--Senator Theodore G. Bilbo (D-Mississippi),
Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization (1947)
Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization (1947)
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb named "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan. On August 9, "Fat Man" destroyed much of Nagasaki. An estimated 220,000 people were killed by those attacks, about half of them on the two bombing days. On August 15, Japan announced its surrender to the Allied Powers. So far, no other nation has attacked another with nuclear weapons.
In 1964, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove, a scathing cinematic satire about the effects on global politics of something new in the world: "The Bomb." In Kubrick's view, the fact that humanity could obliterate life on earth with the push of a button made the whole idea of life on earth sort of absurd.
Also absurd, he realized, was something especially white American about The Bomb. In Dr. Strangelove, he emphasizes this whiteness with the character of Major T. J. "King" Kong, the pilot who guides the crew that drops the bomb that sets off a nuclear winter.
Kubrick highlights American whiteness by having Slim Pickens play Major Kong as a cussing, cowboy-hatted, good ol' boy, who mispronounces "nuclear" the same way that George Bush, Jr. did, and who rides the bomb on its journey to earth as if he's riding a rodeo bull.
With the characterization of cowboy Kong, and with that of Dr. Strangelove as a trusted, Nazi-worshiping adviser to U.S. President Merkin Muffley (both played by Peter Sellers), Kubrick satirized the ironic whiteness at the core of America's identity during World War II and the subsequent Cold War period. The irony is that while this white nationalist core helped to guide American policy both at home and abroad, American propaganda during World War II had emphasized the racist ideologies of Germany and Japan as fundamentally evil features of their "evil empires."
As Ken Cooper explains in an essay entitled "The Whiteness of the Bomb," various features of the American mindset that led to the dropping of actual nuclear bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also reflected the general assumption that America was a "white" country. Because the Japanese were "non-white," dropping the Bomb on them wasn't as morally troubling to most Americans as it might have been. As it might have been, that is, if the question were instead whether to drop it on a "white" country.
In Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Bomb, Japanese American historian Ronald Takaki writes about the man who made the final decision to destroy two Japanese cities, President Harry Truman. This was the same man who, when he was younger, wrote the following in a letter to his future wife, Bess:
I think one man is as good as another, so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. My uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.
Elsewhere in his book, Takaki shows that while Truman did not order the use of nuclear weapons for the express purpose of killing Japanese people because they were Japanese, the fact that America and other Allied nations considered their non-white opponents subhuman clearly played a significant role in that decision. And thanks to the dehumanizing depictions of Japanese people in war-time propaganda, most Americans found the decision to target the civilian populations of two entire cities easier to accept.
As Ken Cooper notes, though, not all Americans were blind to the racism of dropping the Bomb on Japan. For instance, an editorial cartoonist for a leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, found it significant that right after the war ended,
occupying forces aboard the Mississippi entered Japan with a Confederate flag flying and a band playing "Dixie." Langston Hughes wondered, by way of a conversation with his alter ego, Jesse ('Simple') Semple, whether America would have dropped the bomb on "white folks" like the Germans. Simple maintains that the United States has waited "until the war is over in Europe to try them out on colored folks."
Nowadays, it seems that the American keepers of the largest nuclear arsenal on earth still think of the Bomb in racial terms. While some non-white nations now have the Bomb, it would be useful to see the racial composition of nuclear arms bearing countries -- how many are primarily white versus non-white? Who has been "allowed" to have them, and who has done the allowing?
Apparently, among the many economic and geopolitical "concerns" of (primarily white) American leaders is the non-whiteness of those who might acquire nuclear weapons. Japan has not been allowed to have a nuclear weapon, perhaps because America fears retaliation, and George Bush breathed fire at "evil" North Korea when it threatened to build one (his administration later turned down the heat on North Korea, apparently because it went ahead and built one anyway).
The non-white countries of India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons, as does the somewhat less non-white country of Israel, but they're American allies -- perhaps that's why drumming up a racist perception of them as a nuclear threat was therefore deemed unnecessary. The latest perceived non-white threat in these terms is Iran, a country that American leaders have lately been threatening to attack for the (perhaps ostensible) reason that it might acquire nuclear weapons.
Americans during World War II were likely more accepting of a Bomb drop on Japanese people than they would have been on German people because Japanese people were racially "different," and thus easier to dehumanize in propaganda efforts. Does today's new racist propaganda -- the endless stream of swarthy, grimacing, cartoonish Arab "terrorists" -- contribute to America's discontent with the idea of an Iranian nuclear state, by again dehumanizing an "enemy"?
As Americans remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their people, will many at all remember how racist the decision to do so was? And how ironic and hypocritical that decision therefore was?
How "white," then, does the Bomb remain?
(an earlier version of this post appeared here)