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FROM THE PUBLISHER

Dealing with knowns, unknowns, difficult decisions

Posted

For the past 16 months, as we’ve wrestled with Covid, we’ve wrestled with a lot of unknowns.

As research and experience increases, some of the unknowns are revealed. Others remain elusive.

Seventy-six years ago, in August 1945, President Harry Truman faced a big decision with very few unknowns.

That did not make the decision easy.

***

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” said Robert Oppenheimer after he watched the first nuclear blast, in New Mexico in July 1945.

Oppenheimer’s words sound odd and ominous, in part because they were translated from Hindu, from the Baghavad-Gita. But also, in part, because he and his fellow scientists and workers were among a handful of people in the world, who truly knew the bomb’s power.

If the United States bombed Japan, two things were almost certain: 1. Thousands of innocent civilians would die. And, 2. Japan would surrender, effectively ending World War II.

There remained a slim possibility Japan would surrender with just the threat of a bombing, but no one in Japan knew or had seen the power and the horror of the bomb.

 ***

You can visit the Trinity Site on the northern section of White Sands Missile Range twice a year, pandemic permitting. The traditional weekends have been in April and October. There’s not really a lot to see there; like much of WSMR, it’s mostly barren desert, with a few military-looking gadgets or structures here and there.

You can still find “Trinitite” on the grounds, the unique element formed when sand blown into the sky by the blast was flash-fired into glass before falling back to earth. You’ll also find a rather non-descript obelisk, featuring a plaque and lava rocks plentiful in the area due to some volcanic blasts a thousand or so years ago.

Having seen photographs of the unimposing obelisk, I wasn’t expecting much leading up to the day I finally got to visit the site.

However, when I was confronted with the obelisk and the other evidence and commemoration of what had happened, I was swept by awe and emotion. There, in a remote section of New Mexico Desert, the course of human history changed.

***

The Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, killed 70,000 people then and there. More than 100,000 additional people would die from injuries and fallout in the intervening days, weeks and longer.

Three days later, Aug. 9, 1945, the U.S. bombed the city of Nagasaki with a nuclear weapon more powerful. This one killed a similar number of Japanese.

Did the ending of the war prevent prolonged battle, which could have killed many more? Did ending the war save lives? We can’t know that. And Truman couldn’t know it then. It’s a question with no answer, really.

The war did end quickly. Japan surrendered unconditionally just days after the Nagasaki bombing.

For Truman, as with the Japanese, the events of that day did not end. Descendants of the victims and survivors struggle with the results still, as do many New Mexicans who suffered the fallout of the original test.

Truman wrestled with its impact the rest of his days. He said it was the most difficult decision he ever made. It’s quite possibly the most difficult decision any human ever made.

Richard Coltharp