The first memorialization of Hiroshima began just a few months after the bombs fell in August 1945. A small U.S. military film crew wandered the streets of the shattered city, capturing the devastation wrought on the people who once lived there. Hiroshima, however damaged, is alive again in rich, panoramic color as the camera pans across a denuded tree, a woman walking with her children among the ruins, a man bicycling on an empty street.
As with nearly every other effort to remember what happened on Aug. 6, 1945, there was a corresponding effort to forget. The U.S. military refused to allow the footage to be released for decades, a story told by journalist Greg Mitchell in his book “Atomic Cover-Up.” Officials hoped that Americans’ collective memory of the bombings would end, Mitchell explains, with the image of the mushroom cloud — a demonstration of U.S. might, free of any reckoning with the devastation wrought by that explosion.
This American taboo over discussing the U.S. use of a weapon of mass destruction on a civilian population center reached its apotheosis in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum planned to display for the first time the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, in an exhibit that connected it with the devastation wrought by the bomb. Veterans' groups, backed by conservative politicians, mounted a fierce campaign against the exhibit — in particular the decision to include imagery demonstrating the impact of the bomb on civilians. In a comprehensive account of the controversy, which led to a series of still-debated compromises by the Smithsonian, the historian Michael Hogan writes that the museum’s curators were stunned by the request from some veterans to omit the atom bomb’s impact on Hiroshima from the story of the Enola Gay. One of them told a reporter for Knight-Ridder: "They want to stop the story when the bomb leaves the bomb bay.”
Hollywood, too, has not moved far beyond the official narrative of the immediate postwar era. The administration of President Harry S. Truman censored a largely sympathetic 1946 Hollywood film about the men who made the bomb, “The Beginning or the End,” adding a scene justifying Truman’s decision to drop it. The 1952 film “Above and Beyond,” a dramatization of the life of Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets, ends with the pilot’s feelings of remorse for the destruction he’s caused. But that film, made just a few years after the end of the war, not surprisingly focuses mostly on the pilot's sacrifices and doesn’t dwell on the victims of Hiroshima. Even decades later, no major Hollywood film has ventured into that territory.
In one of the most widely noted elisions, the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” omits the book’s climactic scene in which news of the Hiroshima bombings comes in over the radio, destroying the fragile bonds between four strangers thrown together in Italy in the last months of the war: “One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki … .If he closes his eyes he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadow of humans suddenly in the air.” And yet the final tragedy of the 1996 film version of the story isn’t the burned bodies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but those of the fictional European lovers shot down in the Egyptian desert.
In Japan, the bombings and their human toll have been widely portrayed in film, literature and comics, but the country has struggled with its own silences. It took decades for Japan to acknowledge as hibakusha, or bomb-affected people, the tens of thousands of Koreans kept as prisoners or used as slave laborers by the Japanese. A handful of European prisoners of war are also listed. Even "Barefoot Gen," a pioneering Hiroshima survivor’s tale, has recently fallen out of favor among some Japanese, who reject its depiction of Japanese brutality as an affront to the country’s heroic past.
Over the next month, Al Jazeera America will mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by exploring the uncomfortable truths of the bomb and its enduring legacy in Japan, in the United States and throughout a global community where nuclear-weapons capability remains the ultimate currency of power. The bomb left the bomb bay of the Enola Gay seven decades ago, but its story is far from over.