This is a letter written August 7, 1945, one day after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Having just passed the 65th anniversary of this event I wanted to look at how the news factored into Alex and Sylvia’s letters. I am not going to post the entire letter that Sylvia wrote because it has so many other points of focus, but I will post one page where she mentions Japan. When I post this letter in full, I will explain why Sylvia writes that she is depressed and a little about an argument they were having that spreads over the course of a few letters. Today I just want to focus on one sentence.
My darling – the exciting news about Japan’s surrender came in today and I’m so excited and upset that I’m in tears half the time and joking the other half.
In the last 65 years there has been time to realize what an awful human tragedy the nuclear bombs caused. We have also had time to teach in US History classes that this was an action that brought the war to an end (and that the end of the war was a cause for celebration). It struck me just how complicated it would be to react to this news the day after it happened. I think that before seeing this letter I assumed that anyone in my family would be only horrified at the use of such a destructive weapon. Or, conversely, that the impact of the bomb wouldn’t be fully realized and therefore could be taken as a cause for pure celebration. But when you realize that the family had been feeling the impact of the war that separated them for so long the reaction becomes much more understandable. Sylvia expressed it succinctly and effectively; she was crying half the time and joking half the time. It truly appears, and I wouldn’t have thought this was possible, that she is truly half upset and excited.
Reconciling the personal and the political can be nearly impossible. Yes, often they are so intertwined that you cannot separate them. But then there are times, times like August 7th, 1945, when a personal belief and a political belief are so opposed that you wouldn’t believe they could belong to the same person at the same time. How do you mourn the lives of so many victims and celebrate the return of your husband and “normal” life?
It occurs to me that Sylvia does not write “the news of the bomb,” but “the news of Japan’s surrender,” which is certainly a careful and specific way to address the topic. The letter also seems premature. If this really was written on August 7th, Japan had not yet officially surrendered. I think this is an instance where my classroom history lessons conflict with how the reality of a situation felt.
Howard Zinn wrote, in A People’s History of the United States, that World War II was “by certain evidence…the most popular war the United States had ever fought. Never had a greater proportion of the country participated in a war: 18 million served in the armed forces, 10 million overseas; 25 million workers gave of their pay envelope regularly for war bonds…” (407) But no matter how you frame it, by 1945 the public was tired of war (do not misinterpret that and think I am advocating the sue of the bombs). The photos and news delivered to the American public after the bombings were heavily censored. Despite years of propaganda and homespun hatred, the news of a bomb being dropped on a city of civilians had to be positively spun. The images shown were mainly of the mushroom cloud and not of the victims. While some could choose only to celebrate the deaths of thousands, this letter helps show that the emotional impact of the news at home was subtler than one might imagine.
The bombs only put a violent end to the battles of WWII not all of the left-over ideologies, suspicions, mistrust and guilt. The celebratory mood surrounding the end of the war in the United States wouldn’t last long – an era of fear and crisis and paranoia was about to begin.