A Classic Human Response

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I’m gonna preach y’all a sermon

About Old Man Atom, that’s me.

I don’t mean the Adam in the Bible datum;

I don’t mean the Adam that Mother Eve elated

I mean the thing that science liberated,

The thing that Einstein says he’s scared of.

And when Einstein’s scared

Brother, you’d better be scared!

 That was a mildly and briefly popular ditty of my teen years, sung by the Sons of the Pioneers in the style of Woody Guthrie, and one of the earliest anti-nuclear protest songs. It illustrates perfectly – though I was too young to spot it at the time – a classic human response to serious existential threat: whistling past the graveyard.

Last Saturday, August 6, marked the anniversary of an event that (the temptation is to say forever) changed the history of the world. Almost unmarked and unnoticed by current generations, it’s the day the United States, in hopes of shortening what threatened to be a bloody endgame of the Second World War, dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A second bomb on Nagasaki three days later finally led to the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. And, though almost none of us at the time understood exactly what had happened, we were aware that something immutable and ominous had been let out of its cave.

The change became obvious to me some years later when President Carter, himself a nuclear engineer, but dedicated to the eradication of such weapons of mass destruction, gave a radio talk in which he envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, and I found myself weeping. Clearly, the nostalgia for pre-nuclear days lay deep within and grievously mourned.

I have a friend from college days who’s a survivor of the Hiroshima attack. She’s a lovely lady now in her late 80s. We dated briefly in the mid-’50s, but the vital spark wasn’t there, so we went our separate ways. Some fifty years later I read that Hideko Tamura had devoted her life to the abolition of nuclear weapons. We’ve been in touch ever since, each of us doing in his own small way what they can to return the world and its international relations to the days before the Manhattan Project, which produced the first bombs and led naturally afterward to the Cold War.

She’s written a book about her experiences – “One Sunny Day: A Child’s Memories of Hiroshima” – and has founded the One Sunny Day Initiative. This past Saturday it held ceremonies in Oregon and planted a Peace Tree, grown from the seeds of a tree that survived the devastation of Hiroshima. She’s soldiered on somehow for decades in the face of indifference and resistance. This in a nation that as early as its birth voted against the establishment of a federal Department of Peace, to balance, it was hoped by its supporters, the Department of War (euphemized in recent years to Defense). We are – or fancy ourselves – a nation of warriors; and it’s hard to believe that a candidate for national office from either party would risk running on a promise of nuclear disarmament.

And yet who really needs nuclear weapons? We operate currently under the cold-war principle of mutually assured destruction: Any nation opening a conflict with nuclear weapons would itself be buried by the defensive response. Still, the recent announcement by Russia that it has put its nuclear assets on “alert” suggests that their use is not unthinkable, at least as a political ploy. That, in Hideko’s opinion, is an obscenity on its face.

Congresspeople who find intransigent opposition favorable to cooperation need to visit Gettysburg and see the photos taken after the battle. Supporters of the right to bear military-style weapons need to be forced to view the photos of maimed children piled upon each other in their classrooms. And those who rattle nuclear sabers as if they meant to use them, or those too young to remember 1945, need to take the surviving old folks’ word for it. It was a vision of Hell.