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The Disappearing Atom Bomb Nightmare

Have you ever had a "genbaku" dream, the mushroom aftermath of a nuclear bomb?

Key points

  • How much do we know about August 6, and 9, 1945, the days when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed?
  • Whatever happened to the memories of Ban The Bomb rallies? Complacency over nuclear arsenals may have overtaken the movement.
  • We forget pain and suffering because neurotransmitters protect us by burying traumatic memories. We tell children happy news to avoid sadness.
  • When we forget the horrors of the past, they tend to repeat again and again.
US Army/Hiroshima Peace Museum, Public Domain
Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima
Source: US Army/Hiroshima Peace Museum, Public Domain

Since I learn things from my readers, I will be asking a few questions in this post, hoping you will submit answers.

Forty years ago, I had the exemplary existential dream. The iconic mushroom cloud rose from a nuclear bomb dropped close to where I lived. I sprinted around the embers of small fires and the debris of mangled steel like a flying spirit looking for anyone who might, impossibly, be still alive. Nobody was. Why did I, a relatively young person in the safety of the Americas, have enough subconscious anxiety to have such an upsetting dream and still chillingly remember it 40 years later? And why would such a dream be characteristically common in those Cold War years? That dream happened to me just once, never again. It seems that my mind was satisfied that the worst thing in the world had happened and that we must have learned never to let it happen again. What did we learn?

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, nine countries now collectively possess 14,000 nuclear weapons, with Iran perhaps soon to join the club. Just a dozen of those weapons would increase the risk of a nuclear attack to well within the range of reasonable likelihood. Anyone learning of that risk should be alarmed. With more proliferation sure to come, those genbaku (atom bomb) dreams will remain with us.

Have you ever had a genbaku nightmare?

The fragileness of life

That dream came from one dramatic moment. In 1980, I received a book sent to me by a special friend, the Mayor of Hiroshima. It is a picture book with some commentary titled, Hiroshima-Nagasaki: A Pictorial Record of the Atomic Destruction. Every once in a while—too few times—I would open it to remind myself how fragile life is. The book is a monument to the innocent sufferers of war. It starts with this epigram:

We wish you,

And children

And fellow human beings of the world

To know

What happened

That day

As seen through the eyes of this child.

Yamahata Yosuke, Public Domain
Child with rice bowl in hand, wondering
Source: Yamahata Yosuke, Public Domain

On the front and back covers, we see the photo of a child who appears between the ages of three and four (close to my age at that time). The book is so chillingly horrific it’s hard to turn the pages. Any human who flips through just the first few of the hundreds of photos must come away so moved as to arouse tears and sympathy along with the horror of what could happen again. Horrors do repeat when we forget past ones. Those of us who were young in the 50s can still remember school air-raid drills in which we had to duck under our desks in case an ICBM targeted our city. We knew what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We saw the photos. In the 60s, we protested the idea of nuclear weapons and frequently participated in Ban The Bomb rallies. But forgetting is part of the memory mechanism. As you know, pains and sufferings are forgettable because our neurotransmitter pathways can protect us from emotional pain by burying traumatic memories. Forgetting protects us from growing prospects of debilitating psychological problems.

Questions for readers

My main question here, though rhetorical, is this: Do younger generations know anything about what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? The answer likely depends on the priorities of school curriculums. That might be because talking about gradual threats is more comfortable than opening fearsome issues. I could not find any studies with any verifiable indications of these beliefs one way or another. I have no statistical polling data on the answer; however, I did ask a student at a local high school in Vermont what she knew about Hiroshima. Not adding hint words such as “Nagasaki” or “bombings,” she answered with the question, “Oh, you mean a Japanese superhero meme?”

If young people don’t know the significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then there is much education to be done. They know about the threats of climate change, voting rights, homophobia, and maybe 9/11, but almost no other horrifying events from recent history other than a vague connection to some war in the past century. So here are some further questions:

  • Is there any evidence that a majority of all persons under 20 do not know that the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki, killing more than 300,000 people? What about persons under 30?
  • What is the best approach to bringing information to young people who may have foggy, possibly inaccurate notions, or no knowledge at all of what happened when over 300,000 people died and 289,411 (1 in 4.5) living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki became certified hibakushas?
  • Young people around the world are the driving force for climate change recognition. They see a dim future before them, but, as far as I can tell, they don’t see nuclear proliferation as the biggest threat, even though it could destroy civilization or lead to human extinction. Should they be convinced that both nuclear proliferation and climate change are equal threats? And if so, how can an individual citizen of any country help bring about change for both?

If you have answers to any of these questions, please send them to me at this address. The purpose is to gain some information for future postings about memory and time. I would appreciate any proper answers and hope to reply to all, though replies are not likely to be instant. Thank you.

© 2021 Joseph Mazur