I am the person I am today because of the bomb.
It was dropped nearly two decades before I was born, but life as I know it would not exist were it not for President Harry Truman's decision to use atomic bombs, first on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later — 75 years ago today.
That's because one of the soldiers who would surely have participated in the alternative — the invasion of the Japanese home islands — is the father of the most important person in my life: my wife. He fought with the U.S. Army in New Guinea and the Philippines and after Nagasaki found himself part of the occupation of Japan.
U.S. casualties of such an invasion would have been staggering — and for me, likely personal, even though I would never have known what was lost.
Maybe I would have met someone else. But it wouldn't have been a farmer's daughter from Kansas who sang at the Catholic Student Center and lured a wayward college student who misspent too many Saturday nights in Aggieville to Mass on Sunday mornings. Maybe someone else would have challenged me to a deeper faith, made me a better man, and maybe someone else would have been the mother of my children. Maybe all of that would have been a great life too.
I can't imagine that, though.
My own father was too young for the war, left the farm and went to Kansas State, earning his degree in milling science. He met his wife — my mother — at the same church where I met the farmer's daughter. For a while, Dad worked as a grain inspector on the Great Lakes as freighters moved the country's wheat. We eventually moved back to Kansas from Wisconsin when I was in grade school, and Dad bought a house that had a bomb shelter in a corner of the basement. It had thick concrete walls and wooden shelves. We bought it not because Dad was some sort of a survivalist but because it was a big house — five bedrooms — for what would grow into a big family.
As a child, the bomb shelter, even though it didn't have a door, terrified me. For a while after moving into that house, I wouldn't wander into the basement. For an even longer time, I wouldn't wander into that concrete box. This was during those days when children still practiced ducking under desks at Sts. Peter and Paul and every town and school had fallout shelters marked by yellow triangles inside a black circle where we would ride out an atomic war. Maybe we could survive.
I can't imagine that either.
Eventually, we stored Christmas decorations on those shelves in that shelter, and Dad found it a good place to make wine. The only explosions I came to dread were the ones when an overexpanded gas-filled balloon on a fermenting wine bottle burst in the middle of the night, rattling me out of my sleep in my bedroom in another corner of the basement.
Please don't read this as a defense of the decision to use the bomb — or as a criticism either.
That decision belonged to the men who fought that war, whose lives — and futures — were at stake, and also to their wives and mothers, fathers and children. And it is arrogance to sit in judgment of what they thought was necessary after an unprovoked attack and four bloody years of island-hopping through the Pacific. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans supported use of the bombs in 1945, and I have no doubt that had I been living then — had that been my father, my brother, my son shipping out for the invasion of Japan, or had that been me — I would have said, "Use it." It was the times.
The only point I would make is that conversations and arguments and criticisms about the decision to use those two atomic bombs seem to me to miss the point. If nations — ours included — find themselves engaged in total war again, their very survival at stake, they will use whatever is at their disposal, ethics be damned. That includes nuclear weapons — biological and chemical too.
If we want to prevent the use of these dangerous weapons, we have to prevent war.
Good luck with that.
Maybe the decision to use those two bombs and the fear of worldwide immolation has kept nations from careening back toward total war, as some argue. And maybe that will hold.
I can't imagine that either.
The history of wars is that they follow their own madness, and sooner or later, one will erupt that can't be constrained by politicians and peacemakers, that can't be limited or held in check as we slide further from the memory of what happened 75 years ago. Nor will it be checked by ethical arguments, treaties or fears of being tried for a war crime.
Today, more nations seek nuclear weapons, and much of U.S. foreign policy and even the wars we risk are driven by the hope that we can contain the spread of nuclear weapons. At some point, some nation with such weapons will be fighting for its survival. After 75 years, we're on borrowed time.
"What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima," wrote John Hersey, the author of "Hiroshima," which awakened the world to the horror of the atomic age.
I believe that.
I also believe something Martin Luther King Jr. warned the world about the night before he was shot in Memphis: “The choice before us is no longer violence or nonviolence: It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
What I know is that had Truman refrained from using the bomb and resorted to an invasion, my world — and the person I am today — would likely not exist. So I find myself in a fix — a world where the people I love and even the man I am wouldn't exist without atomic weapons and the decision to use them 75 years ago, and a world where existence itself remains threatened.
This anniversary has me wondering about the debt I owe to the past, and also the future, as well as my inability to square those two. Maybe they were the greatest generation. No argument on that. But it's going to take an equally great generation to get us out of this fix.
Andy Ostmeyer is the editor of The Joplin Globe. His email is email@example.com.