The Other Side of the Story

The film “White Light, Black Rain” highlighted the immense difference in cultural attitudes towards the use of atomic weapons against Japan during WWII. The Americans in the video regarded the nuclear weapons as a catalyst to victory and extension of the function war. Some appeared almost prideful, having released the bomb with “no regrets”, especially when contrasted sharply with the death and destruction (45:40). As a natively educated student, it was startling to realize that I recognized the video of the mushroom cloud sprouting over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, but had never seen images of the death and destruction on the ground level. The survivors’ stories helped to piece together the entire picture by painting ground zero with personal tales of despair and loss.

Current international agreements such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Humanitarian Initiative are steps towards preventing another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. However, the stark difference in each culture’s collective memory poses an interesting point of political discussion. My question is whether or not current framework has gone far enough, especially with the “new” threat of nuclear terrorism as highlighted by Zimmerman and Lewis. Does the American sense of victory in WWII taint policy makers’ assessment of the atomic bombs? The movie’s introduction shows that even in Japan the terrible memories of the nuclear attack are beginning to fade. Do these combined attitudes create a level of passivity in policy? — Amanda

11 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Story

  1. I was also shocked to see that many young people in Japan did not recognize the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, especially considering Pearl Harbor Day is so often remembered in the United States. You make a good point that our sense of “victory” probably influences how we look back on these events. In many ways, it allows us to distance ourselves from the tragedies portrayed in White Light, Black Rain because we were “right” (even one of the bombing victims in the documentary said he didn’t blame America because “Japan lost the war”). However, I think victory is no longer relevant in policymakers’ assessment of atomic bombs – because America is no longer the only country that has one. In a world where over two thousand nuclear bombs have been detonated by countries ranging from France to India (Hashimoto), bombing another country wouldn’t lead to “victory” so much retaliation, which threatens global nuclear war. Perhaps the only ‘policymakers’ who wouldn’t be deterred by this possibility are terrorists who seek atomic bombs to attack “high-profile, heavily protected targets…with greater political implications” (Zimmerman and Lewis, 3). I am not arguing that state policymakers don’t consider using nuclear weapons at all, but rather that the landscape they operate in has vastly changed since 1945.

  2. Watching “White Light, Black Rain” was a rather jarring experience. I was educated in a history classroom where models of the two bombs sat on a high shelf as an example of fine extra credit work. Little Boy and Fat Man sat on a shelf above our heads in the classroom and in one neat chapter in our American History textbook. While a regrettable way to learn about such a tragedy, I think that captures perfectly where the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sits in the mind of many Americans: above our heads and far removed from our reality.

    I do believe that the opinions of policy makers and of citizens are tainted when it comes to our perceptions of the bomb and its lasting effects. We are completely passive in our understanding and consideration of the nuclear events in Japan. They are difficult to understand and difficult to discuss so people shy away from truly examining them. The Japanese seem to want to forget the horror and the aftermath while Americans want to celebrate the bombing for what it brought about. What was once horror in Japan has soured over time, turned into a desire to move forward and finally to a resolve to never look back. In America, the bomb is a footnote taught in textbooks and the people are still seen as former enemies, as “other”. The human cost was a cost of war, nothing more and nothing less. The human cost of nuclear warfare should weigh much heavier on the consciences of those around the globe but especially in Japan and America. This passivity in policy must be corrected through an active remembrance of the past. I shudder to think that it may take another atomic incident to remind the world what nuclear warfare really looks like.

  3. My experience of watching “White Light, Black Rain” seems to be quite similar to the experiences alluded to by others previously. It was gut-wrenchingly effective at communicating the sheer enormity of the impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I found myself extremely upset. I have read and heard witness accounts previously, but I find that it is somewhat disappointingly easy to only allude to the tragedy in our occasional conversation, and to never truly stop to think about the weight of what happened to each of those hundreds of thousands of people and the families and friends who managed to survive.

    What is so painful of the juxtaposition between the Americans and the Japanese survivors is the complete contrast in how much control they had over the situation. Granted, the movie compares the testament of the side that dropped the bomb, and the side that was bombed, but what makes it even more poignant is that in doing so, it compares soldiers to the innocent civilians that were victimized. In my opinion, this is the crux of why nuclear weapons are so dangerous—not simply because of their ability to kill a large amount of people near instantaneously, but because of it’s complete inability to kill discriminately.

    With nuclear warfare, for the most part, there is almost inherently going to be absurd amounts of civilian casualties and death. To be passive about civilian casualties is to threaten the security any civilian feels in their government. Regardless of how logical policy makers may be, the calculation of matching how much emotional capital each side can take with the mass murder of innocent civilians in order to deter either side from taking the first step is a calculation that questions our fundamental definitions of the social contract. What I find worrying of the current policy is not necessarily its passivity—the questions of how to decrease nuclear warheads globally is an extremely difficult and maybe impossible one—but rather that most discussions normalize and reduce the question of mass civilian deaths to a calculation of pure practicality and strategy, often neglecting to wonder how the possession and continued production of nuclear warheads changes the fundamental power balance between the civilian and the government.

  4. I definitely see how the different views on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs could lead to, as you phrased it, “a level of passivity.” We in the US seem to remember Pearl Harbor the most when we look back on the Pacific Theater of WWII, and “White Light, Black Rain” suggested that many Japanese also do not remember the bombings. This could in part be because Japanese society has recovered after the bomb. The movie shot scenes in modern-day Nagasaki and Hiroshima, showing that these are modern cities where people still live. The fact that Japan has recovered from the bombs might lead people to believe that they were not so catastrophic and therefore worth forgetting in order to heal.

    On the American side, I feel that as a nation we like to be the “good guys” and so we either don’t mention the bombs or emphasize how they were necessary for victory. The people interviewed in the movie seemed to follow the second tactic as a way of justifying their work. When the film opens and mentions that the Japanese were the only survivors of a nuclear attack, this phrasing struck home to me because I simply had never recognized that. I had never dwelt on the fact that there has already been a (one-sided at least) nuclear war.

    If neither country that was directly involved in the conflict remembers the horrors of the bombs, why should we expect other countries to also remember? As many of the survivors in the movie said, it is essential that we remember what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki so it doesn’t happen again. While US policymakers may know intellectually that atomic bombs are destructive, that is not the same as coming to terms with the actual destruction atomic bombs have wrought in the past. At least for me, this movie packed an emotional punch that simply reading or hearing about the dangers of atomic weapons in the abstract couldn’t do. I feel that this is especially important now that more countries have nuclear weapons, and thus have the capability to wreak this kind of havoc. If people were more mindful of what happened the last time a nuclear weapon was dropped on a population, then they might be more cautious in using their own nuclear arsenals, to the point that hopefully they never use them.

  5. I recently read a psychology study that found that people are less likely to believe in the actuality of events that are hard to imagine, or difficult believe. When we are not able to remember or conjure up images of an event, we believe it is less likely to occur. Thus, today – seventy years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is hard to imagine the possibility of such events happening again.

    The film “White Light, Black Rain” is incredibly useful in exposing the horrible effects of the atomic bombs dropped in Japan because it fills a blatant gap in the lay person’s education. Students are taught about the bombings from a strategic perspective; the horrifying and graphic details of its effects are often left out. Though this does not depart from the the general patterns of teaching of history, it is particularly concerning in this specific case because the threat of nuclear warfare has not gone away. While people seem to have forgotten or have never known the tragic effects of nuclear weapons, institutions have not.

    I believe that our general lack of awareness, or passivity, in this area is extremely dangerous. However, I do not think that the international political sphere is unaware of the problematic nature of nuclear weapons. Despite the unapologetic nature of the WWII vets’ response to the dropping of the bombs (and its current ownership of close to 5,000 nuclear weapons), the United States is not a proponent of random possession of nuclear weapons. The recent deal with Iran, I think, certainly points to a raised fear of the capabilities of a government with nuclear capacity, regardless of the argument over the best way to limit that development. In general, I think both increasing awareness of the effects of nuclear warfare and working at a policy level to decrease the overall number of nuclear weapons would best behoove the international community.

  6. In my opinion the public’s view of atomic bombs is rather naive, which alters the American understanding of nuclear weapons and whether or not they are considered successful. As nuclear proliferation becomes a growing threat in many countries, mutual vulnerability also becomes a bigger issue. While there is indeed a difference between counterforce exchange and an all-out exchange, I believe that a “simple” counterforce exchange leads to further attacks and a higher chance of an all-out exchange. Therefore, the active decision to make one attack may lead to bigger issues than originally planned.

    As Sartori mentioned in last week’s reading, the effect of a counterforce exchange would depend largely on population and geographic location (38). Even if the objectives of both countries are strictly strategic, a retaliatory strike may or may not do as much damage as the original strike. Strikes also lead to more damage than people are aware of, and for longer periods of time lasting from weeks to even months.

    I believe that by increasing the knowledge and understanding of nuclear weapons, policy makers will be less passive in policy. Countries with the possibility of nuclear weaponry must find common ground over nuclear strategy, and understand the national and international consequences of nuclear weapons (Mine 2). While war is inevitable, education about nuclear weaponry will lead to a more common attitude towards nuclear weaponry and its policy.

  7. As someone born and raised in Canada, and not the United States, the film “White Light, Black Rain” resonated with me in many different ways. To begin, despite my extensive knowledge of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, I was not taught this history as an American. As we saw in this film, there exists the American point of view that this use of atomic weapons was both necessary and justified, especially considering the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. However, we are also exposed to the irreversible and devastating result this had on the country of Japan and its people, with these cities being absolutely destroyed and their citizens being either killed or seriously harmed. With us being exposed the catastrophic results atomic weapons can have on our world, this film causes us to seriously consider how we must deal with nuclear weapons on a global scale for the future of our planet.

    In my opinion, while international agreements like the Humanitarian Initiative and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are certainly steps in the right direction to prevent future global disasters stemming from nuclear warfare, they are simply not enough. The technology behind these weapons today in 2015 is simply too advanced for us to think these are enough considering how the push of a single button has the ability to destroy significant portions of the planet. This being said, however, I do not believe the American sense of victory due to the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II taints policy maker’s assessment of nuclear weapons. While it is clear that Americans believe their actions were necessary and are not regretted considering all that was at stake, I believe it is a commonly held opinion that nuclear warfare possesses the ability to end the world as we know it, and because of this I would be shocked if policy makers let an opinion of one country seriously affect them. To extend upon my belief that nuclear weapons are feared and understood by those who are in charge of regulating them regardless of national opinions, I do not think that Japan’s memories of the tragedy fading leads to passivity in policy, but rather reveals a country seeking to move on after a tragic event caused by the powerful weapons we must so carefully handle. However, through all this I believe we see a real problem: With world leaders surely understand the danger of these weapons, how are they going to break through and create further treaties to prevent their destructive use considering what we have in place right now is not enough?

  8. I think the question that Amanda posed is an interesting one. But I wonder if what has been interpreted as “a level of passivity” is instead a calmer variety of resolve, a deeply held – and possibly too quietly kept – belief that the world must not venture into the realm of nuclear warfare again. Though we know that nuclear weapons constitute an ever-present threat to the stability of our world (this week’s Zimmerman & Lewis article certainly highlights that), it seems there’s a reluctance to broach the subject in more politically “active” terms.

    On the American side, I think there’s a certain sense of shame that taints the victory we claimed in 1945. While the veterans in the film talk about a lack of sympathy or regret after the fact, it’s evident that when considering the humanity of the situation rather than the patriotism, they understand the weight of what they did. In the modern-day interviews, one vet specifically referenced the naiveté of those who suggest “nuking” as a military solution to today’s problems. Another mentioned the “disbelief” he felt in August 1945, and in the clip from “This Is Your Life”, the Enola Gay co-pilot said he almost immediately wondered “My God, what have we done?” To borrow some of President Truman’s phrasing, we certainly did more than harness “the basic power of the universe” in order to “completely destroy Japan’s power to make war”. In fact, we “added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction.” We escalated the idea of retaliation and changed the nature of war forever.

    In a film class I took, the professor once noted how American films often don’t address the consequences of destruction: we show the intense car chase where the street vendor’s carts is smashed & thrown in the air, but we don’t acknowledge that someone would have to eventually clean that up. Watching “White Light, Black Rain” reminded me of how this tendency in our collective psyche can seep into real life. I wonder how we initially failed to consider that our nation was unleashing on many innocent people a power whose effects we had no idea how to remedy (cf. the ABCC), or, worse, how we considered and ignored such facts. The Japanese weren’t just “repaid manyfold” with Little Boy and Fat Man. Lasting physical and mental scars were left on the citizens and on the nation as a whole. Perhaps some recognition of that has worked its way into our policy framework, if only in the form of reticence.

    Like others before me have suggested, the reluctance to address nuclear warfare on the Japanese end might stem from a desire to move forward from the tragic event. One of the things I found most staggering in the film was the sense of sacrifice among the victims/survivors. I was both fascinated and awed by the manner in which they have each accepted their personal burdens and shared those hardships with the world, in the simple hope of teaching us that another Hiroshima or Nagasaki cannot happen. It is this kind of resolve, as expressed by the Hiroshima Maidens in the 1940s news clip, as well as by several of the survivors interviewed – rather than any sense of victory or fading memory – that I hope is inspiring the actions of policymakers the world over and driving their perceived “passivity”.

  9. I find the highlighted difference in cultural attitudes in “White Light, Black Rain” that Amanda points out interesting to think about and, similar what others have said in reply, relatable to what I experienced when learning about the atomic bombs growing up. My learning experience paralleled the views of the Americans in the film, that the bombs were necessary. Although natural and probably unintentional, the method in which I was taught made me want to root for the Americans, and in this way, justified the attacks in our young minds. Of course, we touched on the other side, the effects of the bombs on the Japanese citizens, but I remember the extent of this learning stopped at the bombs’ general destruction of each respective city with some accompanying pictures of flattened buildings and radiation sickness. Therefore, the early clips interviewing actual survivors were somewhat eye-opening. Hearing first-hand accounts of the explosions, along with reading the detailed descriptions of their effects from Tsipis and Sartori, allowed my understanding of the bombs’ true destruction to sink in. On the Japanese side, it was amazing to see how much of an effect the bombs had on those who were there when they were dropped, but how little of an impression the history of the bombs had on younger generations. By contrast, everyone in the United States, no matter age, knows the history behind the atomic bombs. Cultural differences regarding the atomics bombs is something that I have never really thought about until this week.

    To answer Amanda’s questions about current policy towards atomic bombs, I do not believe that the United States sense of victory taints policy makers’ assessment due to the advancement of atomic bombs since their initial use. I believe policy makers comprehend the gravity of the current atomic bombs since they have become much more powerful and more nations have obtained the weapons as well, as Zimmerman and Lewis explain. Thus, policy makers would not view atomic bombs as something that can win wars, rather something that can bring a nations destruction. For the same reason, I do not believe there is a passivity in policy even with the “fading of terrible memories.” I believe the mere idea, on both sides of total destruction by nuclear bombs after their advancement would block any passivity that may arise.

  10. Echoing many of the previous comments, “White Light, Black Rain,” depicted nuclear weapons, and specifically the destruction of two cities, in a way I really never imagined. The film is extremely powerful and gave me insight that I didn’t have before.

    However, I do want to iterate that I don’t think the international community is as unaware of the power or strength of nuclear weapons as some may have alluded. I think there is a clear understanding of the incredibly harsh realities that nuclear weapons can create and there is enormous fear internationally.

    The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July between the P5 + 1 and Iran reflects this international concern and understanding for what nuclear weapons might do, especially in the hands of those that have demonstrated a record of mistrust and distrust. The overwhelming international approval of the deal — with more than 100 countries issuing public statements in support — also emphasizes the international concern, but also appreciation for efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran. I think this deal shows that international cooperation on the nuclear front is possible and necessary.

  11. Similar to those who posted before me, the harrowing images, videos, and drawings from “White Light, Black Rain” left me undoubtedly upset and distraught. Of course, I was also troubled by the response from interviews with Americans and young Japanese citizens featured in the film. Intense emotional reactions aside, however, I do not think that these concerning micro-level anecdotes necessarily translate into passive macro policy towards nuclear weapons. Governments around the world clearly recognize the threat posed by nuclear proliferation, as evidenced by multilateral approaches conducted both globally and regionally, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or the Six-Party Talks.

    In response to Amanda’s question regarding whether international frameworks go “far enough” in light of the new threats identified by Zimmerman and Lewis, I think it would be better to question whether international frameworks can ever be effective against Zimmerman-Lewis type actors. To me, the answer depends on how we define our contemporary “nuclear threats.” Generally, I believe strong international frameworks are effective at managing state actors. In an increasingly interconnected world in which countries depend on each other for political and economic vitality, governments have effective tools with which to encourage compliance with treaty obligations. When rogue states such as North Korea or Iran emerge, international bodies can still target and affect those countries through a variety of outside sanctions and pressures. Even if these do not fully prevent rogue states from trying to produce nuclear weapons, outside states at least have a toolkit to draw from. If the threat is a non-state actor, however, I do not see international frameworks as the appropriate solution, no matter how “far” they go. The Zimmerman and Lewis article emphasizes the growing threat of nuclear attacks from terrorist organizations. Since terrorist organizations are, by definition, non-state actions, tools typically used to influence state actors are unlikely to work. Al-Qaeda, for instance, would never even have the chance to sign on to the NPT, regardless of the strength of the NPT’s provisions. Over the last 15 years, the U.S. and others have learned how difficult it is to defund, target, and eliminate terrorist threats. If Zimmerman and Lewis are correct to spark concerns regarding nuclear terrorist attacks, then we need to craft special tactics that cannot simply rely on the existence and expansiveness of international frameworks.

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