Hiroshima Trumps Post-Truth
Updated: Aug 10, 2018
Americans are known the world over for having the historical memory of fruit flies. That’s a little harsh. Give us the chance to connect with a compelling moment from the past, via personal encounter, book or film, and we’re as ready as members of the next national tribe to appreciate humankind’s capacity for doing good or evil, or for simply bearing witness to outsized, life-altering events.
Journalists are lucky in that regard. Our work allows us to put into public perspective our encounters with people whose actions and experiences say something significant, plus or minus, about the story of our species as a whole. As Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously put it: Journalism represents "the first rough draft of history."
Yesterday’s anniversary of the U.S. dropping the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 (and the anniversary of the second instance, the Nagasaki bomb on August 9), reminds me, somewhat ironically, I suppose, of an indelibly positive connection with an admirable man.
What follows builds on a Facebook post from March 20, 2017, a message I like to think bears repeating:
In his New York Times column, Paul Krugman wrote, with no little bemusement, that a class of “tiny, shriveled soul” is now ascendant in American public life. In an act of self-preservation, perhaps, I got to thinking not about the pinched and shriveled, but their opposite-- the larger souls I’ve had the good fortune to meet over the years in the course of my reporting chores. Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto came immediately to mind.
Tanimoto, longtime pastor of the Nagaregawa Church in Hiroshima, was one of a half-dozen main characters in John Hersey's book Hiroshima, the author’s account of the unleashing of world’s first atomic weapon on that Japanese city and it's long ledger of casualties, both physical and emotional. First published in The New Yorker magazine in 1946, Hersey’s story is a landmark piece of narrative nonfiction, which I also now have the good luck to teach to at the University of Texas at Austin.
Remembering Tanimoto today, in our swampy post-truth world, reminds me of the importance of getting our historical facts straight.
I hadn’t read the book when, as a 20-year-old college kid on a tour of Japan, I met Tanimoto in the summer of 1970. What impressed me was the man himself—small in stature but larger than life, with his mane of silvery hair, his fiery preacher’s eye and his penetrating way of retelling the events of August 6, 1945. Having survived the atomic blast, Tanimoto had tended to the injured and maimed, and then spent years rallying support for rebuilding his community in body and spirit. In so doing, he became a leading voice in the international peace movement.
Once I became a journalist, Tanimoto and Hiroshima kept drawing me back. That was in part because of boyhood memories of growing up in Seattle in the 1950s, in a time of duck-and-cover drills, wailing air-raid siren tests, and deep-seated fears of what could happen if the unthinkable happened. The presence of defense contractor Boeing, we all knew, put us in Soviet crosshairs. My passion for the story also had to do, of course, with Tanimoto’s magnetic personality. I wrote feature stories on Hiroshima for my first long-term employer, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, and a few years later, as a correspondent for The Washington Post. I couldn't seem to get enough.
Then, in 1985, I was back in Hiroshima again, this time working for Newsweek magazine, and part of a team reporting “Zero Hour,” a cover story on the 40th anniversary of the bombing and the extent to which the survivors, the hibakusha, had come to terms with the long shadows the bomb had cast over their lives. (Under the direction of Newsweek’s Peter Goldman, the story was later published between hardcovers as The End of the World That Was: Six Lives in the Atomic Age.)
Whatever journalistic detachment I prided myself on having in those days melted quickly away. Listening to searing memories of a long-ago flash of light that forever changed survivors' lives, honored to have them shared with me, I wept openly more than once. By then, advanced age had put Rev. Tanimoto beyond the reach of a reporter’s questions. But today I still find myself thinking of that kindly, determined, community-thinking man when I think about what I admire in a public figure.
Remembering Tanimoto today, in our swampy world of alternative facts, also reminds me of the importance of getting our historical facts straight, and journalism’s obligation to play a leading role in that campaign.