Column: Hiroshima visit has intense, perhaps unintended lessons

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

From stunning to sad, a 12-day trip to Japan has produced an array of emotions. The cherry blossoms are more beautiful and more numerous than I can describe. The people are extremely friendly. But none of the things I’ve done matched the power, or the mixture of emotions, of visiting Hiroshima’s Peace Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. That produced several lessons, some of which the museum’s creators may not have envisioned.

Before walking through the museum, my wife and I had looked at the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was one of the few buildings that remained after the August 1945 blast. This was the first time the bomb had been used. It’s a poignant, powerful monument.

Nearby is a memorial to the children that died, with hundreds of thousands of beautiful origami cranes and pictures that children from Japan and other countries have sent.

Then we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which has a very useful website (

The museum makes it clear that war is horrible and that there are many innocent victims. Sadly, this continues today throughout the world. I wish that rulers of every country would come here before deciding to start a war.

Hiroshima often hosts meetings, including one while I was in the city, with international delegations urging more attention to arms control and non-violent resolution of international problems. Those are great ideas.

However, I was troubled by what seems like an incomplete description of why the U.S. decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The museum’s website ( summarizes several displays that offer this explanation: “The United States thought that if atomic bombing could bring an end of the war, it would help keep the Soviet Union from extending its sphere of influence in the world; in the way, the U.S. government could justify to the American people the A-bomb development project, which entailed tremendous expenditure.”

Having read several American accounts of World War II, I think that there were additional reasons for the decision to drop the bomb. These include, for example:

–A belief that more than a million lives, both Allied and Japanese, would be saved if Allied forces did not need to invade Japan. The Allies had learned about the enormous loss of life, both civilian and military, via invasions of Italy, France and Pacific islands.

–The need to change Japanese leaders’ minds about an “unconditional surrender.” Museum displays note that, before the atomic bomb, some parts of Japan’s government were proposing a surrender that would include some conditions.

Hiroshima shows that war, especially when using atomic weapons, is horrific. People in Hiroshima want visitors to learn that.

But another equally important, and perhaps unintended lesson, is the importance of gathering information from several sources about why and how something important happened. The simplest explanation is not always the most accurate. Families and educators can help youngsters understand that a single source of information may not be completely reliable. The Peace Museum perhaps unintentionally shows the value of reading or listening to different people before drawing conclusions.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]