Hiroshima. I heard the name for the first time when I was 9, in Kokand, Uzbekistan.
Just three months earlier, we had celebrated the victory over Nazism. Stalin had spoken. I heard him on the radio. “I promised you that there would be a celebration in our street, too,” he reminded us. “Here it is.” Adults had to admit that he had been proven right after all.
When Moscow was under siege and bombs were raining on its suburbs, Stalin had promised a celebration in the Soviet street. We were proud: he was true to his word. It is only then that we learned of the existence of death camps and the 27 million Soviet deaths. We were still hungry, but we were happy.
But suddenly the horizon was becoming dark again — a new war was arriving, the war against Japan. We saw men barely back from the front put their uniforms on again. Documentary films projected on outdoor screens were showing us the mean Japanese occupying Indonesia, Korea, Manchuria, China. After the Germans, they were the new evil.
Then one day we learned about Hiroshima, about the explosion of the first atomic bomb. It happened on August 6, 1945, 60 years ago this weekend. Two days later, the Red Army entered Manchuria. The next day, August 9, the second atomic bomb destroyed the Japanese town of Nagasaki. After that, nothing else.
In my memories, the war had started with the bombing of Warsaw, my native town, and it ended with the destruction of Hiroshima.
Should I admit it today? In our street in Kokand, a celebration it was. Women were dancing to the tune of the accordion; the men were finally about to come home. Children were playing with firecrackers. Even though the Soviet press depicted the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima as a powerful means to end the war, the Nagasaki bomb was described as a decision by the Americans and the British to force Emperor Hirohito to concede rapidly and thus halt the progression of the Red Army and its participation in the occupation of Japan.
The Cold War had just begun. While the Soviet Union worked on obtaining its own bomb, it launched an international campaign against the imperialist bomb, the American bomb.
After my arrival in France in 1950, I discovered with surprise the mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons organized by the World Council for Peace, an ally of the Communist Party. One slogan said it all: Hiroshima. Everyone understood. The pictures of the victims with their faces and their bodies contorted by the radiations used to make me shudder.
I remember the march of 1 million people on the Place de la Republique in Paris in 1953. We were demonstrating against the death sentence meted out by the American justice system against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for allegedly transmitting atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.
“The American president, Harry Truman, lied in his 1945 speech in which he pretended that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima had shortened the war with Japan,” Nobel Prize winner Pierre Joliot-Curie passionately told the crowd. “He lied when he claimed that the bomb had saved hundreds and thousands of American lives. The recourse to the atomic bomb was not necessary. Even Churchill admitted as much.”
My head was spinning. Was it right to dance to celebrate the end of the war prompted by this terrifying bomb in faraway Kokand? Was I right to demonstrate against the bomb in Paris? To criticize the Americans for using it?
Are we allowed to use barbaric means against barbarity, I asked myself. I delved into the literature the president of the World Council for Peace had recommended to me. I learned about the long series of discoveries that led to the manufacturing of the bomb, from Henri Becquerel in 1896 to Albert Einstein in 1905 to Niels Bohr in 1913 to Otto Hahan and Fritz Strassman in 1938. I eventually read about the same Frederic Joliot-Curie, who in 1939 demonstrated that freed neutrons could in turn clash with other uranium atoms — that a chain reaction could create either a powerful source of energy, if controlled, or the atomic bomb.
Since I had never gone to school, I did not understand at all the scientific explanations of the texts I was reading. I had a boundless admiration for these men of great intelligence. However, I always wondered: Were they responsible for the use of their research?
There was no lack of justification for the atomic bomb, especially in 1942. The Nazis had occupied nearly all of Europe. They had surrounded Moscow and Leningrad and were preparing the final solution. The Allied intelligence services learned that a group of German scientists led by the infamous Werner von Braun was about to manufacture an atomic bomb. We had to overtake them.
And so the Manhattan Project was born. It was placed under the dual supervision of the chairman of the Carnegie Institute, Vannevar Bush, and General Leslie Groves, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers. Thousands of technicians and scientists, including Nobel Prize winners and many immigrants from Europe, were involved. Huge amounts of funding were allocated.
The first major step occurred on December 2, 1942, thanks to Enrico Fermi, an anti-Mussolini scientist who fled Italy to the United States. He built the world’s first atomic battery in Chicago. Still needed, however, was a way to produce uranium and, eventually, plutonium. Two huge industrial sites were built, one in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to produce uranium and another in Hanford, Wash., for plutonium. A few months later, in March 1943, another team led by professor Robert Oppenheimer started planning on the bomb itself at Los Alamos, in the New Mexico desert.
In the meantime, the Nazis had abandoned their nuclear research and were instead focusing on developing a long-range rocket, the V2. The rockets, as it turned out, were never used: Von Braun surrendered in late 1944 to American troops and Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945.
When the war ended in Europe, the atomic bomb was still not ready. Should research have been halted at that point? Several scientists asked the question. Some thought it was time to stop and instead look into the pacific use of nuclear energy. Others retorted that the war was not over yet.
Japan was resisting. Men were still dying. President Truman’s advisers argued that if an atomic weapon was feasible, other countries — first and foremost the Soviet Union — could and would produce it. After all, doesn’t peace hinge on the balance of terror? Oppenheimer subscribed to that view. His colleague Joseph Rotblat, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, did not and withdrew from the project.
On July 15, 1945, at 5 a.m., the first atomic bomb went off in the New Mexico desert, 350 kilometers from Los Alamos. It was, according to witnesses, a blinding flash followed by a huge detonation.
On August 3, 1945, a choice had to be made between four Japanese targets for the bomb: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. The target needed to be clearly visible since the drop-off would be from nearly 30,000 feet. For meteorological reasons, Hiroshima was chosen.
At 2:45 a.m., Colonel Paul Tibbets took off aboard the Enola Gay. At 7:30 a.m., he let bombadier Thomas Ferebee take his place. At 8:14 a.m., “Little Boy,” as the Americans called the bomb, was dropped. Hiroshima had just become ingrained in our memory.
I am now here in Hiroshima by accident. If my wife, the artist Clara Halter, and my architect friend Jean-Michel Wilmotte were not in charge of building the “gates of peace” monument that will mark the 60th anniversary of the city’s destruction, I would never have come to Hiroshima.
For me, the Jewish kid from Warsaw, walking around the streets of Hiroshima is a peculiar experience. Today, this unremarkable industrial city of nearly 1.2 million inhabitants has a dynamic museum of contemporary arts and 12 universities packed with 40,000 students.
The peace park, created by the architect Kenzo Tange, occupies nearly all the peninsula formed by the two arms of the river Ota. At one end is the former headquarters of the city’s industrial promotion office, a building with its dome ripped apart by the atomic blast. In the middle stands the memorial with the names of the 83,000 direct victims and the 53,000 wounded who later succumbed to the radiations. In Hiroshima, a whole generation still carries the scars.
“The town was rebuilt in record time,” Hiroshima’s mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, tells me. “The Japanese can not stand to see the very symbol of their defeat.” This is why they dislike the vision of the survivors. “We were the visible traces of the defeat,” one of them, Tokihiko Takagawa, says. “After the war, people did not want to see nor hear us.”
“It’s true,” agrees the caretaker of the memorial.
Many young people here have never heard about Pearl Harbor. Only the mayor tries to draw a lesson from Hiroshima’s past. Ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the city’s destruction, he called for the elimination of all atomic weapons by 2020. Will he be heard?