Volume 76, Number 25 | November 8 - 14, 2006


“The Last Atomic Bomb”
A documentary directed by Robert Richter
Shows through Tuesday at The Pioneer Theater
155 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A and B
www.twoboots.com/pioneer, 212-591-0434

Atomic bomb survivor Sakue Shimohira recalls the horrors she witnessed in the documentary “The Last Atomic Bomb,” now showing at the Pioneer Theater.

The bomb that time forgot

By Steven Snyder

It seems like an antiquated topic until you really stop and realize it’s something we never talk about in America.

For all the fear we’ve felt — and fear mongering we’ve heard —about the prospect of Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Al Qaeda getting nuclear weapons, it’s interesting to ponder the fact that we’re the only country to have ever used them (and on civilians no less).

Sure, any grade school student in America learns why we had to let this evil loose on the world: Because Japan, believing their leader was a divine power, would never have surrendered their island. Our government made the decision that a few hundred thousand dead Japanese was better than a land invasion by American forces which would have killed multitudes more.

And then in high school, or college, older students are given the more complicated reality of the Hiroshima decision: Namely that Japan was nearing the point of surrender, and America rushed its nuclear bombing of the country to secure its dominance over Russia, which was on the verge of devising its own bomb, for the era of “peace” that was to follow World War II.

Still, all this being said, how many of us have spent much time thinking through what this bomb meant, beyond political objectives? We dismiss it as a necessary evil, but do we really take the time to contemplate just how evil the enterprise of war — through mass extermination — truly is?

It’s this disconnect between truth and rhetoric that fuels Robert Richter’s “The Last Atomic Bomb,” a somber, patient examination of what the tools of war really do, and why, in this instance, history is almost certainly doomed to repeat itself.

Four stories here overlap, all shedding light on the dark corners of history some of us would rather forget. The first is the personal connection, as Richter finds survivor Sakue Shimohira and other survivors and asks them to describe what it was like to be at ground zero that day. Later, he follows Shimohira as she travels the world in hopes of calling attention to the thousands of nuclear bombs now in the world’s stockpiles, each threatening to unleash this horror again on unsuspecting civilians.

Beyond these horrific, first person accounts, Richter discusses the bomb’s use with historians, and offers some compelling contradictions — including quotes from pervious American presidents and military personnel who claim the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs served no useful purpose — to the accepted version of history.

Two of the documentary’s threads, however, are particularly fascinating, and alarming. Shortly after the bomb exploded, the American military in Japan enacted a press code that would restrict what the Japanese press could report about the victims.

And this led to two startling developments: First, the world never heard about the horrors the bomb wrought on those it touched, perhaps leading, as one historian says, to the public’s passive acceptance of nuclear weapons as a viable military option. And it also led to the stigmatization and discrimination of these bomb survivors among their own people. Without a press to educate, other Japanese citizens became convinced that radiation burns and internal diseases were contagious and those lucky enough to walk away from Nagasaki alive were doomed to a lifetime of being ostracized and decried.

Really, this documentary should be less affecting than it is. After more than 50 years of history books, education and political debate, America as a nation should be at a more comfortable and understanding place when it comes to the atomic bomb and the way we used it.

But we’re not. We have decided to brush it aside, lock it in our closet and paint over the horrific truth.

Richter’s film does little more than hold up a mirror to the reality that has been ignored and forgotten. America dropped a bomb it didn’t need to drop, savagely turned human beings into deformed monsters, destroyed the lives of a whole generation of survivors, and in the process hid the truth about the pain it wrought, allowing the rest of the world — and most recently North Korea — to see nuclear warfare as a legitimate course of action.

It’s nasty and ugly, and also the simple, earnest truth. And when an American high school student asks Shimohira during one of her school visits if the survivor is mad at America for what it did to her, I couldn’t help but marvel at how few of us have ever pondered such a question.

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