We were in Connecticut that morning, in the midst of summer vacation at the place we called "the farm," though it never was that, when the bulletins came over the radio.
To this moment, in my mind's eye, I can see and hear my 80-year-old Grandmother Adams' reaction to the news. An entire Japanese city had been wiped out with the dropping of a single bomb and the loss, the announcer said, of 100,000 lives. In her quiet way, she always exuded a great sense of history, especially American history; it seemed to pour forth, quite naturally, from her. And she was far from reluctant -- or soft -- about expressing her views on the need to prosecute the war ruthlessly. This time, however, she just sat silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, she shook her head, murmured "how horrible!" and got up and walked away without another word.
My reaction, as a teen-ager, was somewhat different. It probably reflected that of the great majority of Americans. With such a weapon, it was obvious the war would soon be over. That meant my father, a war correspondent in the Pacific, would be coming home, as would all the other American men and women serving overseas. They would be the fortunate survivors. The horrible reality of Hiroshima had not yet sunk in, even though clearly something momentous, something ominous, had happened.
I still have the afternoon paper from that day, tucked away in the old cedar chest along with other family mementos and historical remembrances. Its bold black headlines covered half the front page:
NEW ATOM BOMB
BLASTS JAP CITY
The headline deck, also in boldface, read:
20,000 TONS OF TNT
And below, in smaller type:
Force of Missile Is 2,000 Times Greater
Than Biggest Earthquake Bomb --
Hiroshima Base Target
The story, with classically "balanced" journalistic lead paragraph, written as though the scientific knowledge and technology that created the bomb equaled in importance the unleashing on the world of the most horrifying force in human history, read:
"Washington, Aug. 6 -- AP -- An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan.
"President Truman disclosed in a White House statement at 11 a.m., Eastern War Time, today that the first use of the bomb -- containing more power than 20,000 tons of TNT and producing more than 2,000 times the blast of the most powerful bomb ever dropped before -- was made 16 hours earlier on Hiroshima, Japanese army base."
Hiroshima was not a Japanese army base, of course. Civilians -- men, women and children selected by fate and by American policymakers in indiscriminate fashion and number -- paid the price of what everyone immediately began referring to as "the birth of the atomic age." The story also said:
"The atomic bomb is the answer, President Truman said, to Japan's refusal to surrender. Secretary of War Stimson predicted the bomb will prove a tremendous aid in shortening the Japanese war. Mr. Truman grimly warned that 'even more powerful forms of the bomb are in development. If they do not accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this Earth,' he said."
I read that over now, in search of possible clues to the way that news has shaped the world and all life in it these two score years since. There are none. The story did foreshadow subsequent events, though, in one important respect -- the bomb brought the war to an end, swiftly.
Dramatic events, in drumbeat fashion, followed breathtakingly:
*Two days later, on Aug. 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
*The next day, the 9th, a second and even more powerful atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a major Japanese shipbuilding and repair center on the eastern shore of upper Nagasaki harbor in western Kyushu.
*The day after that, Aug. 10th, at 3:28 p.m., Eastern War Time, the White House announced that the United States was in communication with its allies after the Japanese broadcast a surrender offer.
*The next day, the 11th, what were then called "the Big Four Powers" -- the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China -- conditionally accepted Japan's offer providing that the emperor subject himself to the orders of a Supreme Allied commander and that a government in Japan be established in accordance with "the freely expressed will of the Japanese people."
*Three days later, on Aug. 14th, Japan accepted those terms. The war was over, all but officially. That final act came 2 1/2 weeks later.
*On Sept. 2, in Tokyo Bay, on the deck of the USS Missouri, in the greatest assemblage of high rank ever aboard a battleship, the surrender document was signed by each of the representatives of the Allied Powers and Japan. Gen. Douglas MacArthur concluded the ceremonies by saying: "Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed."
That history has been told and retold in every conceivable form and in every languange in the 40 years since. Scarcely a person on Earth is unaware of the reality and dreadful potentiality of "the bomb," or what the name Hiroshima has come to symbolize universally. This anniversary -- milestone is a better word, "anniversary" carries too happy a connotation to fit this somber occasion -- has produced the inevitable outpouring of reminiscences, commentaries and documentaries around the world.
There are two things to be said today:
First, no matter how often, or how well, this story has been told it can never be told enough. The fact of nuclear weapons must be driven home repeatedly so there can be no mistaking, in anyone's mind, the peril they contain and the necessity for societies to ban them.
Second, while human beings have experienced endless acts of violence, terror, war and bloodletting in the last 40 years, so far they have avoided the ultimate horror -- the dropping of nuclear weapons igniting a nuclear war. At the same time, the risks of that unthinkable occurrence have risen immeasurably.
In rummaging through family material from that time, I find a letter my father wrote my mother from the Pacific. It was written two days after the dropping of the bomb and undoubtedly reflects the attitudes of numerous people at that moment:
"I suppose you have been reading about the new atomic bomb. It's a terrible weapon. It makes me shudder even to think about. I'm almost sorry that even we have it, but just imagine what a world this would be if the Germans had had it or the Japs! Still, I hate to see such a destructive force loosed upon the world. We have the secret now, but who knows what other nation or nations may not have it in the future, or something even more lethal . . . . "
That situation he and countless others feared 40 years ago long since has come to pass. From one nation possessing nuclear weapons the list has grown and multiplied. The acceleration itself has given birth to inadequate but fearsome terms: "proliferation" and the "nuclear club." To the initial roll of nations with the bomb -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China -- have been added the names of India and almost certainly Israel, with the likelihood that South Africa, Pakistan and Argentina will join them, or perhaps already have. Others (Libya, South Korea, Taiwan, Iraq) are thought to be on the threshold. From one, and then two, bombs in existence in the summer of 1945, there now are more than 50,000 infinitely more destructive nuclear warheads.
So here we are, 40 years later, still surviving -- and still counting.