Nuss, his brother-in-law and foreman, drew the scow closer. Joe Cronin, a twenty-one-year old hand, boarded her and using a forklift truck, jettisoned the concrete blocks over the side. 
The depth at that spot, which US army engineers designated as a dumping ground, averages 250 feet, and the mud on the bottom is so thick that concrete will not shatter on landing. The mud also provides an additional sealer against radiation. By noon the last block had been jettisoned and the tug boat headed back to Boston. 
It was the Irene-Mae’s 650th such expedition since 1946, when Perry, then a marine salvage operator, and John Santangelo, a young safety technician, founded Cross Roads Marine disposal. Named after operation Cross Road, the Bikini test explosion, this is the only private outfit on the east coast licensed by the US Atomic Energy Commission to unload radioactive garbage at sea. There are three west coast civilian agencies which occasionally sink some in the Pacific.
At present Cross Roads has almost 70 steady customers. The firm grossed about a hundred thousand dollars in 1957, and the prospects for 1958 look so bright that Perry is seeking a second boat and more scows. 
Besides radioactive waste, the captain and his hearties fetch and carry a variety of chemical leftovers, any of which could blast them into eternity. Perry still winces at the memory of a barrel of overage metallic sodium that a Cambridge Lab wanted to be rid of. The Lab was in a basement. While his truck waited, the captain and Santangello rolled the barrel onto an elevator. As the elevator started up, the compound emitted a hissing sound. “The ascent lasted less than a minute,” Santangello relays, “but to me it was a century. I prayed in English and Italian.” 
Gritting their teeth, they dragged the barrel to the roadway. The hissing grew louder. Santangello yelled a warning and backed off. The captain hesitated, calculating that the chances of getting the barrel to an open field. Santangello yelled again and Perry skedaddled. His plight was not premature. The barrel burst with a bang that shattered windows a block away. 
Perry’s curious enterprise owes its beginning to one of the most formidable problems of the nuclear era. If atomic projects are to progress, storage will have to be found for mountains of tainted litter. A recent report by the AEC says: “Disposal will be a factor in determining the extent of the use of power reactors.” Of the methods adapted so far, none offers more than a stop gap solution, and all are expensive. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, pits dug in the earth receive the less dangerous waste. The hottest waste, much of it liquid, whose radioactivity may last for eons, goes into underground, steel lined concrete tanks. “But we are merely sweeping the problem under the carpet,” says an AEC engineer. “The radioactivity is sure to outlive the tanks.” 
Now under study is the feasibility of pumping liquid nuclear waste down abandoned oil wells or mines thousands of feet below the water table. The sites must be such that the liquids must not pollute natural resources. It must also be ascertained whether by their heat they could boil up a radioactive geyser.
The ocean floor seems a comparatively secure suppository. Yet its use raises posers to which the experts have no definitive answers. 
Despite steel and concrete, seepages of radiation may occur. If unlimited amounts are dumped in the same spots, will they build up noxious rays, saturating marine life and turning one of man’s cheap sources of food into poison. Can the containers resist erosion until all radioactivity has declined? These are the questions the AEC is continuously pondering. No imminent peril threatened, however, for analysis of specimens of foul area water has thus far shown no significant radiation.
Blind chance led Perry into his present business. One of 14 children of a Brookline, Massachusetts, carpenter, he ended his formal education after 3 years at Northeastern University because his father needed his help. In 1929, he set up his own building contractor firm. While building a wharf he accidently dropped his tool in 20 feet of water, and to recover them he rented a divers suit. What he saw, sloughing around the river bed, so bemused him that he took up deep sea diving for the sport. His skill at it proved valuable to the coast guard, which he served as a Chief Boatswain during the war. Upon his discharge Perry organized Atlantic Marine Salvage Inc. It still functions as a minor adjunct to Crossroads. From the army he bought the Irene-Mae, a 65 foot former mine tender. 
One morning in 1945 Perry was repainting his vessel when John Santangello, a tall intense youth, turned up on the wharf. Though only 20, he held a responsible position in a nuclear physics laboratory. The accumulation of radioactive debris there was growing critical. Two or three local boatmen had made the run to the foul area but were not eager to repeat it. The coastguard told Santangello, “Ask Perry. He will tackle anything.”
Without divulging the nature of the unwanted material, Santangello asked the captain if he cared to haul 5 tons. “It was nice weather for a boat ride,” Perry recalled, “so I figured what the hell.” Santangello went along. Toiling side by side, they became fast friends.
*for the story how Canada disposes of her atomic waste, see “Fighting the Wild Atoms At Chalk River,” Readers Digest March 1955*

Re-published here non-commercially with intent of fair use for historical research, public education and public right to know.  

(Thanks, Ray, for passing it along.)