Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance rally against nuclear weapons at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, April 6, 2011. Credit: Wikipedia.
The sixty-seventh anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki prompts me to indulge in a bit of autobiography. My path to the study of mythic America began when I was young historian of religion, writing highly specialized studies of rabbinic Judaism, and in my spare time an antinuclear activist, protesting the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Boulder, Colorado, where I lived and worked. When I first realized that I could apply the tools of my trade -- the analysis of mythic and symbolic language -- to the nuclear issue, I was glad to bring my professional life into synch with my political and ethical commitments.
It seemed obvious to me at the time that the object of my new study should be my political foes: the Bomb and the millions of my fellow citizens who saw it as an acceptable, even laudable, part of American life. From any moral or practical viewpoint their attitudes seemed to me as inexplicable as they were objectionable. So I wrote a book, Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons, analyzing those attitudes as modern expressions of very old mythic-symbolic traditions.
It only dawned on me very gradually that the same approach could be applied to my side of the political conflict. The first awareness came one year as I stood on August 9 (or maybe it was August 6) at the entrance to Rocky Flats, along with a huge throng of antinuclear activists, in the annual protest/vigil. Some had walked the nine long, uphill miles from Bouder, as they did every year, led by a Buddhist monk chanting and drumming. Some sang the same old familiar songs. Some carried the same old familiar protest signs. Some held hands and bowed their heads in silent meditation. A few probably climbed through the barbed wire fence and waited to see if they would be arrested. I don’t remember exactly.
But I do remember that I thought to myself, These four days, from the 6th to the 9th, are the high point of the antinuclear year. This is our most solemn occasion, our annual pilgrimage, our High Holy Days. At the time I took it for granted that I’d be observing this sacred holiday every year for the rest of my life.
Well, times change. By the time Rocky Flats was closed down as a bomb-making factory, in 1989, the nuclear movement had already faded to a shadow of its once-powerful self. I was beginning to tire of studying mass destruction. So I turned to the meaning of peace in U.S. history. But I quickly realized that war and peace were so intertwined that I would have to study the whole history of U.S. foreign policy, though still using the same tools.
Eventually, just as I’d recognized a quasi-religious ritual in the antinuclear movement, I recognized that the movement was also steeped in mythic language and symbolic imagery of its own. It was too simple to say that we, the good guys in the peace movement, were seeing the world objectively, paying attention only to the facts, while those evil warmakers and their millions of supporters were warped by mythic thinking.
As I taught my students about William Lloyd Garrison and Thoreau, Gandhi and King, Jane Addams and Dorothy Day, I realized that those gifted writers and orators had tapped into the roots of imagination as much as any Strangelovian nuclear strategist. Their power to move people and change history came precisely from their immense talent for blending fact and imagery in the service of humane values. The challenge to the peace movement was not to transcend myth but to create new myths, as our great heroes had done.
That offered me another way to understand the scholarly history I was studying. It’s certainly not original to suggest that academic history, especially when it’s done in the old-fashioned narrative way, is a form of storytelling that inevitably has its own mythic dimension. But it might touch a few raw nerves to read the competing histories of the decision to drop the Bomb on Nagasaki that way.
If we had any doubt that the history of that event was a touchy subject, they were erased by the firestorm surrounding the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary. The main issue then was whether the Japanese narrative should, or could, be allowed into the halls of America’s one great national museum.
The fire came from those who would permit no doubt to be cast on what Stanley Kutler calls today’s “common wisdom[:] that Truman had only two simple, stark choices: to use the Bomb or invade and suffer a million casualties.” A narrative being treated as “common wisdom” is a hallmark of myth -- in this case, the myth that the bombing of both cities was perhaps tragic but ultimately necessary in the service of a morally good cause.
My friends in the peace movement were appalled by that firestorm of right-wing fury. But it’s easy to imagine them reacting with some anger of their own if I stick to my view of myth, which sees every myth as a blend of fact and fiction, and put forth two related propositions:
First, there is some truth in the popular narrative that Truman was compelled to use the Bomb twice. The history books that tell the story according to the “common wisdom” perpetuate that myth. But the best of those books were written by competent historians who have some accurate facts embedded in their accounts. Their conclusion is certainly wrong, in my opinion. But they are not spinning totally fictional yarns.
Second, the peace movement’s counter-narratives are themselves myths. Two myths predominate among those of us who condemn Truman’s decision. One is that the bombing of Hiroshima, and certainly of Nagasaki, was unnecessary because Japan would have surrendered in any event, obviating the need for an American invasion. The other myth says that Truman was moved to bomb perhaps Hiroshima and certainly Nagasaki by his (and his advisors’) desire to demonstrate America’s unprecedented might to the new enemy on the horizon, the Soviet Union.
There are plenty of facts to back up both of those myths. But the facts are not so absolutely compelling as to eliminate all competing views. Historians are still free to choose how to put the facts together and how to tell the story. It is, and no doubt will remain, myth versus myth.
That’s not a bad thing. The peace movement would be all the stronger if it recognized that its political influence depends largely on the strength of its myths. No political movement ever succeeded without a powerful narrative. The history of the American peace movement itself teaches us that lesson.
And there’s danger in relying solely on the persuasive power of historically verifiable facts. In any political struggle, the other side will never concede that its facts are totally flawed. The contest of fact against fact will go on forever. Most historians accept that as a given. It’s our lifeblood.
If a political movement waits until its narrative is absolutely, indisputably proven by facts that all historians agree on, it will wait forever. A successful movement gathers what facts it has, weaves them into an effective mythic narrative, and moves ahead with its work, recognizing that political life will always be myth versus myth.