Having recently rejoined Merseyside CND, and believing that membership of an organisation necessarily entails participation in its activities, I decided to attend this year’s Hiroshima commemoration in Liverpool, part of which was a film screening at our local social centre. The documentary had originally been shown on BBC4 and concerned the attack on Hiroshima itself, particularly the logistics of delivering the bomb to its target, an aspect of that frightful episode with which I was unfamiliar, despite a longstanding interest in all things nuclear and anti-nuclear.
Several points have remained with me since seeing the film. The first is that, even on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the actual target for the ‘new weapon’ had not been finally decided. Hiroshima, a nearby port and Nagasaki were identified as possible sites, with the weather over each place on the actual day dictating where the bomb would be dropped. This meant that three other US planes would fly to Japan with the bomb carrier, Enola Gay, each to assess the weather conditions over a possible target and radio the information back to the mission commander, who would take the final decision. By this method, Hiroshima was chosen, and the fate of its people decided. Yet August 6th was not the first time that American bombers had appeared over the city. In the weeks prior to the attack, the US air force had been in the habit of overflying Hiroshima without actually dropping bombs. The effect of this had been to accustom the population to the sight of warplanes passing overhead without then taking cover in air raid shelters. The evident and cruel cynicism of this tactic was not lost on those watching the film.
The human aspect of that horrific day was dramatised by the film telling the stories of several individual inhabitants of the doomed city and of personal possessions they had with them at the moment of impact: a watch, a lunch box and its carbonised contents and a child’s tricycle (all recovered and now preserved in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum). One of those who featured was a photographer with a city newspaper, who ventured out into the streets after the explosion and who captured, as far as we know, the only five images from inside Hiroshima that day. The pictures, as one might imagine, could have come from hell: shattered people cowering in shattered streets, bathed in a light which could not be created in any studio.
The film was careful to emphasise the Allies’ jusification for the use of atomic weapons against Japan: namely that ‘it would shorten the war’ and that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have entailed an estimated one million American casualties. However, it took a member of the audience to point out that this assessment was disputed, at the time and later, within the US high command. And that the Japanese government had already put out peace feelers before August.
A wide-ranging discussion followed the film. What would Hitler have done had Nazi Germany been the first to develop atomic weapons? What would Stalin have done? This latter point led two socialists of differing tendency to briefly lock horns over the nature of the Soviet Union and its leaders vis a vis other powers. However, this was a temporary, and common, interruption in a Liverpool political meeting as the city’s left continues to be preoccupied, perhaps to a greater degree than elsewhere, with interpretations of the Russian revolution and the Soviet experience.
The discussion concluded with reflections on the current anti-nuclear movement, allowing one CND stalwart to express the view that the end of the Cold War and the removal of the nuclear threat, from the Soviet Union at least, had bred complacency about nuclear weapons and an unwillingness to believe that they would ever be used again, leading to fewer people becoming active in the anti-nuclear movement and hence to a lessening of actions and campaigning. It was noted, however, that the replacement of Trident could and should be a turning point and that the fact that conventional wars could escalate into nuclear conflict should be stressed at all times by CND and the wider peace movement.
Keith Hodgson is a Liverpool-based writer and activist and author of Fighting Fascism: The British Left and the Rise of Fascism, 1919 – 1939 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2010)