Reading, Writing And History

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Which is where we touch modern America. We are living under the shadow of a Lisbon earthquake ourselves these days—an earthquake of our own making, which goes under that most fearful word in the modern lexicon— Hiroshima. Here was a catastrophe to make what happened to Lisbon look mild, and it was not sent down by an inscrutable Providence but was the product of our own ultrascientific planning. We did this, we Americans, after many generations of upward striving; we introduced this new horror into the world, we placed all mankind under the threat of destruction by earthquake, wind and fire, and we have an infernally restless conscience as a result. Once more, Western man is compelled to take another long look at himself and his place in the world.

This is pointed up in a profoundly moving little book, Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki , by Robert Trumbull, a reporter on the staff of the New York Times , currently the head of that newspaper’s Tokyo bureau. Mr. Trumbull has brought together the almost incredible stories of nine Japanese who, living through the catastrophe at Hiroshima, made their way to Nagasaki just in time to be under the second atomic bomb when it was dropped on that city. They lived through that explosion too—and here is what they have to say about it all.

To say that this book makes harrowing reading is to put it mildly. It is all but unendurable, not simply because it is a compact, strangely unemotional account of unimaginable horrors but even more because every American reader is compelled, as he reads, to live with his own share of the responsibility.

The Lisbon quake killed 10,000. At Hiroshima, somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people died in the moment of the explosion; at Nagasaki, perhaps 20,000 more were destroyed. Lisbon forced Western man to think long and hard about his beliefs regarding God’s Providence; Hiroshima and Nagasaki force Western man to think long and hard about man himself and about the terror which he has brought down on himself. There is material here to keep the American conscience astir for quite a time to come.

Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Robert Trumbull. E. P. Button & Co. 141 pp. $2.95.

For the moment conscience has brought on fear— which, in the fullness of time, may be the beginning of wisdom. We find it hard now to take a firm and fearless stand for Hungarian freedom, as we did in 1853, regardless of the consequences; the consequences now may be more than any men dare to face. We are the prisoners now of what we ourselves did. Even our generous impulses are paralyzed.

We began with a stern Calvinism, we lived by ourselves and we pursued an expanding frontier, reaping the richest of rewards as we moved on, and we come down at last to the world of nuclear fission which is compelling us to recast our thinking down to its very tap-roots—to recast our thinking and to look deeply into our hearts.

Mr. Burlingame is right about it; something comes to us in the middle of the night to awaken us and make us reflect on what we have done. We are not today very far past that fateful midnight, and the dawn is a long way off. Perhaps the prodding of the American conscience, which is now at work with the sharpest of goads, will eventually bring us through to full daylight. It is about our only hope.