Hi Friends: I read a portion of my memoir about the Alaskan wilderness in a yellow panel truck with Joan, me, and our black Lab, Shiva.The occasion was IWOSC’s Reads Its Own on Sunday August 9, 2015 In the picture you can find me in the back row with a grey hat. Everyone brought their own unique, creative style. We all enjoyed the day.
Our first night we stopped at a beautiful lakeside campsite just across the Canadian border. After parking our camper at the top of a hill overlooking the expansive lake surrounded by pines, and conifers, we walked out with Shiva on a leash attached to her red collar as California Law required, gold name tag dangling, her black coat shimmering in the sunlight, and she whined and tugged.
“Take that leash off that dog!” the burly husband said with a smile, “You’re in British Columbia.” After unleashing Shiva she dashed down the hill and plunged in the lake with a glorious SPLASH. A flock of Canadian Geese scattered honking and cackling. Each black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan breast, and brown back rose in the sunset transforming the spectacle from tranquil to cacophonous, yet picturesque. Shiva swam around, lunged out, and raced back to me panting with her pink tongue hanging out. “Good girl, Shiva,” I said, scratching her neck and petting her black shiny head. She looked up in gratitude and shook water all over me. Joan and our new camp friends laughed and then made a fire for a BBQ. A feeling of freedom, fresh air, and the smell of pine trees, filled us with vigor. A crackling fire, basted chicken breasts, and corn on the cob, put us in the mood for sky watching. The twinkling stars we barely saw in California cities burst forth in the Milky Way galaxy. The “Tea Pot” in Sagittarius and Scorpio’s tail sparkled. We soon were in sleeping bags with Shiva at our feet.
We drove through the pristine roads of British Columbia dotted with pines, oaks, and maples on our way to Prince Rupert. A Tlingit village that featured tall totem poles was celebrating a holiday and offered a canoe trip with a guide who told us their version of the creation story known as the Raven Cycle:
“Raven steals the stars, the moon, and the sun from Naas-sháki Shaan, the Old Man at the Head of the Nass River who kept them in three boxes. Raven transforms himself into a hemlock needle and drops into a water cup belonging to the Old Man's daughter. She becomes pregnant from this and gives birth to a baby boy. Raven cries until the Old Man hands him the Box of Stars, another with the moon, and a third with the sun. Raven opens the lid and the stars escape into outer space. He rolls the box with the moon in it out the door where it flees to the heavens. Raven waits until everyone is asleep, changes into his bird form, grasps the sun in his beak, opens the box, and the sun breaks free into the blue sky.”
“That’s a beautiful and interesting myth,” I said.
“It is not a myth. This is our truth. We teach our children what our ancestors shared with us. Never call the Raven Cycle a myth,” she reprimanded me angrily. Realizing I had put my foot in my mouth while seeking to learn about their culture, it occurred to me in awhile my clients in Alaska had their traditions and stories, which I would respect, and apologized to our Indian guide for using the word myth; but I had caused some damage. You can’t unring a bell.
Once we reached Prince Rupert, we boarded a ferry for the Inland Passage to Haines. We slept on deck chairs outside when the crew secured our yellow truck alongside other vehicles. After ninety miles we arrived at Ketchikan, known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” home of all five species of salmon who inhabit the streams and waters of the Tongass for spawning, leaving their roe on the gravel. We took Shiva out for a walk along Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the town.
When she saw salmon leaping up the “fish ladder” they climb to spawn at the top, she barked and raced to the edge filled with an electric charge of energy. I feared she would jump in and directed her back on the path that followed the creek through the primeval forest. The gravel beds are the end of the salmon’s struggle and are so thick with numbers the shallow streams were black with fins and twisting fish. Shiva smelled the dying salmon that had spawned, hurtled over logs, and bolted through underbrush in a frenzy searching for wildlife. Sand hill cranes, trumpeter swans, black-tail deer, porcupines, and wolves roamed the area. Red cedar, yellow-cedar, mountain hemlock, spruce, and shore pine were everywhere. Nature had aroused Shiva and us with such energy, we chased our black bouncing streak laughing with joy. We rested under hemlock and spruce and gave our Lab food and water next to an alpine meadow covered with pink fireweed, blue lupine and yellow poppies. A Ferry whistle brought us back to reality.
After we got underway we saw killer whales and porpoises jumping and playing alongside the ferry. Bald eagles soared on thermals. Dall porpoises have black backs and white bellies resembling killer whales, but are much smaller, and generated a “rooster tail” spray visible for twenty feet. They were “bow riding”—a pressure wave like the blast of wind that follows a passing truck—they sidled up under the surface and rode inside the pressure wave.
At the next stop we left the ferry to see the capital of Alaska, Juneau. The mountains sloped down to the water where it rests along the shoreline. The Tlingit Indians used the adjacent Gastineau Channel as one of their favorite fishing grounds for thousands of years. The native culture, rich with artistic traditions, included carving, weaving, orating, singing, and dancing.
The Juneau visitor center presented a spectacular view of the Mendenhall Glacier, a massive mountain of ice with cracks and fissures that revealed tints of blue and gray. The sound of ice chunks tumbling into the water roared as the waves caused from violent forces shook floating icebergs sending ripples in the surface. The Mendenhall reached its point of maximum advance in the mid-1700s, while its terminus rested almost two and a half miles down the valley from its present position. The mighty glacier started retreating as its annual rate of melt began to exceed its yearly total accumulation. Its bulk now retreats at a rate of one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet a year. Global warming has accelerated the process so the glacier will disappear in several centuries.
(Excerpt from All the Difference, by Daniel C. Lavery)
“Never, never waste a minute on regret. It's a waste of time.”
-- President Harry Truman
Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I'm wondering if we've come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world's only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people -- slowly and painfully -- leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?
Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I've been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story:“Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you're sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.
It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you're sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don't care what the facts are.”
It turns out, however, that Bush's version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons -- the argument in their defense -- that ensured we would never have to say we're sorry.
The Hiroshima Apologia
On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.
Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a “military base,” then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon’s power and so selected the “virgin targets” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could “show its strength” to the fullest. According to Stimson's diary, Truman “laughed and said he understood.”
The president soon dropped the “military base” justification. After all, despite Washington's effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. “We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
By 1945, most Americans didn't care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan's war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” -- “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America's willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months.”
In the years after World War II, the most virulent expressions of race hatred diminished, but not the widespread idea that the atomic bombs had been required to end the war, eliminating the need to invade the Japanese home islands where, it was confidently claimed, tooth-and-nail combat would cause enormous losses on both sides. The deadliest weapon in history, the one that opened the path to future Armageddon, had therefore saved lives. That was the stripped down mantra that provided the broadest and most enduring support for the introduction of nuclear warfare. By the time Truman, in retirement, published his memoir in 1955, he was ready to claim with some specificity that an invasion of Japan would have killed half-a-million Americans and at least as many Japanese.
Over the years, the ever-increasing number of lives those two A-bombs “saved” became a kind of sacred numerology. By 1991, for instance, President George H.W. Bush, praising Truman for his “tough, calculating decision,” claimed that those bombs had “spared millions of American lives.” By then, an atomic massacre had long been transformed into a mercy killing that prevented far greater suffering and slaughter.
Truman went to his grave insisting that he never had a single regret or a moment's doubt about his decision. Certainly, in the key weeks leading up to August 6, 1945, the record offers no evidence that he gave serious consideration to any alternative.
“Revisionists” Were Present at the Creation