The Colgate Scene
The least abhorrent choice?
An extended study group hears all sides regarding the use of atomic weapons in 1945
By Gary E. Frank
Photographs by Karen Harpp
Justin Wynn '04, Briana Kelly '05 and Wes Gordon '05 read the inscription on the back (in English) of a monument at the Hiroshima Peace Park to peace activist Sankichi Toge, a survivor of the atomic bombing. Paper origami cranes are laid by the thousands at monuments throughout the Peace Park. The crane, which has a long lifespan, is considered a symbol of good fortune and longevity throughout Japan and east Asia, and has come to symbolize peace as well.
One of the definitions of "context" is "the whole situation, background or environment relevant to a particular event, personality, creation, etc."
During the fall semester, and continuing through winter break, a group of Colgate students learned about the context of arguably the most difficult decision of the 20th century -- what Secretary of War Henry Stimson termed "the least abhorrent choice" -- the incineration of two cities with cosmic fire as opposed to an invasion of the Japanese homeland.
Context, in this instance, came from several quarters, including Colgate alumni, members of the Hamilton community, a visit to the National Air and Space Museum and Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and finally, a three-week journey to Japan.
The students, who are mostly sophomores, were enrolled in two linked courses whose timelines ultimately converge in August 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the only cities in history to be attacked with nuclear weapons. One course was taught by Karen Harpp, assistant professor of geology, and focused on the history of the development of the first atomic weapons and the political debate over their use. The second course, taught by Professor of English George Hudson, looked at the evolution of Japanese culture as it headed for its fateful collision with the West in World War II.
The idea to link the courses came out of a conference on Colgate's core curriculum during the late 1990s, Hudson said.
"I didn't know at that time that Karen was then teaching the course on the atomic bomb for Scientific Perspectives and it just happened that we were talking about the question of teaching moral issues in the core courses," Hudson said.
Hudson rose at the conference and admitted that he had avoided the topic of the atomic bombing of Japan because he didn't know what to do with it.
"In the last year or so before that particular conference I had come to the conclusion that I couldn't avoid it, that the moral issue involved in it was too great," Hudson said.
By this time, Hudson had noticed that his students showed such great interest in reading the works of survivors of the atomic bombing that he began to include them in the course. After the curriculum conference, Harpp walked up to Hudson and said, "I'm teaching a course on the atomic bomb. Would you want to do something together?"
"I said, `That sounds very interesting. Let's talk,' and we started talking," he recalled. "We talked for almost a year about what we could do. We thought first of team teaching a single course, and then we realized that we both had too much material. We came upon the idea of using the newly available format of the linked course to do it."
Hudson also decided to shift the focus of his course on Japanese culture away from art, literature, architecture and aesthetics and to aim more directly at the relationship between the elements of Japanese culture that "fit into the pattern and the question of the conflict with the West that emerged in the Second World War."
"Thomas Hardy has a poem called `The Convergence of the Twain,' which is about the Titanic and the iceberg," said Hudson. "He sees the iceberg forming in the northern seas and he sees the Titanic being built in the shipyards of England (although it was actually built in Ireland) and then they set forth on their voyages to collide unexpectedly in the North Atlantic. Karen and I think that these two courses work that way. You see the atomic bomb course setting out the whole question of how to split the atom, how to achieve fission. And here is Japan evolving off the shore of the continent of Asia, completely isolated from the West for hundreds of years and yet the two come crashing together in August 1945 in a cataclysm that unleashes the power of nature."
Michael Kelly '03, left, and Tim Shea '03, right, watch as Kristen Forry '05 ties her New Year's fortune onto a rack at Kasuga Taisha (Great Shrine) in Nara. The Shinto belief is that if she leaves her paper fortune here, the good parts will come true and any bad luck will be destroyed during the following New Year's Day, when all the fortunes are incinerated in a sacred fire.
Not out to change minds
"What you find when you teach intro chemistry is that most of the kids in the class don't want to be there," Harpp said. "The biggest challenge in teaching that is showing students that chemistry is really useful, relevant and not terrifying. I was always working on ways to imbed the chemical concepts into real life in some way, shape or form, whether it was food, medicine, biology, whatever. I was reading Richard Rhodes' book The Making of the Atomic Bomb and I thought, `Every chemical concept I have to teach in intro chemistry is in there somewhere.' In addition, there's all these personalities, egos, tragedy, war, politics -- it's all there."
Harpp decided to construct a course that taught chemistry through what she called "the historical lens of the atomic bomb." She taught the course once at Lawrence before coming to Colgate.
"Right before I was going to leave for a conference in the Galapagos Islands I received a call: `We need a topic for your freshman seminar right now,'" said Harpp. "They wanted a broad, Scientific Perspectives type of course. I was literally leaving for the plane right then so I said, `Hey, the atomic bomb course.' The point of Scientific Perspectives courses is to delve into the ripple effects of science. What's come out of it and how it's affected politics, humans in general and the course of history."
A confessed lover of history, Harpp believes that many of her students come into the class with a cut-and-dried opinion about the atomic bombing of Japan.
"So much history is taught in the memorize-the-date-learn-the-fact method," she said. "The very first day I ask them, `So, should we have dropped the bomb, or not?' Most students will say `definitely' or `definitely not.' No one will say, `That's kind of complicated.' The problem is, they've often been given this very one-dimensional view of history, not a bad one, but not necessarily a multi-faceted one, either."
The first day of Harpp's class also included a showing of photographs of the aftermath of the atomic attacks. For many students, it was the first time seeing how much devastation was wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Evan Lebon '03 said the experience left him and many of his classmates "emotionally taxed."
"It was just amazing to see that a bunch of twenty-year-old Americans hadn't seen the effects of the bombing until they took a class like this," said Lebon.
Harpp said her aim is not to change students' minds so much as to help them reach an informed conclusion about the atomic bombing. Some students changed their minds in one direction or the other, but she speculates that most students came out of the two classes more "indecisive."
"But they'll be able to articulate why, and what the issues are behind it," she said.
Kaleena Minor '05 reaches out for water from the sacred spring at Kiyomizu-Dera temple while Michael Kelly '03 looks on, waiting for his turn to be purified.
Alumni make it real
"The alumni make it real," she said. "You talk with someone who was on a navy ship heading for Japan when the bombs were dropped, and it takes on a completely different dimension."
The students learned of the experiences of World War II-era alumni through class visits by individuals such as former infantryman Robert Smith '49, a double Bronze Star winner, and Frank Speer, a Hamilton resident and Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. They also connected with alumni through Blackboard, a Web-based technology used to conduct online discussions and where students could read remembrances posted by alumni.
The online discussions through Blackboard were centered on the series of films that were required viewing for students. The film series, which was dubbed "The Atomic Picture Show," included Gallipoli, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fat Man and Little Boy, Hiroshima, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, On the Beach, Thirteen Days and Black Rain.
The online discussions also included alumni born after World War II but who have recollections of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The participation of these alumni was especially important, Harpp said, because the students could relate to them.
"They are, after all, involved in careers that our students aspire to," she said.
Jon Wilham '95, an online participant who also met with the class during their visit to Washington, D.C., said the Blackboard discussions were "a great opportunity to get a unique perspective and to rethink your perspective on many of these issues."
"Growing up with an uncle who is a World War II vet, I got a very distinct impression of how I thought things played out then," said Wilham, who also helped arrange the study group's visit to Washington, D.C. "I'm a little older now, so I think that I'm not as quick to jump to conclusions as I was when I was a student. I think the ability to go back and look at history a little bit differently, to get newer pieces to the puzzle, is important."
Wilham, who works in the defense industry, believes that the use of atomic weapons was warranted in 1945.
"It was a traumatic event both in the United States and Japan considering the impact to both societies, although obviously more so in Japan than the United States," he said. "But I think there really were not a whole lot of alternatives at the time. It was a war. We wanted to end it as quickly as possible."
The question of ending the war by invasion or atomic bombing was the subject of intense debate in class toward the end of the semester. The students were split into groups to consider the alternatives debated within the Truman administration in 1945, such as whether to warn the Japanese government through a demonstration of the atomic bomb on an uninhabited nearby island before attacking a city with it, and what cities should be targeted. While each group eventually decided to use the bomb, some students ruled in favor of a demonstration first.
Kana Mitsushio '04 was one of the students who voted in favor of a demonstration bombing. Mitsushio, whose parents were born in Japan and who has relatives there, admits that it was difficult for her to reach that decision because she "stands in the middle between the U.S. and Japan.
"I lean toward not dropping it for humanitarian reasons," she said. "I can see the American side of the story of why it was justified and why it had to be done. But it's just hard for me to go with that, especially after seeing Hiroshima again and the museums, and then reading about it."
Mitsushio's feelings are heavily influenced by the stories about the war that she heard from relatives during family visits to Japan. Kaleena Minor '05, whose father is Japanese-American, also heard about the bomb while growing up, but from a much different perspective.
"My dad was in the U.S. Army for 15 years, so I grew up hearing the military viewpoint, which was, we had to do it, they deserved it, stuff like that," said Minor. "I rarely saw pictures and stuff about the bombing. When I did I thought it was really cruel, but I thought it was a necessary part of the war."
Now, Minor said, her feelings have changed.
"I think we should have been more careful about it; we should have given them more time, more options," she said.
Kristen Forry '03, a self-described conservative, concedes the horror and devastation brought down upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki but cautions against too much hindsight.
"Talking about the medical impact of the bombing, I reached the point of thinking, `This can never happen again,'" Forry said. "But we shouldn't just take this point of view because now we know how bad it really was. We can't judge the past by knowing this, because they didn't know it. They can be held responsible because they made the decision, but they honestly did not know that in the year 2001 people would be dying of cancer from this thing. I still think that it was the right decision. It was certainly better than an invasion would have been."
At the Hiroshima Peace Museum, Justin Wynn '04 examines roof tiles that were welded together by the heat from the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945.
"The students know that the argument was made that more people would have died with the invasion of Japan than by the atomic bomb," said Hudson. "They know that the argument was made that the Japanese deserved it because they brutalized the Chinese. But we're trying to get the students simply to weigh those issues and think about them."
The 2002 fall semester was the first time Harpp and Hudson linked the two courses, but this time an extended study trip to Japan was added. With funding support from the Freeman Foundation, the extended study group spent three weeks in Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kyoto was included in the itinerary because it had been considered a potential target in 1945. Because of the city's incalculable historical and cultural value as the ancient imperial capital, Henry Stimson requested that Kyoto be removed from the target list. Even so, current events intruded on the study group's stay in Kyoto, reminding everyone of their vulnerability to nuclear weapons. During heightening tensions over North Korea's apparent drive to develop nuclear weapons, local media reported that if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon at Japan, Kyoto would likely be a primary target.
"That was very sobering, to say the least," Harpp said. "It also sparked some heated debate among the students the day the news came out."
During their stay, the Colgate group met with Japanese college and high school students, members of peace organizations and civilian survivors of the atomic bombing. One student, Maggie West '03, took to heart the true story of a Japanese girl named Sadako. At the age of 12, Sadako was hospitalized when she developed leukemia, most likely from the effects of radiation exposure during the bombing of Hiroshima 10 years before her illness developed. She remembered the Japanese legend that anyone folding a thousand origami paper cranes would be granted a wish. Sadako set about this task with great hope for her recovery, but died after completing 644. Sadako's schoolmates completed the 1000 cranes for her to honor her memory. West made more than 100 cranes in tribute to Sadako.
"Sadako's story is not only one of a young girl's desires for luck and recovery, but also a cry for peace and an end to the horrors of war on the part of the world community," said West. "Delivering cranes to the Children's Peace Monument was a means of expressing my own hopes for peace, particularly in times as tense as these."
Harpp said she was especially impressed by the way Colgate students and their Japanese counterparts managed to work their way through language barriers during their interactions.
"What surprised many of the Japanese was that the Americans didn't know the extent of the devastation for a long time. The Japanese assumed they knew immediately," Harpp said. "Even at our rudimentary level of communication and limited interaction, there were already misconceptions that they could sort out.
"There they were in Nagasaki, sitting perhaps 150 meters from the spot over which the bomb detonated, and there were American and Japanese students discussing whether the bomb should have been drop-ped," Harpp continued. "It doesn't really matter that they didn't reach a conclusion; what's important is that the exchange took place."
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