About a month after Hiroshima was incinerated into Death City by America's atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, two western reporters arrived on the scene. One was William H. Lawrence of The New York Times, the other Wilfrid Burchett of the London Daily Express. Both wrote of the devastation. Both told of the Japanese who had died, and were still dying, from the bomb -- "at the rate of 100 daily," said Lawrence, and because of the "atomic plague," said Burchett.

As if presaging the debate of the next 40 years, the two reporters then reached opposite conclusions in their stories on the meaning of the hellishness before them. Lawrence became a hawkish nationalist, Burchett a nuclear pacifist. In "Day One: Before Hiroshima and After," a 1984 book, the historian Peter Wyden relates that "Lawrence of the Times interpreted Hiroshima as a signal to America to arm and be strong. Burchett saw the bomb as a disease that must spread no further."

The Lawrence argument would seem to have prevailed, which says nothing about whether it is wise or practical. America has gone on from Hiroshima to arm itself with an unprecedented arsenal. Today, according to "Nuclear Battlefields" by William M. Arkin and Richard W. Fieldhouse, the United States has 670 nuclear-weapons facilities in 40 states for a total of 14,599 warhead deployments. West Germany hosts 3,396 U.S. nuclear weapons, Britain 1,268, Italy 549, Turkey 489, Greece 164, South Korea 151, the Netherlands 81 and Belgium 25.

Does this storehouse of death make us strong or insane? Those who say the second, as I do, can trace the madness to 1945. The bomb was dropped on a city of 350,000 in which large numbers of people -- women and children, the elderly, the sick -- were uninvolved in their government's militarism.

Harry Truman, ordering the bomb, made no distinction between the Japanese military and Japanese civilians. He said in defense of his decision, "Nobody is more disturbed over the use of the atomic bomb than I am, but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast . . . "

And become one yourself. Ascribing subhumanity to Japanese women and children is an earlier version of the current "evil empire" irrationality that puts the United States at the ready to nuclearize Moscow, Leningrad and a score of other Russian cities. That the world has had no nuclear war in 40 years is said to be proof that deterrence works, and what's another lap in the arms race if that is the cost of peace?

Peter Wyden, who believes that we have long passed into a state not of "sound defense but redundant overarming," tells of the reaction he met after finishing his book on the bombings of Japan. In the final chapter of "Day One," he writes: " 'Come on,' friends tell me, 'We've had 40 years of nuclear peace. We must have been doing something right all this time.' Wrong. Anyone able to ring a measure of objectivity to the realities laid out in these pages can surely agree that we're here today less by design than by the grace of luck. Sheer dumb luck."

Such an assessment doesn't have the ring of scientific scholarship that is now in the air as the aging bomb-makers of the early 1940s issue anniversary statements. Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb and who opposed the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, is now as passionate about nuclear space war as he once was about the atomic earth war. Teller is upset these days about the language used to describe the strategies of annihilation. On "Meet the Press" on July 28 he said "It shouldn't be called 'Star Wars.' It should not even be called Strategic Defense Initiative. It should be called Strategic Defense Response."

That takes it back to 1945 when Truman said he was merely bombing the Japanese people as a response to their beastliness. Teller speaks the bloodless language of science. Others, beyond the laboratories, insist on the language of blood. Pope John Paul II, on visiting Hiroshima, called America's bombing an act of "butchery of untold magnitude."

Was it needed to end the war? Not according to Dwight Eisenhower, who said he was "conscious of a feeling of depression . . . It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." That's the statement of a leader who remembers that bombing civilians is a moral breakdwon, not a moral showdown as Truman claimed. The alleged "nuclear peace" benefits are meaningless. The nukes have only made the world safe for conventional wars.