An atomic historian’s visceral response to Hugh White

I had a gut reaction to the news that Hugh White, Professor in Strategic Studies at the ANU, had published a book in which he suggests Australia must think about whether or not to develop its own nuclear weapons (Hugh White, How to Defend Australia).

My very emotional response is no doubt a result of my own subjective knowledge and experiences. At the forefront is my eleven years of research, involving intimate interviews directly with twelve Japanese survivors of the second atomic bombing by the United States of a city in wartime.

Photograph of Urakami Valley after the bomb, public domain

I interviewed the twelve at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and nearby locations and my book, a collective biography about the survivors’ experiences is due to be published by Routledge later this year. My subjectivity is also affected by nine years spent living in Asia and a career spent teaching the Japanese language. I have no doubt that if the Nagasaki survivors with whom I spoke heard of White’s pronouncement and that he is a respected Australian researcher in defence and security, they, like me, would be deeply unsettled and perturbed.

One wonders, what might an historian reply to White? Faced with the red-blooded, masculine suggestion which White makes, that nuclear weapons would be appropriate if a Chinese ‘potential threat’ is faced by Australia, how might one respond? White would not himself decide about the subsequent use of the atomic weapons, but most likely other White-Caucasian men would be involved, recalling for me the figures of US Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Harry Truman.

My response to White’s provocative statements is firstly to ask whether, in his particular Canberran research bubble, he is subject to amnesia about the previous atomic bombings of cities in wartime? Secondly, I draw on an alternative feminist discourse about war, which has developed since 1945. I offer this discussion as an antidote to what I categorise as an ‘old White man’ security analysis, returning to a 1950s style domination of the misunderstood ‘other’, with racial and political undertones.

The African American feminist M Shawn Copeland writes that our tendency to exert domination over others is a result of a malaise, an ‘historical amnesia’, eliding among other aspects, difficult parts of military history. Copeland continues that historical massacres of the indigenous, our trampling on treaties, our record of enslavement and discrimination which we tend to repress and erase, must be recovered – and one aspect of such amnesia is the remembering of the action which our ally, the United States, carried out at the end of World War Two, the atomic bombings.[1]  

When we consider the results of the atomic bombing, who was most affected? A previous President of the American Academy of Religion, feminist theorist Kwok Pui Lan, has written, “The brown, black and yellow bodies of women have been treated as inferior to the white bodies in the Western history of domination of the world”.[2] When we examine the atomic record, does this ring true?

Last week I spoke about five such forgotten bodies as Pui Lan suggests have been historically treated as inferior, at the Japanese Studies Association Conference held at Monash University in Melbourne. My research showed that an urgent memory for ordinary survivors was that of their mothers. One mother was mutilated and her son found her. Another was fatally wounded and died that night. Three were erased or incinerated and never found.

These five, I suggested at the conference, were forgotten ‘non-war heroes’ of Nagasaki. By the term ‘non-war heroes’, I cited Japanese feminist writer Ueno Chizuko, who drew attention by this term to how mothers as casualties of war are commonly written out of war histories in both Japanese and Euro-American androcentric narratives.[3]

Photograph of Clara Wasa Tagawa, mother of Ozaki Tomei – one of those who vanished

I call on White to reflect on how the mothers who died due to war are not included in national narratives about returned ‘war heroes’ enshrined in religious sites such as Yasukuni in Tokyo, or alternatively at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Of the three I related in my presentation who disappeared as a result of the atomic bomb, an astute scholar at the conference reflected that their vanishing was an ongoing and never-ending trauma for their children left behind. Women and children, literally made invisible, were disproportionately the victims of the decision of the United States to use the atomic weapons in 1945.

It was President Harry Truman who approved the final list of atomic bomb targets in 1945, upholding Nagasaki and Kokura rather than Kyoto and wrote in a diary, ‘I have told Sec. of War … Stimson to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children … [t]he target will be a purely military one.’[4]

No matter Truman and Stimson’s intentions, my research and feminist histories underscore how time and time again it was the marginalised who were debilitated due to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Women, children, indentured labourers, Koreans, Chinese and outcastes were disproportionately affected by the bombing, said to have killed 40 to 75 000 people.[5] So, to White and others who impact strategy and defence, my final reaction is to implore: just as we remember the Nazi atrocities of World War II, let us also remember the repercussions and those who lost out due to the previous atomic bombings.  

 

[1] M. Shawn Copeland, “Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians,” Political Theology 17, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/1462317X.2016.1134137.

[2] Kwok Pui-Lan, “Mending of Creation: Women, Nature, and Eschatological Hope,” in Liberating Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Letty M. Russell, ed. Margaret A Farley and Serene Jones (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 149.

[3] Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverley Yamamoto (Melbourne: Trans Pacific, 2004), 167–69.

[4] Barton J. Bernstein, “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs 74, no. 1 (February 1, 1995): 135–52.

[5] The numbers who were killed are still debated. See ‘Children of the Atomic Bomb’ website for an estimate of 75,000 dead while a US-published estimate is much lower at around 45,000 by the end of 1945. Michael Kort, The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 4.


Gwyn McClelland’s book, Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives, London and New York: Routledge, 2019, is a collective biography to be published in September, based on interviews with 12 survivors, including nine from the Catholic community of Nagasaki.

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