Photograph of Jan Letzel’s Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, by Hirotsugu Mori.
By ANDREW TONKOVICH | LA Review of Books
This year especially, activists who for decades marked the anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind me of the “Book People” of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And of myself. Bradbury’s sense of the grim Zeitgeist, not to mention his broad reading of fiction, history, and drama inspired the innovative if now-classic literary mash-up: sci-fi mass-media satire, Biblical parable, political commentary. Written eight years after the bombings, his defining novel features post-atomic war survivors who commit entire books to memory. Not merely bibliophiles, these hybrid human-texts, secular missionaries, outlaws wait to reintroduce art and humanity into a future, hopefully, better, world. Their representation in the Truffaut film version is especially sweet, affectionate, if more hopeful than in the book.
In Southern California during my lifetime, there were always commemorations by real-life actualizations of such people, individuals committed to preserving and advancing — being, becoming— the singular story of the century. They assembled each August 6, often organized by the Christian-anarchist Los Angeles Catholic Worker or anti-nuke organizations, but also Japanese Americans, military veterans, Holocaust survivors, Left political outfits, human and civil rights groups, scientists, and artists. School kids learned to fold the origami paper “peace crane,” a totem of the international effort to abolish nuclear weapons.
On the 75th anniversary of the only first-strike nuclear attack in history, or what passes for history, you’ll need to work hard to locate what were already dwindling annual street-corner public witnesses, expressions of collective memory, remnants of a once-strong mass movement. And perhaps work even harder to imagine that they ever existed. They did.
My two favorite quotations are a line from a short story by the writer Isaac Babel, “You must know everything,” and words from a song by Chumbawamba, the folk-punk collective: “Never do what you are told.” I feel just brave, reckless and vulnerable enough at this moment to share them, hoping others find in their gorgeous imperatives both reaffirmation and challenge.
I double-checked my geological history of the planet on Wikipedia and was delighted by this description of the current era, a stretch of sixty million years we like to call the Cenozoic: “It is generally believed to have started on the first day of the Cretaceious-Paleogene extinction event, when an asteroid hit the Earth.” I love the Wiki editor who identified the end of the last day of one era as the beginning of the next.
For a truly inspired, frightening and motivating graphic, see the Wiki artist’s rendering of that big, beautiful meteor which moved things so dramatically along. It’s taped to my wall, above my 2020 calendar, a portrait of radical journalist Randolph Bourne (who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and wrote that “war is the health of the state”), and a fading poster promoting “Survival Sunday II,” at the Hollywood Bowl, June 10, 1979 featuring Helen Caldicott, Lily Tomlin, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Barry Commoner, Graham Nash, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Ralph Nader, Jocko Marcellino, and Peter, Paul & Mary. An impressive list, they are (were), respectively, an Australian physician, a legendary comedian, a gay rights singer-actor, a Black women’s a cappella musical ensemble, a scientist and presidential candidate, a famous folk-rock singer, another famous singer, a famous rocker, the most successful consumer activist in history (and presidential candidate), another musician (Sha Na Na!) and the most very famous American folk-singing trio ever.
That faded, framed poster also features an illustration of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic group of everyday citizens holding a banner: “Stop Nuclear Terror.” Forty years later, I look for myself in that crowd. I was there, after all.
My ancient poster helpfully affirms the existence of a once-powerful grassroots nuclear disarmament campaign that featured vigils, protests, commemorations, concerts, and rallies. You must know everything about this despite the purposeful forgetting by governments, media, and our amnesiac culture. You must know that popular, organized disobedience was an admired, favored, even expected behavior.
For decades, in fact most of my lifetime (I’m in my own Cenozoic) citizens gathered to stop nuclear war, remember victims, hear the hibakusha (survivors), distribute paper cranes, sing “Study War No More,” and lie down in civil disobedience at Diablo Canyon or Rocky Flats, or assemble, once, on June 12, 1982 in the largest demonstration in the history of the country, in Central Park. I was there, too.
And three weeks after Survival Sunday II, I was at a rally at Diablo Canyon, with 40,000 others, so mainstream, so popular, so much an easy, available political expectation that bus trips were organized, tickets sold at record stores, ads run on a commercial rock station. In 1980 I protested at San Onofre, in 1981 worked on the Nuclear Freeze campaign, in 1982 was arrested in El Segundo at corporations building Reagan’s Euromissiles. I joined two thousand protesters blockading Livermore Labs where, while briefly incarcerated, I heard Daniel Ellsberg lecture on the history of US first-strike nuclear policy. In 1984, that darkest of years, my future wife and I joined a protest of WinCon, the international weapons bazar. There was no way we would not love each other after that, stay together, commit to lives of peace politics, and, yes, memorize the story of resistance we were part of so that I could tell it to you today, myself a Book Person, stubbornly insisting that all of this actually happened, and that its recitation portends a better future.
There were treks to the Nevada Test Site with the Jesuits, Desert Witness, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and American Peace Test, hosted by the Western Shoshone Nation, collecting signatures for Jobs With Peace, registering voters for Coalition ’88, mass actions at the federal building, Peace Sunday, mobilizing for a Comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Test Ban, direct action, and guerilla theater, with art, costumes, banners and posters, fundraising, music-making, and more, but always, on each Hiroshima Day, a gathering. Once, unbelievably, we camped on the lawn of Santa Monica City Hall for four days, from Hiroshima Day through Nagasaki Day.
This year Hiroshima Day will be online, though I suspect a handful of hard-core ploughshares activists will cut through barbed wire, trespass at Vandenberg AFB, toss their blood on a warhead. The nuclear threat still looms, and it is hard to see the end of one era even as a new one is born. For many of us, there is the joyful responsibility, as Bradbury’s exiles, to recite, incant, retell the stories of a defining history lived, a campaign of ongoing resistance created by millions that will, I fear, otherwise be forgotten.