It was 58 years ago – Aug. 6, 1945 – and I was on the verge of turning 16. I remember the day vividly. In Milwaukee, it had been a warm, but pleasant summer day, and I had biked home about suppertime from the golf course, five miles out of town, carrying a bag of mismatched clubs. My father and mother were sitting in the “sunroom,” a room tacked onto the front of our 1930s-style brick bungalow, listening intently to the radio. We had dropped something called an “atomic bomb” on a Japanese city I had never heard of – Hiroshima.
I couldn’t imagine it. The radio announcers said it had leveled an entire big city, that it was the equivalent of 100 “block-busters,” which were the huge bombs that the Allies had dropped on Germany. It was mind-boggling. I couldn’t get the fact out of my mind that this one bomb had destroyed a whole city, not just a block. It killed and permanently maimed or made ill hundreds of thousands of people, most of them civilian, young, old or infirm.
Within a year, a neighbor who had been in the Army in Japan returned home and showed us snapshots (yes, those tiny photos that were common 60 years ago) of Nagasaki, the second city hit by an atomic bomb several days later. Those tiny photos left a lifelong impression on me: a sea of rubble, with one building standing like a lonely sentinel, its windows blown out.
I didn’t question the dropping of the two atomic bombs at the time. After all, the war ended ten days later. There had been so much devastation, so much killing, that these bombings merely added another horrible chapter. And, if they hastened the end of the war, and spared U.S. troops the need to fight a war of occupation in Japan, it was probably worth it. Later generations would debate President Truman’s decision, and significant evidence has suggested the bombings may have been unnecessary.
But the bombing of Hiroshima dramatized the horrors of war in my mind like nothing before it. If modern technology could create such instant disasters, we had better figure out a way to end all wars. That was what I realized on that beautiful August day in 1945.
In the immediate post World War II years, many Americans shared the view that the U.S. had a unique opportunity to shape a united world that could ensure peace. There were ideas of creating a federal world government, based on the experience of the United States, which out of the Revolutionary War created a government composed of previously sovereign states and built the world’s longest surviving democracy.
In my junior year in high school that fall, a group of us even formed a World Federalists chapter and had our picture taken for the school yearbook. It was not a “nerdy” thing in those days, since peace was the goal of all of us who lived through World War II. I believed in the cause so strongly that I overcame my fear of standing before classrooms and made speeches for world government. Many politicians took up the cause, including Hubert Humphrey (then mayor of Minneapolis).
Sadly, Americans began to look inward after the war. Our politicians failed to provide leadership, we created a huge monster out of communism, and the Cold War ensued. The dream of a world government that could have brought relative peace was lost. We created the United Nations, which could have become a true force in the world, but the U.S. saddled it with so many limitations that it was bound to be but a shadow on the horizon.
Today, we are told to fear the rest of the world, to support huge armies and to ignore the United Nations. Our president and his imperialistic cronies wish to bring Pax Americana across the world, or least to those regions where their economic (and oil) interests are important. We went it alone in Iraq, creating more and more hatred of the West in the Muslim world.
The lessons of Hiroshima are now largely forgotten. But I’ll never forget that August afternoon 58 years ago; it’s when I began to dream of world peace. Sadly, peace is not any closer today. Terrible examples of how cruel humans can be to each other cry out for a solution. But on the eve of my 74th birthday, I believe it’s never too late to begin working together for real world peace.
Ken Germanson is a retired union representative who served in the Navy in the 1950s. He currently is an advocate for low-income families in Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org