TCS Daily

Selective Amnesia: The Ultimate Fallout Shelter

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 11, 2005 12:00 AM

These first two weeks in August we are being treated to yet another chapter in a little ritual of selective amnesia and psycho-history that repeats itself every five years or so.

People gather, chiefly in the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and remember those terrible days in August 1945 when both places were flattened by the first and only nuclear weapons ever used in warfare.

They remember the terrible loss of life (about 140,000 at Hiroshima, and 80,000 at Nagasaki) and they call for world peace and the banning of nuclear weapons.

They generally do this in an atmosphere designed to make the United States feel uneasy at best, villainous at worst, for using such weapons.

These ceremonies are redolent with the idea that, in fact, the United States should apologize for dropping Little Boy and Fat Man.

Although the United States and Japan are staunch allies and their economies are intricately interlocked, the Japanese, as the Washington Post recently noted, "remain on a campaign to force the world -- and Americans in particular -- to remember and reflect on the horror of these bombings.

Well, the fact is, most older Americans do remember and reflect on the horror of the war that Japan waged in the "Pacific Theater," a war that took millions of lives. They reflect on the hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives that might have been lost if the U.S. had been forced to invade Japan.

The Japanese don't appear to reflect on this very much. They continue to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as some kind of sucker punch with them the hapless victim.

Their military shrines and museums continue to portray World War II more or less as a series of discrete military actions in which their armed forces performed admirably, but which led inexplicably to their having to endure all these B-29s over their homeland.

A recent joint poll by the Associated Press and Japan's Kyodo News Service found that 75 percent of Japanese believe the atomic bombing of their country was "unnecessary." However, almost 70 percent of Americans polled believe the use of the weapons was not only necessary but unavoidable.

I mention all this to introduce my special hero for this month.

His name is Harold Agnew.

Most people reading this probably don't know or remember the name.

He was a young weapons scientist during World War II. He flew in the chase plane behind the Enola Gay and observed the detonation of the first nuclear weapon at Hiroshima.

From 1971 to 1979 he was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (where those first bombs were designed).

He is 84 now. Still sharp. An adjunct professor at the University of California San Diego. Possessed of a withering intelligence, a noble bluntness and still a gentleman withal. And proud of what he did to help bring an end to a terrible war and insure American power in the Cold War.*

Recently a Tokyo television network flew him to Japan to participate in a "discussion" with survivors of the atomic bombings. He was gracious. He was informative. He listened.

But when the group demanded an apology, Harold Agnew stood up and uttered three little words:

"Remember Pearl Harbor!"

The "discussion" was over.

I like that. I like that a lot.

I really like the Japanese. I love their cars. I love their movies. But they have some "issues" they need to straighten out.

In a later interview, reported in the Post, Agnew explained, "Many Japanese still refuse to take responsibility for what they did. They can point at us. But believe me, they did some awful bad things. We saved Japanese lives with those bombs -- an invasion would have been worse."

I vividly remember what we used to call "VJ Day" (Victory over Japan). I was playing in our yard in Rector, Pa., in a jeep we had made from two wooden boxes. It was a beautiful August day. I was delighted because mom got home early from her war job.

Later in the afternoon a group of fighter planes flew over in formation. My brother and I jumped up and down with excitement. Our mother came out of the house to explain that the planes were part of the big celebration in Pittsburgh because the war was over.

I was glad we won. I still am. And I'm glad we had men like Harold Agnew to help us win. And to help the Japanese with their amnesia.

*Read a great interview with Harold Agnew at


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