Earlier this month we observed the 70th anniversary of two military assaults that were so momentous in their impact that they sent us hurtling into a perilous new era, which soon became known as the Nuclear Age. I’m referring, of course, to the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and that other Japanese city.
I chose to phrase it that way because over the years, Nagasaki has languished in the long shadow cast by Hiroshima, which has the distinction of being the first city to be demolished by a nuclear weapon. But the suffering and devastation caused by the bomb that exploded at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 — just three days after the attack on Hiroshima — was comparable to the radiation horror inflicted by “Little Boy,” the code name for the Hiroshima bomb.
Nevertheless, it was Hiroshima that came out of World War II with the high profile and went on to become the poster city for the ban-the-bomb campaigns that, in the decades that followed, were launched throughout the world. If Nagasaki was mentioned at all on such occasions, it was usually as an afterthought: Oh yes, we should remember that one, too.
Or, in the words of Susan Southard, the author of a new book that focuses on the long-overlooked story of the Nagasaki bombing and its aftermath: “The result has been to consign Nagasaki to the edge of oblivion.”
The historical neglect of Nagasaki first came to my attention — in an utterly frivolous way — when I was in college. Like scores of college students before and since, I and the classmates I hung around with welcomed any distraction that lured us from class assignments and other dreary requirements.
One such diversion was a parlor game we devised one evening during one of our bull sessions. At the time, a member of our clannish group was involved in a political science project that included several laudatory references to Karl Marx, which clearly annoyed him.
Although this was during an anxious period in our history when much of the country was obsessed with the menace that, in those days, was often called “Godless Communism,” I hasten to add that my friend’s concern was not ideological. Instead, what bothered him became clear in a question he put to the rest of us in an irritated tone: “Why,” he asked “does it always have to be about Marx? Why does he get all the credit?”
He then pointed out that Marx’s favorite comrade-in-revolution, Friedrich Engels, was the co-author of “The Communist Manifesto,” and that he did as much to foment class warfare as Marx did.
“Poor Engels,” he sighed. “We hardly hear anything about him anymore. He has disappeared down a memory hole.”
It was a eureka moment. That offhand remark about the founding fathers of Communism struck a responsive chord in all of us, and right then and there, we concocted our little version of Trivial Pursuit.
As time went on, we had several names for it — “The Overlooked,” “Runners-up,” “Victims of Neglect” and perhaps others that I’ve forgotten. The basic idea was to come up with examples of other folks from various fields of endeavor who, like Engels, did not get the props they deserved. Drawing now from the depths of my memory bank, here is a casual sampling.
Frank James — Jesse’s brother. Connoisseurs of American outlaws insist that Frank was just as fast on the draw and that he killed and robbed and otherwise misbehaved with as much brio as his more celebrated sibling. What Jesse had working in his favor was alliteration.
Albert Sabin — Although his polio vaccine did not make as big a splash as the one developed by Jonas Salk, some health experts claim that the Sabin version is more effective. It is also more patient-friendly because one takes the Sabin vaccine orally instead of getting stabbed in the arm with a needle.
Harry Steinfeldt — The third-baseman in the old Chicago Cubs infield whose other members were Joe Tinker at short, Johnny Evers at second and Frank Chance at first, the trio that inspired the most famous (maybe because it’s also the only) poem ever written about a double-play combination — Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.
I strongly suspect that if Steinfeldt had played first base instead of third, there would have been no verse praising the skills of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Steinfeldt.
Monsieur Defarge — The husband of the revenge-driven firebrand in one of Charles Dickens’s most popular novels. Nowadays I tend to think of Madame Defarge as the Elizabeth Warren of the Reign-of-Terror epoch.
But what about Monsieur? He was committed to the Big Revolution, too. And besides, while his implacable missus spent all her time knitting and plotting ways to send all the aristocratic scoundrels to the guillotine, somebody had to run the wine shop.
During the early phase of our exercise in slights-and-snubs, we confined our choices to people. But one evening, a member of our merry band raised a question that moved us into new territory.
“Does it have to be people?” he asked. “Are places or events eligible?”
Sure, we all agreed, just as long as they meet our criteria.
“Good,” he said in a grimly wry tone, “then I nominate Nagasaki.”
Our first, instinctive response was to recoil. To suggest that an event that somber and weighty be included in our lighthearted romp struck us as unseemly, not at all in good taste.
But after talking it over, we changed our minds and came around to the idea that not only was it appropriate, but an almost perfect fit. And so we proudly added Nagasaki to our bizarre honor roll.
Which helps to explain why, through all the years that followed, whenever the subject of Hiroshima comes up in conversation, I would make a point of mentioning that other Japanese city.
In the meantime, I continue to long for the day when Nagasaki will finally be rescued from its precarious perch on “the edge of oblivion.”