The vapourised and the dead

August 4, 1995

In the steaming heat of a July evening this year, 20 students at the American University in Washington were hard at work learning about the history of nuclear war.

"The question is why did we drop the bomb," said Peter Kuznick, architect of the two courses running this summer. Was it to end the war, to dictate terms to the Soviet Union, to warn against the horrors of atomic weapons, or simply the result of bureaucratic inertia? The students - one-third of them Japanese - took copious notes.

In another part of campus was an exhibition on the destruction caused by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A close-up photograph showed a young Japanese girl's blood-spattered face and the infamous melted lunchbox containing carbonised rice and peas - the only remains of a middle-school boy whose body was vapourised in Hiroshima.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of the two atom bomb drops.

That lunchbox had been one of the exhibits which the American Legion objected to when the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum was planning its own exhibition. After a row, in which veterans' groups said the Japanese were being portrayed as victims rather than aggressors, the Smithsonian withdrew most of the exhibits, some of which have now ended up at AU.

The inspiration for the two courses at the university, and the accompanying Japanese study trip, is a young woman, Akiko Naona, whose grandfather was killed at Hiroshima. A dedicated peace activist and a former AU student, she wanted to mark the 50th anniversary. What better way than to educate people?

Public opinion polls reveal a lot of ignorance. A recent one showed that a third of Americans did not know about Hiroshima.

It was clear from my visit to a class in the first week of a course that the AU students knew a lot already. They had animated discussions with Professor Kuznick about his interpretations. One or two thought that United States leaders at the time were relatively ignorant about the devasting effects of the atom bombs. Professor Kuznick did not agree.

Another believed that the scientists should be held responsible. Without them the bombs would never have been made, she said.

Professor Kuznick nodded. "That is why some of us founded the Nuclear History Institute for the elimination of nuclear weapons - because we did not want to trust these people with decision-making power," he said.

The institute was set up this year. It will be offering courses every summer on the history of nuclear weapons and their impact on the US and the world. The two courses this summer are "Nuclear arms and diplomacy in historical perspective" and "American culture in the nuclear age".

The first course looks at the history of nuclear weapons from the decision to build the bomb to the recent extension of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

In each class there is a guest lecturer as well as authors and academics. Among the guests has been one of the fighter pilots who took part in the bombing of Nagasaki.

The second course examines how American culture has evolved in the age of the bomb, with particular emphasis on the way the threat of nuclear war has affected US thought and behaviour. Texts for the course include movies - Atomic Cafe, Dr Strangelove and The China Syndrome - as well as novels.

One of the classes discussed the the Smithsonian controversy and how it reflected US culture. Another was on the morality of strategic bombing. The students comprise peace activists, postgraduates and undergraduates. All will earn credit towards their degrees.

The courses are very demanding, said Professor Kuznick. Students have to read a lot, as well as write an eight to ten-page research paper and a take-home final essay exam. The postgraduates also have to write two book reviews.

Craig Strongberg, a history graduate doing both courses said he had been fascinated with nuclear war since childhood. "My mother was a peace activist and my father was a nuclear physicist," he said.

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