Lesson from Nagasaki: Lighten up on Dark Tourism

“I see those people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the news every year and I wonder why they just can’t let it go. Hasn’t it been long enough already?”

These words were spoken to my wife recently by a Japanese co-worker when we returned from Nagasaki. This attitude might seem startling to peace activists in Japan and throughout the world who participate in memorial events every year on August 6th and 9th, but it is a sobering reminder that many people in Japan and throughout the world have let the memory fade, not even knowing what they don’t know about the perils of nuclear weapons as they exist in today’s world.
In a consumer society based on employment in a military economy, the institutions people pass through in their formative years do very little to teach history, political consciousness or the meaning of citizenship. Whatever lessons exist are delivered as tedious, obligatory lectures, followed by multiple choice tests. Lessons might also have come from elders in the form of scoldings about how tough things were during the war, how “you youngsters” have no idea and so on. The only thing worse than no history lessons is bad history lessons. Japanese people, in particular, may be inured to them because of an overdose of obligatory exposure to the rituals of remembrance.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki also invoke uncomfortable feelings of shame about losing the war, and shame about responsibility for it. The hibakusha and all the memorials in the two bombed cities evoke these conflicted feelings, so many Japanese would rather turn away, just as many Americans would rather turn away for inverse reasons.
While living in Japan I have met people who talked about visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they never mentioned the atom bomb. The only thing they wanted to talk about was the local foods they ate, or maybe a visit to Dejima, the old Dutch and Portuguese trading post in Nagasaki that used to be the most famous thing about the city. They talked about these visits like they would talk about a visit to any other place. Likewise, residents of the two cities have millions of good reasons to appreciate everything that happened before the war and after it, all the things that make their cities just like other cities. No one wants their city to be just about that one traumatic thing that happened one day long ago.
I had lived in Japan for many years before I visited either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, partly because I had other priorities, and partly because it just felt a little strange to visit a place just for that. I knew the history quite well, but I still questioned my motives. I finally went when I had someone to visit there, someone who just happened to be a historian who specialized in the cultural impacts of nuclear technology. 
That was Robert Jacobs, who was interviewed on a local Hiroshima English language podcast shortly after President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. During the interview he shed some light on why people are becoming less reluctant to visit traumatized places and engage in what has recently become known as “dark tourism:”

I met a religious studies scholar… who said… dark tourism has replaced religious pilgrimage... Going to places where history happened, especially traumatic history happened… gives your life more authenticity... This has been on the rise, and it’s partly a way to infuse our lives with meaning and connection to a world that is often at a distance from us…  to infuse your own life with a deeper sense of the importance of peace because you’ve been to some place where peace is so important. It’s an emotional and a spiritual renewal to go to places like that, and the use of the word “dark” doesn’t mean that there is a dark meaning. It just means that it’s sites of historical trauma. People go there not to gawk at trauma or death but because these are the sites that resonate in our mythology of the world we live in. Religious sites don’t resonate so much the way that they used to, but people like to visit places that give their lives a sense of being connected to mythic things. In our lives the mythic things are often large historical tragedies, and in coming to a place like Hiroshima... “dark” just implies a place where a dark thing happened, but the motives of the people who come here are to increase their sense of connectedness and their sense of meaning... People will invoke having been to Hiroshima as a means of having authority. They will say, “I’ve been to Hiroshima… I can tell you about how bad nuclear weapons are...” These are empowering reasons that people visit… The phrase “dark tourism” certainly doesn’t imply that the motives of people are in any way dark. [1]

There could be a downside to claiming authority just because one has visited a place where something bad happened. It depends on what one learns about the entire context of the traumatic event. Visitors to Hiroshima could leave with widely divergent interpretations of what happened there in 1945. In the end there is much to be said for a pilgrimage to a local library in order to connect and infuse one’s life with a deeper connection to history.
I can say that my visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved something that was missing in all that I knew about what happened there in August 1945. No matter how much I had learned from books and films and second-hand reports, it didn’t become fully real in a certain sense until I could confirm it with my own senses, when I stood at ground zero, walked through the cities, visited the museums, and talked to eyewitnesses to the events. That’s what is meant by “connection.”
One of the great things about both cities is the streetcars. They still run down the routes that existed in 1945, and though they must have been rebuilt and refurbished many times since then, they haven’t been modernized. They look, and feel, and sound just like the streetcars of old, and they are the means by which most visitors get from the central train stations to the atomic bomb memorial sites.

On August 8th I rode the streetcar in Nagasaki with my wife and son, from downtown to the Urakami district where the museum and hypocenter are located. As we got closer the streetcar became very crowded, as groups of students were in town to attend the annual memorial the next day. I was standing, and my wife and son were sitting. A white-haired woman in her late eighties got on. She was stooping over a cane, but she pushed her way through the crowded aisle with considerable force. I tapped my son and told him to give up his seat. She took it with quick smile of gratitude then immediately began to talk to my wife:

Everyone’s going to the Peace Park today. That’s good. Good to see so many young people here… I wasn’t here that day. I was living down the line in Sasebo, but I had been called up to work in a factory here. For some reason I didn’t have to go to work that day. But then later I was told to get to Nagasaki and report for work. I got down to Sasebo station, and when that train from Nagasaki came in, people just fell out of it and collapsed right there on the platform, never got up again. Piles of them, blackened and sick. They just spilled out of the train car. I’ve never seen people in such a horrid state. Every city was getting bombed. We expected it, but obviously something very strange had happened in Nagasaki. I didn’t ride the train that day, but I went later… Sorry, I’m talking a lot, but I have to. Tomorrow the prime minister will come and make his speech again. So useless. We are really disappointed in him. I never used to talk to strangers like this, but now I talk to everyone because we have to. There are so few of us left.

Obviously, this is a translation and a paraphrase of a conversation recalled by my wife and related to me when we got off the streetcar. The reader may think I’ve embellished it, but this was the gist of it: the determination to tell the story, the need to condemn the present direction of the country, and thus the loss of all concern about what anyone might think about the unsolicited sharing of these stories with strangers on a streetcar. Looking back on it now, it seems to be the best way to explain to that smug, ignorant co-worker why people can’t and don’t have to “just get over it.” The experience also taught me why people should dare to be “dark tourists” and take in everything they see and hear when they visit places of historical trauma, whether it’s Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Wounded Knee. In this case, there was nothing like getting the story firsthand on a Nagasaki streetcar.
Our short visit to the city had other highlights. I was invited to join a study tour led by the historian of American University, Peter Kuznick (co-author of The Untold History of the United States), and there I met his students and others from Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University. A famous spokesperson for the  hibakusha community was also there, 71-year-old Koko Tanimoto Kondo, who has devoted her life to speaking about the atomic bombings in both Japanese and English. Her father was Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, [2] a Methodist minister who was portrayed in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the first report that exposed American audiences to the horror of what had happened on the ground on August 6th, 1945. [3][4] Reverend Tanimoto began a campaign to have nations dedicate August 6th as World Peace Day, and Koko, who was only eight months old at the end of the war, continued her father’s mission as she grew older.
Another hibakusha, Kazutoshi Otsuka, spoke to the study group about the life he has devoted to telling the world about the necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons. He was ten years old at the time of the blast, and survived because he was at the edge of the zone of worst damage and was indoors at the time. He emerged from the debris that had fallen over him to find the city in ruins, utterly transformed from what it had been just a short time ago. The downtown area had been spared, but in Urakami almost all the buildings and thousands of people had just vanished. The last human voice he heard before the blast was his friend calling from outside, “The cicadas are singing. Let’s go catch some.” Did he die instantly in the blast? Did he run home and get caught in the fires? Did he die more slowly from radiation? Mr. Otsuka searched for his friend for a long time afterward, but it became obvious that he had vanished on the wind just like the last words he had spoken. For seventy-one years, while he has told his story to all who will listen, Mr. Otsuka has carried with him those simple words of invitation from his friend to enjoy a summer day.
The most famous icon of the atomic attacks is the Hiroshima Dome, one of the few structures left standing, but one which was almost demolished in the rush to rebuild the city and erase all signs of what had happened there. Those who wanted it saved had a hard time convincing city hall that it would be worthwhile to preserve it. There is nothing similar in Nagasaki, except for some portions of the walls of Shiroyama Elementary School near the hypocenter. Like the dome in Hiroshima, its position directly under the blast allowed it to be not completely demolished by the lateral blast force. After the fires were out, the remnants of the school on a small hill stood as the only desolate reminder of all that had been in this section of the city called Urakami. However, it wasn’t as photogenic as the Hiroshima Dome, and Nagasaki is more out of the way and receives fewer visitors, so it never became an iconic symbol of the atom bomb. In any case, the rebuilt school still functions as a school, so it wouldn’t be able to deal with a constant stream of visitors.
The original wall with the new school built around it.

We learned that every year on August 9th the school holds a remembrance ceremony for students, the community, and any visitors who wish to attend. The students all come back for a day from their summer vacations and dress up in formal attire in the 30-degree humidity. It is a mourning ceremony, so the adults wear black funeral suits and dresses.
My wife and I decided to get up early on the 9th and take our son to the ceremony. We had attended many Japanese school ceremonies with our children before, and this one was just like all the rest, but so different from all others as well.
A steep staircase leads up to the school, and Koko Tanimoto was already there at the top, beaming a welcoming smile to us. There was something from her father in that smile because she made it feel like we were being welcomed to church on a Sunday morning. We walked around the grounds and looked inside the restored section that holds artifacts and memorials for the disappeared. In a grove of trees just off the sports ground they still sometimes find bone chips a few inches down in the soil.
After the ceremony, a teacher talks to a group of students about the grove. 
In his speech at the ceremony, the principal said everything one would expect at such an occasion, going over the events of that day and the weeks and months that followed, and the eventual rebuilding of the school and the city. Several times he mentioned “passing the baton,” stressing to the children their heavy responsibility to carry on the memory that all other graduates of the school have carried into their adult lives.
Shiroyama Elementary School, in the days after the bombing.
Around the third time I heard that word baton, I began to feel uneasy about it. I started to wonder how many people had gone through that school wondering “Why us?” They didn’t drop the bomb. They didn’t ask for this burden, and they must wonder why the whole country and the whole world is not doing more to pass this baton to future generations. I didn’t visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or make friends in the peace movement, suffering from any delusions that it is easy to change the world. I think most of my fellow travelers and the hibakusha feel the same. We know what we are up against, and we know how badly the masters of war have betrayed us. The hibakusha’s commitment to peace makes for a paradoxical taboo against expressing anger and rage, but I suspect the survivors have reached old age bitterly aware that the world has done far too little to act on their call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It must feel like cruel mockery as they reach their later years. There were many hopeful periods, such as the thaw between Khrushchev and Kennedy that was emerging just before JFK’s assassination, or the end of the Warsaw Pact in the late 1980s, but each time, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, the holy dove was caught again, bought and sold, and bought again. [5]
There must have been very many angry hibakusha over the decades, people who kept their rage contained within them, people who drank, people who became outcasts or extremists, but the openly angry people never got invited to official ceremonies. One can only speculate about the motives of the anonymous person who threatened to bomb Shiroyama Elementary School and other schools in Nagasaki in August 2016 (at least there was an advance warning), but it speaks to a very perverse disdain that exists in some people toward the victims rather than the perpetrators. [6]
Overt anger has been kept out of sight, but an acceptable outlet for covert anger is mainstream politics, where those in the ruling party dream of restoring the glory of the empire and their notion of “national honor” while accumulating plutonium from “the peaceful atom” and biding their time under American subservience. This is how contemporary Japanese society developed its neurotic ambivalence about its history and place in the world.
The various forms of anger have been reported by other writers who know the experiences of hibakusha well. Shortly after President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, the journalist and filmmaker John Pilger had this to say:

… the cynicism of great power and great reckless power, in many respects is expressed at Hiroshima where… all the evidence shows that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sacrificed as America’s first expressions of violent power in the Cold War that was then underway. So for Obama to go and talk about the atomic bombs as if God dropped them... He used the passive voice… and really quite vomitus language like “we must have the courage to care.” So [according to Obama] no one dropped the atomic bombs. The United States certainly didn’t kill all those hundreds of thousands of people. It didn’t cause all that suffering. It’s something that we should all express sympathy to. It was like a kind of high mass and the great divinity was there, but not the United States. That [the US] is not to blame. That’s been Obama’s role as a PR man extraordinaire, and he came into power and people fell on their knees… This was a kind of second coming. There was a problem for the last few years with re-igniting Afghanistan and Iraq, and destroying Libya and so on, but the fawning has begun again as Obama’s time in office nears an end, and for people, for journalists to report--as I say the deeply cynical action of Obama and the United States in Hiroshima the other day--to report it without the context of all those survivors–and I’ve interviewed many of them--of how angry they were… they’re polite people and they’re very elderly… but they were angry. [7]

Two months later The Mainichi reported more precisely on this anger in describing how the secretary-general of the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations regretted his initial praise of Obama’s speech when he had time to read an accurate translation the next day:

Terumi Tanaka, 84, was in attendance on May 27 this year when Obama was making what was the first visit of a sitting U.S. president to Hiroshima…
There was an interpreter for Obama’s speech, but the speech was not handed out on paper… Sentences from the latter part of the speech, such as his reference to a future in which “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known ... as the start of our own moral awakening,” had stuck with him, and he praised the sentence as “excellent words.” He noted, however, that he was “disappointed” that Obama had said, “We may not realize this goal (of a world without nuclear weapons) in my lifetime.” The next morning… Tanaka opened a page containing the Japanese translation of the speech. It began, “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed.” Tanaka was stunned. “Death did not ‘fall from the sky.’ This is making the death abstract. This is absolutely unacceptable,” Tanaka thought. While on board the train he opened his laptop and began to write his “Essay of Regret.” As he typed, erased and retyped, he says, “I began to get angry and stopped midway. They ‘created’ the death. As a sign of apology, I want them to eliminate nuclear weapons,” he says. [8]

Another expression of this anger came from Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha who has lived for many years in Toronto. She was received at the White House in June, where she met the man who wrote the Hiroshima speech and hand-delivered a message for the president in which she listed the concrete measures that need to be taken to make the speech amount to more than aspirational fluff:

1. Stop the U.S. boycott of international nuclear disarmament meetings and join the 127 countries that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to create a new legal instrument and new norms for a nuclear weapons ban treaty as a first step in their elimination and prohibition.
2. Stop spending money to modernize the US nuclear arsenal, a staggering $1 trillion over the next three decades, and use this money to meet human needs and protect our environment.
3. Take nuclear weapons off high alert and review the aging command and control systems that have been the subject of recent research exposing a culture of neglect and the alarming regularity of accidents involving nuclear weapons. [9]

Much more could be said by the hibakusha community about issues not relating directly to disarmament, such as the worsening mistrust between the nuclear powers and the proliferation of conventional military power that leads so many nations to favor the “cheap and easy” asymmetrical nuclear deterrent. [10] The obstacles to peace are stacked high, and anger seems to be the only logical response. But I will hold onto the memory of  Koko Tanimoto smiling at the top of those stairs at Shiroyama, greeting the late pilgrims like me who’ve finally decided to make this simple journey.


[1] J.J. Walsh, interviewer, “Professor Bo Jacobs on the Obama Visit,” Get Hiroshima, May 30, 2016, 18:00~

[2] “Hiroshima Survivor Meets Enola Gay Pilot,” This is Your Life, 1955. The full interview with Reverend Tanimoto can be viewed on YouTube.

[4] Tadatoshi Akiba, L. Wittner and T. Taue, “Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day Events Matter,” Asia Pacific Journal, August 1, 2007.

[5] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future, Columbia Records, 1992.

[6] “‘Hibakusha’ talks scrapped after Nagasaki bomb threat,” Asahi Shinbun, August 18, 2016.

[7] Afshin Rattansi, interviewer, “ISIS in Fallujah & World War III with John Pilger (Episode 350 of Going Underground),” Russia Today, June 4, 2016. What John Pilger described as a “passive voice” construction could more accurately be called a usage of an intransitive verb which conceals the agent of the action. The speech writer had various syntactical choices available: President Truman ordered the bombs to be dropped or The crew of the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, The bomb fell or, at the level of greatest possible abstraction, Death fell from the sky.

[8] Terumi Tanaka, “Hibakusha: A-bomb sufferers’ group official regrets praising Obama speech,” The Mainichi, August 2, 2016.

[9] To Barack Obama from Setsuko Thurlow, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, August 6, 2016.

[10] Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 101. Many who favor nuclear deterrence believe that it has prevented a third world war that would have been fought with a massive arsenal of conventional weapons, with millions of casualties. In this argument, a nuclear arsenal is preferable, and it comes at a bargain price for nations large and small. Rhodes’ book argues for abolition of nuclear arms, but he noted how their “low cost” (not considering what economists call “externalities”) became a rationale for their development: “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank.”


The Nuclear Age in Dylan and the Beats

The Nuclear Age in Dylan and the Beats

If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before.
- Bob Dylan, 2007

I learned about atomic weapons and the potential of nuclear war at a young age, and I was sometimes puzzled that people could carry on like the threat didn’t exist. Then again, the point is that I was only sometimes puzzled. Most of the time I was getting on with my life, like everyone else. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, and Chernobyl, but it was the Fukushima meltdowns too close to my home that got my attention and made the nuclear threat unforgettable.

from The Illustrated Desolation Row

It might seem that most people live as they did before the 1940s, concerned with their families, traditional beliefs, jobs and where to take their next vacation. We hear about close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and bluffs by crazy world leaders like Kim Jong-un or Richard Nixon, that remind us of the dangers of nuclear warfare. There is the occasional nuclear power plant meltdown, but it seems to be impossible for humanity to sustain a persistent awareness that nuclear war, or just a colossal accident in a spent fuel storage pool, could wipe out civilization—and it is probably a good thing that we can put these worries aside. Nonetheless, the awareness is always there at some level and it has had profound effects on history, culture, and consciousness.
The atomic age came with the establishment of the American world economic order. The Bretton Woods agreement set the stage for a dollar-denominated global economy, and that economy was based on military spending and nuclear weapons build-up.
Space exploration, telecommunications research, and computer innovation were all directly or indirectly products of the nuclear arms race. The Soviets and the Chinese were ostensibly not part of this new American world order, but they had to militarize their societies to keep up with the Americans. The atom bomb changed everything, and it is still at the forefront of the major issues of this century. The intractable conflicts in the Middle East are shaped by who has a nuclear deterrent and who does not.
One of the best ways to understand the impact of the nuclear age is to see how it has affected art and popular culture. Sometimes the influence is explicit, but usually it is implicit in everything around us. The technocratic, militarized security state is present in every work of art. Comic books and science fiction B-movies offer many examples of how nuclear danger couldn’t be confronted consciously—it appeared subconsciously as mutant monsters, blobs and aliens. In other cases, it was an explicit element of the story. Whereas traditionally children’s stories resorted to magic and spells to give characters special powers, the progress of rational science now provided the transformational power, and, ironically, the superstitious nonsense. A rich comic book and movie franchise was established by the bite of a radioactive spider. Spy novels and popular music are other genres that offer thousands of works with Cold War and nuclear-age themes. These influences on the arts and popular culture have been covered in books such as The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age, [1] and the famous documentary film Atomic Café. [2]
There is insufficient space here to cover a wide range of nuclear age art and literature, but the best place to start is at the source, with the writers of the 1940s who grasped how the world had changed and were the first to raise the rebel yell. They influenced everyone who came later in the baby boom generation. These artists saw the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union breaking down and heading in an ominous direction. There were pockets of resistance in the political discourse from former officials in the Roosevelt administration, but these would soon be silenced and pushed out of power. The former vice president, Henry Wallace, made an urgent speech in 1946 trying to steer foreign policy away from confrontation with the Soviet Union:

The only kind of competition we want with the Soviet Union is to demonstrate that we can raise our standard of living faster during the next 20 years than Russia. We shall compete with Russia in serving the spiritual and physical needs of the common man… Let’s make it a clean race, a determined race but above all a peaceful race in the service of humanity… The source of all our mistakes is fear. …Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement. We fear communist penetration. If these fears continue, the day will come when our sons and grandsons will pay for these fears with rivers of blood. Out of fear great nations have been acting like cornered beasts, thinking only of survival. …A month ago Mr. Churchill came out for the Anglo-Saxon century. Four years ago I repudiated the American century. Today I repudiate the Anglo-Saxon century with even greater vigor. The common people of the world will not tolerate a recrudescence of imperialism even under enlightened Anglo-Saxon, atomic bomb auspices. The destiny of the English speaking people is to serve the world, not dominate it. [3]

Wallace was soon fired from Truman’s cabinet, a demotion which came after having lost the vice presidential nomination at the 1944 Democratic convention, thanks to manipulation of the vote by party bosses. Thus the writers of the late 1940s picked up on the warnings made by progressives like Wallace. William S. Burroughs, who by odd coincidence attended a high school that was later converted to the Los Alamos Laboratory where the first atom bombs were made, said of his own writing years later:

This is science fiction, but it is science fiction in terms of what is actually here now. I have nova conspiracies, nova police, nova criminals... The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in practically all existing political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom, that is, at control. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in Western countries. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity we see on every hand, and of course, it manifests itself in the actual virus illnesses. On the other hand, the partisans are everywhere, of all races and nations. A partisan may simply be defined as any individual who is aware of the enemy, of their methods of operations, and who is actively engaged in combating the enemy. You must learn who and what the enemy is, their weapons and methods of operation. The enemy is in you. [4]

Burroughs’ familiars were fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. All of them had lived on both sides of 1945, so they were well positioned to witness how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the Ginsberg biography American Scream, Jonah Raskin wrote:

Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization. [5]

Ginsberg believed the bomb had caused a “psychic disturbance” among his friends, fueling their despair and subsequent drug use. In his journals, Kerouac labeled the spiritual crisis the “atomic disease.” [6] In his writing and his actions, Kerouac showed no interest in politics, or protests and petitions of any kind. Some said his intent was never to save America but to praise its joys and eulogize it, as if the existence of the atom bomb had doomed it. However, William Burroughs said about his influence, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their disclaimers.” He believed that Kerouac had inspired a worldwide movement that took his work to the next logical step, an activism which aimed to better the world, not merely fatalistically eulogize it. [7]
Kerouac described his writing as a holy calling, a command from God to “go moan for man” and be “as minute as a seed in the pod” in doing so. [8] Indeed, he may have been one of many humble seeds, for the more powerful forces in the disarmament movement arose later, some secular, some religious such as Plowshares (still spilling blood on nuclear installations in the 21st century) and evangelical Christian groups. It is impossible to know what the alternate history would have been, but it is plausible that nuclear annihilation was averted only because of the resistance of millions of citizens who forced political leaders to step back from the brink. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015, Pope Francis echoed Henry Wallace’s speech when he declared:

An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction—and possibly the destruction of all mankind—are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as “nations united by fear and distrust”. There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons. [9]

Even in Kerouac’s final year, when his talent and his relevance were said to have been drowned in terminal stage alcoholism, he could show flashes of wit and a flair for bringing attention to the existential problem that the chattering classes preferred to ignore. In an appearance on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line in 1968, [10] he joined a panel discussion seeking a definition of “the hippie movement.” One could say that Kerouac was pathetic in this appearance, offending everyone and at times incapable of speech. But even drunk and diminished as he was, he could still play the holy fool. He may have been aware of what was going on but just couldn’t stomach the political discourse and the inanity of the questions about hippies and beatniks.
Buckley asked him if the hippie movement was “Adamite” (aspiring to a state of purity like Adam in the Garden,) but Kerouac was confused by this flaunting of obscure vocabulary (a habit of Buckley’s that annoyed his critics). He asked with puzzlement, “Adamite? You mean Adam and Eve, or atom? What? Adam and Eve? What’s Adamite? They wear their hair long, in layers? Live in caves?”
“Yeah, sort of, and back to nature and...”
“Well, that’s alright. We might have to in due time—after the atomite bomb! Haha!”
Buckley flashed a smile, “That was good. Give that man a drink.”
So here, even at the end of his road, Kerouac was harkening back to what he had felt in the 1940s on a journey to Mexico City. His evocation of the atom bomb in the final pages of On the Road reveals the reason the characters have refused to chase the post-war prosperity on offer in mid-century America. All the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation,” as Ginsberg referred to them, now seem to be explained by a painful consciousness of the destiny of the world. This is also the moment of the story when the narrator becomes conscious of the failure within. They have rebelled against their society, but they are also the flawed products of America now carousing through a foreign land. The search for freedom and God has gone hand in hand with utter irresponsibility. As Burroughs would say, this is the recognition that the virus is in them too. Behind them lies a trail of abandoned wives and children, not to mention a few stolen cars. To the natives coming down from the hills, and the pimps and the women in the whorehouse they visit, they are just yanquis with dollars in their pockets. Kerouac shifts our attention back to where it needs to be, to the aboriginal peoples of the world who have endured and paid the costs of Western civilization’s suicidal rivalries:

Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way. [11]

Bob Dylan was inspired by On the Road before he hit the road on his famous trek from Minnesota to Greenwich Village, and Alan Ginsberg later befriended him when he recognized him as an heir to the Beat poets. Dylan spoke about the effect of the nuclear age on music in an interview with Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone magazine in 2007:

It wouldn’t have made sense to talk to somebody back then [in the 1920s and 1930s], to ask him, “What was it like in the late 1800s or 1900s?” It wouldn’t have interested anybody. But for some reason, the 1950s and 1960s interest people now. A part of the reason, if not the whole reason, is the atom bomb. The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it. It showed that indiscriminate killing and indiscriminate homicide on a mass level was possible… I’m sure that fueled all aspects of society. I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee [Great Balls of Fire], Carl Perkins [Blue Suede Shoes], Buddy Holly [Rave On], Elvis [Shake, Rattle and Roll], Gene Vincent [Be-Bop-A-Lula], Eddie Cochran [Summertime Blues]… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before. Lyrically, you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn’t singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction. They paid a heavy price for that, because obviously the older generation took notice and kind of got rid of them as quickly as they could recognize them. Jerry Lee got ostracized, Chuck Berry went to jail, Elvis, of course, we know what happened to him. Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Little Richard, all that stuff.

Wenner: Then in this new record [Modern Times], you’re still dealing with the cultural effects of the bomb?

I think so.[12]

Dylan was reminding us of the socially disruptive power of the bomb that was first noticed in the late 1940s. This view of the world passed from the Beat Generation, to Dylan, then to the rock music of the 1960s. Pete Townshend of The Who looked back on the era in the same way as Dylan, in an interview with Barbara Walters and others on the TV talk program The View, in 2012:

As a young kid, walking around in my neighborhood, all of the older boys had been told… “Here’s a gun, go and kill the enemy.” We had none of that. What we had was, “There’s this bomb. We dropped it in on Japan. War is over. We now have an even bigger one. The Russians have it. We’re all doomed.” That was what I grew up with. So in a sense, the sound of the war, the sound of the bombers—I wanted my music to speak of that. That was the umbrella, the cloud that we grew up in in West London. And I know you guys had it too, so when we brought our music to America—although your situation wasn’t as acutely bad immediately after the war—the one thing that triggered was the anger and the revolution and the reaction in the music. It really chimed with our audience here. [13]

Dylan and Townshend are not saying here that everyone was thinking directly about Armageddon all the time, or that Elvis was an avid reader of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. None of the songs on Modern Times, and hardly any other music of the last sixty years, is explicitly concerned with nuclear arms. They are about characters living in this world where things have changed, where there are direct and indirect effects of the atom bomb throughout our culture.
As the music became “fast and furious,” so did the pace of social change. If further examples of the modern interest in this era are needed, consider the present popularity of cable television series like Mad Men (set in the early 1960s) and The Americans (set in the dying days of the Cold War), or the fact that my freshman students in Japan listen to 1970s progressive rock, or even Bob Dylan sometimes. There is still intense interest in these decades that made the modern world.
After the atomic bomb, people were on the move in the perpetually militarized, mobilized and technological security state. Jack Kerouac was On the Road and Allan Ginsberg was Howling. People became much more inclined to question the authority and tradition that were filling the atmosphere with nuclear fallout. By the time the first post-war generation came of age, everything was being questioned. The establishment pushed back hard, but the Cold War unraveled in unexpected ways regardless. The danger seemed to be resolved, but it never really was. The present destruction of Syria is seldom recognized as a post-communist resurgence of the Cold War, a proxy war that could escalate into something much worse under more reckless leadership.
In spite of the first Cold War having apparently ended in 1989, thousands of nuclear weapons are still ready to launch within thirty minutes. Barack Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize for once having said some fine words about nuclear disarmament, but since receiving this prize he has achieved nothing on this issue. America backed out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, and nuclear arms reductions have been stalled since the 1990s. Meanwhile, the US and NATO have expanded eastward toward Russia while at the same time perversely calling the country encroached upon not an enemy but a new “adversary.” China is antagonized in a similar fashion when the US Secretary of Defense talks about defending “freedom of the seas” in waters 10,000 kilometers from North America.
In addition to the threat of nuclear war, the leftovers of the civilian nuclear project might be enough to cause a global catastrophe in slow motion. Seventy years of nuclear waste has piled up with no place to go. Hundreds of aging nuclear power plants will need to be decommissioned in the coming decades, and it would be naïve to think there won’t be another level 7, or an off-the-scale disaster at one or more of them before they are safely put to rest.
Returning to Dylan, it is worth noting that his catalog contains numerous songs on the subjects of politics, war, decline and apocalypse. These compositions include Chimes of Freedom, Desolation Row, High Water, It’s All Good, It’s Alright Ma, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Man of Peace, Masters of War, Political World, Slow Train, Talking World War III Blues, With God on Our Side, and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. The lyrics of Hard Rain, excerpted below, are some of the most explicitly apocalyptic of Dylan’s songs:

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall

Because of these lines, and because the song was written at the height of Cold War tensions in the early 1960s, many people thought the “hard rain” referred to a nuclear fallout rain. Dylan denied this in an interview when he said:

No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen... In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers. [14]

“Some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.” These few words explain much about where Dylan went with his music in the years that followed. He stopped writing the genre of “protest” songs he had invented, and refused to speak for causes or take sides in ideological battles. He lived with his family in seclusion in upstate New York during the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and later turned to religion. Like Kerouac, he seemed to be more concerned now with celebrating the life and art of the common man, and eulogizing a world he had concluded was doomed, as well as with preparing himself for the world to come. By the end of the century, Bob Dylan’s 30th studio album Time Out of Mind was infused with these themes, especially one with a line that says everything: Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door. In these songs there is no hint of politics or activism, but the line implies a reason for that door closing. To be welcomed in heaven, we would have to save the place we’ve already been given.


1. Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

2. Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty (Directors), The Atomic Café, Libra Films, 1982.

3. Henry Wallace, April 12, 1946, RG 40 (Department of Commerce); Energy 1, General Records of the Department of Commerce, Office of the Secretary, General Correspondence; Box 1074, File “104251/6” (2 of 7), National Archives, Washington, D.C., in The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (London: Edbury Press, 2013), ch. 5.

4. Allen Hibbard (Editor), Conversations with William S. Burroughs (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 12.

5. John Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004). Ginsberg’s concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats, Colorado plutonium pit factory which inspired his poem Plutonian Ode.

6. Mark Sayers, The Road Trip that Changed the World (Moody Publishers, 2012), 57.

7. Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams (directors), What Happened to Kerouac (1986; New Yorker Films).

8. Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody, (McGraw-Hill, 1972).

9. “Fulltext of Pope Francis’ speech to United Nations,” PBS Newshour, September 25, 2015,  .

10. William F. Buckley (Host), Firing Line, The Hippies, Season 3, Episode 32 (September 4, 1968; National Educational Television),  .

11. Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (Penguin Books, 1951, 2007), 398.

12. Jan S. Wenner, “The Long View,” Bob Dylan: 40 Years of Rolling Stone Interviews, 69-75, 2013. Originally published in Rolling Stone, Vol. 1025-1026, May 3-17, 2007.

13. “Pete Townshend on ‘Who I Am,’” The View, ABC Television, October 8, 2012.

14. Jonathan Cott (Editor), Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 7-9.


Okinawa, Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s Warning of an Irreversible Direction in Strategic Weapons Development

Okinawa, Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s Warning of an Irreversible Direction in Strategic Weapons Development

These days it takes an independent journalist to pull off the scoops that should be getting national attention. Last month Robbie Martin stumbled upon some Washington insider information that revealed rare insight into the enigma that is Barack Obama’s foreign policy, as well as some clues about what to expect from Hillary Clinton as president.

His subject was Robert Kagan and other neoconservative “thought leaders” who have heavily influenced US foreign policy in the 21st century. After the Republican Party held two disastrous presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, these neoconservatives woke up to the fact that the Democratic Party could be moved to embrace many of the same hawkish policies adopted by the Bush presidency. They now find that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be most amenable. Now that the Republican Party has imploded, and Hillary Clinton is the anointed one to be president, they are anxiously waiting for her to carry on with their plans for the new American century.

Robbie Martin wrote on his website Mediaroots:

While left leaning voters in the United States are having a conniption fit over the possibility of a Trump presidency, Hillary Clinton has been quietly building a bridge to a sect of Cold War nostalgic neoconservative policymakers in Washington, D.C., getting regular advice from the likes of Project for The New American Century (PNAC) co-founder Robert Kagan, and Center for New American Security (CNAS) member and former Cheney staff member Eric Edelman. This neocon collaboration was mostly done under the radar until recently, when Foreign Policy Magazine announced that “young foreign policy professionals” in collaboration with The Center for New American Security would be hosting an official fundraiser for Hillary.

Robbie Martin joined the fundraiser and let Robert Kagan assume that since he paid the exorbitant fee to join the exclusive event, he must be an avid supporter of everything the CNAS stands for. The short interview he was able to conduct with Mr. Kagan revealed something about Obama’s policy that has until now remained unsaid:

Robbie Martin: I wanted to know what your feeling was on Hillary’s approach to Ukraine, is she going to send the weapons to the Ukrainian army?
Robert Kagan: I mean, I’m sure, I mean the answer to that question is I don’t know. I know she cares a lot about Ukraine and certainly cares more about it than the current president does.
Robbie Martin: With arms, why do you think the president has sort of dragged his feet?
Robert Kagan: Uh, because he said to me because he doesn’t want to get into a nuclear war with Russia.
Robbie Martin: That’s literally what he said?
Robert Kagan: Yeah, I don’t think…he’s not…he’s through with his agenda with Putin, I don’t think he cares about Putin anymore at all, I think he’s hopeless–uh, he thinks Putin is hopeless, but he says, he thinks Ukraine is part of Russian sphere of influence, and it means more to them than it means to us and therefore we shouldn’t escalate in a situation like that, that’s why he doesn’t want to send arms.
Robbie Martin: He actually said he doesn’t want a nuclear war over Ukraine?
Robert Kagan: He did, ‘I don’t want to have a nuclear war over Ukraine’–my response is well who do you want to have a nuclear war over? Do you want to have a nuclear war over Estonia? I’ll go down the list, Germany? If that’s your going in position, then okay, fine. Whatever nuclear countries don’t want, we won’t do. (See the rest of this article at Mediaroots)[1]

That last statement is telling because it assumes as a matter of course that the US does whatever it wants to countries that aren’t nuclear. With a "nuclear country" they have to stop and think for a while about how to correct that country's behavior.

The insights in this short conversation about Obama’s policies should be of great interest to the American public, and it’s a wonder that the president hasn’t explained them himself. It does indeed seem that US plans for Libya, Syria and Ukraine were never followed through to the logical end that Washington seemed to want. None of these regime change operations worked out as planned, and the latter two faltered when met with Russian resistance. President Obama has already stated that Libya was a mistake, but he has said very little about his personal doctrine and aims for Syria and Ukraine, or his acceptance of Russia’s need for a sphere of influence. He seemed to be following the wishes of government institutions during the initial campaigns, but then intervening when it was necessary to avoid confrontation with Russia. For this perhaps the world has to be grateful, but then we have to wonder A) why he chose to go along with these disastrous interventions at all, and B) why he didn’t clearly articulate this policy of wanting a détente with Russia. It says a lot about where power lies in the United States when the president has to execute his foreign policy on the down-low like a passive aggressive partner in a bad marriage. And of course, the situation raises troubling questions about what lies ahead after Obama has left office.

When the neocons try to claim that Russia will eventually take over the Baltics, or Germany, they are conjuring up a scenario that is based on no evidence and is beyond belief. They might as well say Iran or China is going to invade Germany. The real danger to the world was spelled out by Vladimir Putin himself in a speech to journalists in June 2016. He explained in very grave terms that since the Bush administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, then proceeded to develop a new anti-missile offense system, the world has come to a point where it is being pulled in an irreversible direction while they [the United States] pretend that nothing is going on.” Russia believes that the best guarantee of peace is for the two nuclear powers to be strategically balanced so that one side will never see an advantage in a first strike. Putin stated that Russia has now recovered from the devastation of its military-industrial complex and has restored strategic parity, but he warns that still the Americans push on with plans to gain advantage.

Putin stated that he didn’t expect these journalists, or the companies they work for, to report accurately what he said, and now over a month has passed and it seems no major media company in the West has covered this speech even briefly. Unfortunately, the task falls to alternative media, social networks and bloggers. The captioned video of the speech (translated into English and possibly other languages by now) has circulated widely, and here below is a transcript of the speech. It makes for an interesting contrast with the words spoken by Robert Kagan.


Vladimir Putin speaking to journalists of the world’s leading news agencies on the sidelines of the 20th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2016) June 17, 2016.

Listen to me. We are all adults at this table, and experienced professionals at that, but I am not even going to hope that you are going to relay everything, exactly how I said it, in your publications. Neither will you attempt to influence your media outlets. I just want to tell you this on a personal level. I must remind you, though you already know this, that major global conflicts have been avoided in the past few decades due to the geostrategic balance of power, which used to exist. The two super-nuclear powers essentially agreed to stop producing both offensive weaponry as well as defensive weaponry. It’s simple how it works—where one side becomes dominant in their military potential, they are more likely to want to be the first to be able to use such power. This is the absolute linchpin to international security: in the anti-missile defense system that was previously prohibited in international law, and all of the surrounding agreements that used to exist. It’s not in my nature to scold someone—but when [in 2002] the United States unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty, they delivered a colossal blow to the entire system of international security.

That was the first blow, when it comes to assessing the strategic balance of power in the world. At that time [2002] I said that we will not be developing such systems either because A) it is very expensive, and we aren’t going to burn our money and B) we aren’t yet sure how they will work [for the Americans]. We were going to take a different option, and develop offensive weaponry in order to retain said geostrategic balance. That was all. Not to threaten someone else. They said, “Fine. Our defense system is not against you, and we assume that your weaponry is not against us. Do what you like.” As I already mentioned, this conversation took place in the early 2000s. Russia was in a very difficult state at that time: economic collapse, civil war, and the fight against terrorism in our Caucasus region, complete destruction of our military-industrial complex. They wouldn’t have been able to imagine that Russia could ever again be a military power. My guess is that they assumed that even that which was left over from the Soviet Union would eventually deteriorate. So they said, “Sure, do what you like.”

But we told them about the reactionary measures we were going to take, and that is what we did. And I assure you that today we have had every success in that area. I’m not going to list everything. All that matters is we have modernized our military-industrial complex, and we continue to prepare for new-generation warfare. I’m not even going to mention systems against the missile-defense system.

No matter what we said to our American partners [to curb the production of weaponry] they refused to cooperate with us. They rejected our offers and continued to do their own thing. Some things I cannot tell you right now publicly. I think that would be rude of me. And whether or not you believe me, we offered real solutions to stop this [arms race]. They rejected everything we had to offer.

So here we are today, and they’ve placed their missile defense system in Romania, always saying, “We must protect ourselves from the Iranian nuclear threat.” Where’s the threat? There is no Iranian nuclear threat. You even have an agreement with them, and the US was the instigator of this agreement, where we helped. But if not for the US then this agreement would not exist, which I consider Obama’s achievement. I agree with the agreement because it eased tensions in the area. So President Obama can put this in his list of achievements. But missile defense systems are continuing to be positioned. That means we were right when we said that they are lying to us. 

So the “Iranian threat” does not exist, but the NATO Missile Defense System is being positioned in Europe. That means we were right when we said that their reasons are not genuine in reference to the “Iranian nuclear threat.” Once again they lied to us. Now the system is functioning and being loaded with missiles. As you journalists should know, these missiles are put into capsules which are used in the sea-based mid-range Tomahawk rocket launchers. So these are being loaded with “anti-missile missiles” that can penetrate territories within a 500-km range. But we know that technologies advance, and we even know in which year the US will accomplish the next missile. This missile will be able to penetrate distances up to 1,000 km and even farther. And from that moment on, they will start to directly threaten Russia’s nuclear potential. We know year by year what’s going to happen, and they know that we know. It’s only you journalists that they tell tall tales to, and you buy them and spread them to the citizens of your countries. Your people in turn do not feel a sense of the impending danger. This is what worries me. How can you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction while they pretend that nothing is going on? I don’t know how to get through to you anymore.”

And they justify this as a “defense” system, not weaponry that is used for the purposes of offense, but as systems that “prevent aggression.” A missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential. It works as part of a whole that includes offensive missile launchers. One complex blocks, the other launches a high-precision weapon, the third blocks a potential nuclear strike, and the fourth sends out its own nuclear weapon in response. This is all designed to be part of one system. This is how it works in current, non-nuclear, but high-precision missile defense systems.

Well, OK, let’s put aside the actual missile “defense” issue, but those capsules into which “anti-missile missiles” are inserted, as I’ve mentioned, are sea-based, on warships which carry the Tomahawk subsonic cruise missile system. One could deploy it to position in a matter of hours, and then what kind of “anti-missile” system is that? How do we know what kind of missile is in there? All you have to do is change the program (from non-nuclear to nuclear). That’s all it would take. This would happen very quickly, and even the Romanian government itself wouldn’t know what’s going on. Do you think they let the Romanians call any of the shots? Nobody is going to know what is being done—not the Romanians, and the Polish won’t either. Do you think I am not familiar with their strategies?

From what I can see, we are in grave danger. We had a conversation once with our American partners where they said they’d like to develop ballistic missiles without a nuclear warhead. And we asked, “Do you actually understand what that might entail?” So you’re going to have missiles launching from submarines, or ground territories—this is a ballistic missile. How would we know whether or not it has a nuclear warhead? Can you even imagine what kind of scenario you can create? But as far as I am aware, they did not go through with developing these weapons. They have paused for now. But the other one they continue to implement. I don’t know how this is all going to end. What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves. And even I know they will package this as “Russian aggression” again. But this is simply our response to your actions. Is it not obvious that I must guarantee the safety of our people?

And not only that but we must attempt to retain the necessary strategic balance of power, which is the point that I began with. Let me return to it in order to finish my response. It was precisely this balance of power that guaranteed the safety of humanity from major conflict over the past seventy years. It was a blessing rooted in “mutual threat” but this mutual threat is what guaranteed mutual peace on a global scale. How they could so easily tear it down, I simply don’t know. I think this is gravely dangerous. I not only think that. I am assured of it. [2]


In another public exchange that Vladimir Putin had a few months earlier, the last American ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, told him he had been personally in favor of keeping the ABM Treaty, but he also added nonchalantly that Russians should not worry. None of this military hardware is directed at Russia. This is just how America creates jobs. Putin responded by asking, "Why would you create jobs in a sphere that has the potential to put the entire human race in danger?" [3]

Protests against military bases on Okinawa, Spring 2016
I know that many readers would pause after taking all this in and ask, “But what about that ‘Russian aggression’ in Ukraine and Crimea?” This question has been covered thoroughly, and the reasons Russia found it necessary to intervene can be found easily enough on Russia Today and other sources that have examined the issue seriously. Russia looks at its military bases in Crimea as America regards its own in Okinawa and other strategic locations outside of US territory. When Crimea was part of Ukraine, the Russian forces were there under treaty agreements, but when the pro-American, American-backed coup occurred in Kiev, Russia saw clear indications that Russian minorities and the status of the military bases were being threatened by the new regimea regime that had been installed with the assistance of foreign intervention that went against international law. Ultimately, who is responsible for this general state of international lawlessness?

Instead of rehashing the argument about whether Russia's actions conform with international law, I’ll finish with a compare and contrast that illustrates how the US reacts, with utter disregard for international law, when a place within its own sphere of influence is threatened. The co-author of the HBO documentary and book The Untold History of the United States, Peter Kuznick, recently discussed the strong local opposition to American military bases on Okinawa:

When Hatoyama got elected in 2009: a great victory for the Japanese people. The Japan Democratic Party finally overthrew the rule of the LDP, the conservatives, the right wingers, and one of the things that Hatoyama pledged to do during that campaign was stop the base relocation in Okinawa, from Futenma, where the big base is now, to Henoko in northern Okinawa, this pristine beautiful area where they want to relocate the military base, and at least 80% or so of the Japanese people have come out against this repeatedly, and so Hatoyama tried to block the base relocation. Obama basically smashed him. Obama, you would think that Hatoyama, a progressive ally–Obama would embrace him. Just the opposite. Obama cut his feet out from under him, forced Hatoyama to back down on his effort to block the base relocation and basically eroded the popularity and the legitimacy of the Hatoyama government. The Hatoyama regime collapsed, replaced by Kan. They had three JDP prime ministers. They couldn’t function. They couldn’t rule after that, and the JDP was replaced by Abe and the LDP, and we’ve seen this nightmare of militarization going on… When I met with Al Magleby, who was the US Consul General, the highest American official in Okinawa, Al said no other piece of real estate is so strategically important as Okinawa, and he said it was crucial to America’s vision and the Asia pivot and American Empire, American forces throughout the Pacific. So he said we’re going to fight. We’re going to hold this. The Japanese government is supporting the US base relocation. Okinawa reverted officially from American control to Japanese control in 1972, but it has never been able to exercise its democratic rights.

To contrast the case of Okinawa with what happened in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, one just has to imagine how America would have reacted if the Hatoyama administration had come to power not in a legitimate election but in a coup that arose out of street demonstrations financed and encouraged by Russian diplomats and “NGOs” that were there ostensibly to "promote democracy." Imagine Russian diplomats in Tokyo coming out to encourage protesters, or the Russian president counseling the Japanese government to show restraint while people were being killed in the streets. Under threat of having its military bases entirely ejected from Japanese territory, how would America rationalize its sudden need to seize Okinawa? Like Crimea is for Russia, Okinawa is considered an indispensable strategic military asset, but unlike Crimea is for Russia, Okinawa has no majority ethnic American population that would vote to join America in a referendum, no cultural heritage or linguistic heritage connected to America, and it is 10,000 kilometers away from the nearest American city (which, by the way, is not Honolulu, but that’s a topic for another day.)


[1] Robbie Martin, “Neocons for Hillary: Obama ‘Doesn’t Want Nuclear War,’” Mediaroots.org, July 24, 2016.

[2] Putin’s Warning: Full Speech. Vladimir Putin speaking to journalists of the world’s leading news agencies on the sidelines of the 20th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2016), June 17, 2016.

[3] America Relies on War for Jobs? Valdai Discussion Club, October 19-22, 2015. The ambassador is identified speculatively here from his photo on the Wikipedia list of American ambassadors to Russia and the USSR. He was not identified in the video clip.

[4] Abby Martin (interviewer, creator), “Imperial Japan, the Bomb & the Pacific Powder Keg,” The Empire Files, Episode 30, June 27, 2016.