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Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable

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Next week President Obama will become the first sitting president to make an official visit to Hiroshima. Apparently, Obama will not offer any words of apology to the victims of the atomic bombing, one of the world’s most infamous war crimes. Indeed, Obama clings to the myth that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only way to compel the surrender of Imperial Japan and saved hundreds of thousands of lives that might have been lost during a military invasion. This is bad history. Japan was on the brink of defeat before the atomic blasts and, in fact, it is now clear that the Truman Administration was rushing to use the bombs before Japan admitted defeat. The atomic bombs themselves,  Little Boy (Hiroshima) and Fat Man (Nagasaki), have now become fetishized as macabre instruments of mass death, even to the point of replicas being sold in US National Parks and Museums. In 1998, I visited Sandia Labs to report on the Museum Gift Shop’s morbid decision to sell matching pairs of Little Boy and Fat Man earrings. This piece ran in the print edition of CounterPunch and appears here online for the first time.

As the Chinese know, much to their dismay, Department of Energy sites have become an odd new tourist destination. More people visit Los Alamos each year than Fort Ticonderoga, site of another famous spy scandal. At Oak Ridge, visitors are led on a self-guided nature tour of an irradiated forest. At the Idaho National Engineering Labs, the curious are shown a prototype of one of Edward Teller’s more bizarre fantasies, the nuclear powered jet engine. According to the Department of Energy’s Public Affairs office many of the foreign visitors to these sites are Japanese.

Where there are tourists, there are also gift shops. Among the trinkets to be found at the Energy Department’s Sandia Labs Museum of Nuclear Science and History gift shop on Kirtland Air Force Base, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are medallions commemorating the flight units which nuked Japan. The gift shop also sells matching pairs of earrings shaped like Little Boy and Fat Man, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The earrings sell for $20 and, according to the gift shop manager are among the most popular items in the store.

Naomi Kishimoto, who heads the Japanese anti-nuke group Gensuikyo (Council Against A and H Bombs) and who learned of the bomb replicas from outraged Japanese tourists, told me that she found the earrings and other nuclear mementos appalling. “We’re very angry”, Kishimoto said. “It’s not the sort of thing that should be hanging from your ears or using to decorate your desk. How can that museum sell something that praises the unit that dropped the atom bomb?”

The museum’s director James Walther saw no problem with the bomb earrings and said he had no plans to stop selling them. “This museum doesn’t advocate war”, Walther said. But the museum director did note that he believed the earrings commemorated a turning point in history and that the museum, along with its gift shop, promotes the idea that the bombings, which killed at least 210,000 Japanese civilians, “ended the war and saved the lives of US soldiers”.

This rationalization perpetuates one of the great frauds of the war in the Pacific. As described in John Dower’s excellent War Without Mercy, by the spring of 1945 the Japanese military had been demolished. The disparities in the casualties figures between the Japanese and the Americans are striking. From 1937 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy suffered 1,740,955 military deaths in combat. Dower estimates that another 300,000 died from disease and starvation. In addition, another 395,000 Japanese civilians died as a result of Allied saturation bombing that began in March 1945. The total dead: more than 2.7 million. By contrast, American military deaths totaled 100,997.

The commemoration of the Air Force wing that conducted the bombing of Japan is particularly galling. Beyond the atom bombs, such a memorial sanctifies the barbaric actions of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who pressed Harry Truman to put on “as big a finale as possible”. Even though Japan had announced its intentions to surrender on August 10, this didn’t deter the bloodthirsty Arnold. On August 14, Arnold directed a 1,014 plane air raid on Tokyo, blasting the city to ruins and killing thousands. Not one American plane was lost and the unconditional surrender was signed before the planes had returned to their bases.

Those atom bombs were aimed at Moscow as much as they were Japan.

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