Patriotism is in the air.
Budweiser, displaying all the subtlety of a North Korean advertising agency, has temporarily renamed its beer “America.” Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” will punctuate the soundtrack to the Rio Olympics in August, unless Budweiser also copyrights “USA!” beer.
And, on a far more serious plane, Barack Obama’s recently announced visit to Hiroshima at the end of the month has revived the 70-year debate over America’s decision to drop the A-bomb.
As an American who made the pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I was on a Japan Society fellowship in the early 1990s, I understand the awkward feelings of responsibility about being a citizen of the only nation that has ever deployed nuclear weapons in wartime.
A quarter century ago, the English-language signage in both cities glossed over Pearl Harbor and Japanese atrocities to make it appear like World War II had begun with the fire bombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Without context, Harry Truman’s decision to obliterate Hiroshima and then Nagasaki almost seemed like a crazed whim.
As galling as Japanese denial was around the time of the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the horrors of August 1945 remained inescapable. I recall being accompanied to a Hiroshima Carp baseball game by an English-speaking team official. As we were leaving the stadium, he felt compelled to tell me about being a small boy in Hiroshima on that fateful day. I still get chills when I remember his suddenly quavering voice repeating words like “fire … running … scared … mother …”
Even though I read many histories, I have yet to decide whether the first atomic strike on Hiroshima was justified. (Nagasaki three days later remains far more troubling). Had there been an invasion of Japan, my late father, Cpl. Salem Shapiro, probably would have been part of it. And who knows whether I would exist today.
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Obama, as the White House has stressed, is not going to Hiroshima to apologize for an event that occurred 16 years before he was born. Instead as the first sitting president to visit the atomic-bomb site, Obama will be saying, in effect, “Never again.”
For all the wrenching agony of places like Syria, for all the billions who live near starvation, for all the looming threats from global warming, it remains amazing that no nation has resorted to nuclear weapons in 71 years. We have survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, hair-trigger threats between India and Pakistan and, most recently, an irrational dictator in North Korea with an atomic stockpile.
As a baby boomer born in the same year (1947) as Hillary Clinton, my entire life has been spent in the shadow of The Bomb. Whether it was clutching my neck as I cowered under my deck in duck-and-cover drills in elementary school or attending ban-the-bomb rallies at the United Nations as a teen, I never could fully escape the awareness that everything I knew and cherished could vanish in a thermonuclear instant.
These worries did not automatically vanish with the greatest public event of my lifetime — the 1989 destruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Even now I can reconstruct in my mind a scene-by-scene recap of “On the Beach,” the 1959 nuclear war movie starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and a non-dancing Fred Astaire. Its harrowing plot describes the last months of life in Australia as the deadly cloud of radioactive fallout drifts ever closer.
Maybe these embedded mushroom cloud nightmares explain why I have trouble understanding the climate of fear that overhangs the 2016 election. According to an early March Gallup Poll, 48 percent of Americans “worry a great deal” about “the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S.” In contrast, I live in Manhattan — and I rarely think about terrorism.
Since the Twin Towers were toppled by Osama bin Laden’s disciples nearly 15 years ago, America probably has been the safest major country in the world. This is not an argument for a lack of vigilance. But it does raise the question of why roughly half of American adults in a December 2015 Gallup Poll said they are nervous that they or their loved ones will be a victim of terrorism.
With his tough-guy bravado, Donald Trump offers the comforting illusion that he will keep the nation secure unlike the lame losers who have run America since 9/11. At its core, this represents the authoritarian temptation — yielding to a Big Daddy in the White House who supposedly will allow you to sleep snug in your beds every night.
In reality, trusting Trump with the nuclear codes would be rolling dice with fate. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, said that after witnessing the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture …’I became death, the destroyer of worlds.'”
That is why Obama, who deserves credit for the nuclear deal with Iran, is taking the right step in visiting Hiroshima. No responsibility is greater for the president and other world leaders than assuring that no other nation will ever suffer the fate of Japan in 1945. That never again will mankind unleash death, the destroyer of worlds.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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