Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

Bombs Drop in a Smithsonian Documentary and NBC Sit-Com

The ravages of Hiroshima; the misery of unfunny summer comedies

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Late in the morning of August 6, 1945, a military clerk finally got a phone call through Hiroshima's ravaged lines to headquarters in Tokyo. The officer in Tokyo was silent for a minute, then asked: "What do you mean, annihilated?"

That single sentence sums up the Smithsonian Channel's documentary The Day the Bomb Dropped, airing a few days before the 70th anniversary of the world's crash-course introduction to nuclear war. In the blink of an eye, 70,000 people died, most of the city they lived in vanished, and the curtain finally started to fall on a worldwide slaughter 14 years in duration.

That moment emerges clearly in The Day The Bomb Dropped, though it is neither encyclopedic nor particularly searching in its examination of the issues surrounding the decision to drop the bomb. Short (barely 46 minutes of running time minus the commercials; I can hardly wait to see which companies paid to have their products juxtaposed with photos of flayed skin and human charcoal) and briskly paced, it sacrifices nuance for impact, and it makes the most of the trade.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of participants, from the Manhattan Project scientists who designed and built to the bomb to the air crews that dropped it to the Hiroshima citizens who bore its ruinous brunt. The Day The Bomb Dropped is undoubtedly the last historical project that will attempt such a thing, given that almost everybody who appears on screen is in their 80s or 90s. (The witness whose interview provides the backbone of the American side of the story, mission navigator Dutch Van Kirk, died last year, shortly after providing his account.) Together they offer a vivid portrait of the climactic act of what narrator Dominic West calls "the bitter hostilities of a world at total war."

Their tales mingle horror and awe. A Japanese survivor recalls his wonder at seeing the bones of his hands like an x-ray at the moment of detonation. The crewmen of the American B-29 that dropped the bomb, who had only the crudest idea of the power of the weapon they carried, fell silent as they realized that they could still see its mushroom cloud 100 miles away.

Interestingly, there was a good deal of uncertainty on the American side about whether there would be any cloud at all. Throughout the development, testing, and deployment of the bomb, skepticism abounded about whether it would really work. As the first test detonation in the New Mexico desert neared, Manhattan Project personnel had a pool on whether the bomb would be a dud or set the entire atmosphere of Earth on fire. One scientist recounts how the test took so long to get underway that she concluded the bomb had fizzled and walked to her car to leave, only to be knocked head over heels when the explosion came. The Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb, had gone on two trial runs in the Mariana Islands with "pumpkins"—dummy bombs loaded only with conventional explosives—and neither of them detonated.

Compounding the technical uncertainties about the atomic bomb itself was the difficulty of the mission. The runways on Tinian, the tiny island from which the Enola Gay took off, were several hundred feet short of the specs for a B-29, and crashes were frequent. That the plane was 15,000 pounds overweight with the bomb aboard did not add to anybody's confidence.

A problem that goes unmentioned in The Day The Bomb Dropped is the notorious inaccuracy of strategic bombing during World War II, when aerial navigation was still primitive; crews often had trouble even locating the cities they were supposed to attack, much less hitting their targets on the ground. (In a U.S. raid on a large Japanese steel mill the previous year, only one of 376 bombs actually hit the factory.) That certainly doesn't seem to have troubled American military commanders. Van Kirk recounts getting chewed out when the Enola Gay returned from Hiroshima—his superiors were angry he was late arriving at the target. "Christ," the navigator grumbles, still nettled seven decades later, I was six seconds late."

The Day The Bomb Dropped gives short shrift to the ethical issues surrounding the use of the bomb, accepting at face value the military estimates of the day that an invasion of Japan could cost a million or more Allied casualties, and probably even more Japanese. (As the documentary notes, at least 100,000 Japanese—the vast majority of them civilians—had died in a conventional fire-bombing attack on Tokyo earlier in the year.) That will doubtless irritate revisionist historians and other critics of the atomic attack, who quibble with casualty estimates and insist the Japanese were preparing to make peace anyway.

Color me skeptical; after Hiroshima, it still took Japan 13 days to surrender, and only after a second atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki. Even then, Emperor Hirohito had to put down an attempted military coup before delivering his surrender broadcast.

To say Hiroshima was justified, however, does not mean it wasn't a horrifying step down the latter to a deeper circle of the manmade hell of war. Or that someday we may recognize it as a harbinger of our own future. One of the most eerie moments is The Day The Bomb Dropped is a glimpse of civil defense drills in Japanese schools early in World War II. The scenes of bewildered kids grimly duck-and-covering beneath their desks look hauntingly familiar, and terrifyingly useless.

The Day The Bomb Dropped.  Smithsonian Channel. Sunday, August 2, 9 p.m. EDT.

It would be tasteless and wildly exaggerated to compare NBC's wheezing new sitcom, Mr. Robinson, to Hiroshima (though I'll admit that didn't stop me from considering it), but the show does have some significance as a historical artifact. Which is good, because it has absolutely none as a comedy.

Starring Craig Robinson as a middle-aged George Clinton wannabe who teaches high-school music classes by day while dishing up funk lite in bars by night, Mr. Robinson has a definite whiff of a "what were we thinking?" network project that was quickly consigned to the dog days of August when whatever executive who conceived it was released from rehab. It's rarely funny (at least intentionally), never affecting, and has the narrative cohesion of a Dick and Jane reader minus the cute drawings of Puff the Cat.

It is, however, weirdly interesting. Mr. Robinson's school also has a math teacher who's a stripper; a principal who was once a legendary groupie known as Eileen Tight Fit and whose fondest memories involve snorting cocaine off the toilet seats at CBGB's; and guest speakers who say things to the kids like, "Please call me Neville—Mr. Rex is my penis." (If you are wondering how stuff like this is not funny, you're beginning to sense the amazing singularity of Mr. Robinson's writing staff.)

In short, it's the world that my parents' generation was pretty sure their Baby Boomer kids would devolve us into. Time to apologize, Greatest Generation. It wasn't your children who ruined America. It was your grandchildren.

Mr. Robinson. NBC. Wednesday, August 5, 9 p.m. EDT.

NEXT: Sex Workers From Around the World Tell Hollywood to Mind Its Own Business

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  1. I think you got the name of the documentary wrong. I think it’s “The Day They Dropped The Bomb,” not “The Day The Bomb Dropped.”

    1. I wouldn’t put it past some progressive producer sanitizing the title by removing agency – so I could totally buy that version as real.

  2. Van Kirk recounts getting chewed out when the Enola Gay returned from Hiroshima?his superiors were angry he was late arriving at the target. “Christ,” the navigator grumbles, still nettled seven decades later, I was six seconds late.”

    While such nitpicking may seem unreasonable, it’s such exacting, near-superhuman standards, that fostered a culture of excellency in the armed forces of the day.

    1. Apparently you have never read any account of the Army Air Corps.They couldn’t hit a
      target even when they could identify one. The average miss for a bomb in WWII was measured in MILES, not feet, not yards.The claims for the Norden bomb sight were BS -bombing by US forces during WWII was done via area bombing. The lead plane dropped his bombsthne those that followed dropped their’s. Our bombing program was obscenely inefficient of man, planes and bombs.

  3. Folks, read “Downfall”, Richard Frank.
    If after reading that you can come up with *any* workable alternative, I’ll be happy to listen. But not until you have.

    1. As I recall, what was left out of Downfall was the devastation that would have been visited on Japan in 1946 and ’47. All bridges dropped; all trains shot up and rail lines significantly trashed; most industry destroyed by air attacks; all inter island shipping sunk; all of the small remaining Imperial Japanese air (Army or Navy) destroyed. That would mean most of the rice grown would not make it to the northern islands. Estimates of from 5,000,000 to 20,000,000 starved or dead of disease due to malnutrition in the Japanese population. This does NOT include the effects of the Soviets on the Japanese- which could have been expected be similar or same than what was meted out to the Germans.
      The bombs did not end the war, they were the catalyst that the Emperor used to keep the Soviets out of the home islands.

      1. Frank certainly didn’t ignore the nearly certain famine, but Tillman in “Whirlwind” made it far more clear.
        What I found most insightful in Downfall was the focus on the possible overthrow of the Jap government, either by the militants or the starving population.

  4. When I lived in the Washington, DC area (about 20 years all told), every year or two some idiot would have an ostentatious cow about the Enola Gay display at the Air and Space Museum. I felt then, and feel now, that what the display really needs is a banner, in Japanese, saying “You rape Nanking again, we bomb you again. Any questions?”.

    1. I live in the area now, and the last time I went there, I overheard one of their tour guides mention that security intercepts some (almost-always-Japanese) tourist coming to vandalize the Enola Gay (most commonly with red paint) about once a week. Once a week!

      1. There are Japanese extremist groups that deeply resent the take most of the world has on the Far East Asia Co-Proserity Sphere. They try to censor Japanese history books, bitterly criticize mention of comfort women, or Nanking, or Unit 731. From what I can tell the broader Japanese culture considers them a cross between Neo-Nazis and Truthers; unpleasant, uncouth, several bubbles off of true, and slightly pathetic. It would not surprise me to hear that they planned to vandalize the Enola Gay. It would astonish me to learn that they had even managed to come close. The Japanese consider them to be inept bunglers.

  5. The bomb that scientists had major concerns about was the plutonium bomb that was used in the attack on Nagasaki. The Fat Man plutonium bomb used at Nagasaki and tested at Trinity used only 6.19 kilograms of Plutonium, but was extremely complex in design. About 1 kg of the plutonium actually fissioned, about 17% of the total. Plutonium was much easier to produce, but required a much more complex bomb design.

    The Little Boy uranium bomb used in the attack on Hiroshima was never tested before is was used because it used 64 kg (141 lb) of hard to produce enriched uranium, most of what was available, and the design was very straight forward. Only about 1 kg of the uranium actually fissioned, about 1.5% of the total amount.

    1. My father did his service in Oak Ridge TN, refining that Uranium. Told some interesting stories, too.

  6. Oh, boy! Can’t wait for Richman’s article!

  7. At that point in time the Imperial Japanese were arguably one of the most violent and savage groups of people in written human history; more so than the infamous Nazis. It took two atomic bombs destroying entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands to make them even consider surrender.

    The line of morality is always crossed in war, even by ‘the good guys.’ Maybe that’s why we libertarians are against war and interventionist foreign policy.

    1. Most of these wars were about opium. The USA was neither an Ally nor at war with Turkey in 1918. Russia was not at war with Japan in July of 1945, but Germany had surrendered in short order once its Altruist Christian Socialist leader was dead. By the time the US was equipped to use the rearrangement of nucleons on Japan, the Soviets had made themselves unpleasant in Germany and the US did not want them as allies in the war with Japan. The advantage of the new weapon was that it gave the Japanese a face-saving excuse to sue for peace and served notice to the Soviet kleptocracy that their patronage was neither needed nor wanted in that theater. British scientist Percival Maynard-Stuart Blackett summarized the situation in “Fear, War and The Bomb.” A lot of this would be of much less concern to the US if the looter parties controlling Congress would stop putting our military personnel at risk in Afghanistan and other points stranded centuries backward in time–and stop using prohibition laws to subsidize the heroin market by eliminating its nonaddictive competitors.

  8. “…someday we may recognize it as a harbinger of our own future.”

    Excellent line. I’d have argued vehemently against nuclear deployment at the time, if only to illustrate to the world via actions that we could have used this power against a defeated enemy and chose not to. The precedent that deployment under those circumstances set invites any other nation with the ability to use such technology with only the thinnest of justification. Now M.A.D.ness is the only thing that keeps the bombs from flying.

    Generally, I don’t take issue with reckless overkill when it comes to total war, but it’s a little different when the tech involved is both A; New in the realms of human experience/morality, and B; Capable of rendering our species extinct and our entire world unfit for habitation. PARTICULARLY when it’s the -first time- that ‘B’ has been on the table.

    1. You’d only have argued “vehemently” if you had even the slightest sense of what it would do – but even the scientists who built the fucking thing didn’t know. I heard Glenn T. Seaborg give a presentation about his work on the Manhattan Project 25+ years ago. (He got the Nobel either for the Lanthanide and Actinide series on the periodic table, IIRC, or for his work in creating Plutonium.) He said they often joked that it might just hit the ground and go “plop” or it might very well start an unstoppable chain reaction. They weren’t entirely positive.

      I get your point, however. I also don’t think they thought it would get to where we are now. IOW, there were only two devices in the world and it wasn’t like fissile material grew on trees. I don’t think they ever imagined what modern industrial production would allow in terms of ability to make weapons grade material. But here we are.

      1. Did they somehow forget what the bomb did between the Trinity test-fire and deployment against Hiroshima 21 days later?

        If the folks in charge (not the scientists, by the way) failed to give proper weight to the possibility of proliferation – which historically had resulted in the eventual distribution across multiple governing bodies every other effective military technology and strategy ever devised – then that is all the more evidence that deployment was an atrociously hasty and ill-considered decision, particularly given the gravity of the technology in question.

      2. Thumb a few pages of George Orwell’s “You and the Atomic Bomb.” The author was wistfully brought to face the fact that those weapons cannot be made in restaurant kitchens, like the booby traps of the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was not the least bit bothered by the thought of weapons suitable for use against governments, but not against particular individuals. He only regretted they could not be readily produced by small nations as: “the power of the State over the individual would have been greatly weakened.”

        1. Since you raised the issue of gravity, most of the best scientists working on the Manhattan Project were marked as Jewish by Germany’s Christian National Socialist government. Those populists invoked eugenics, pseudoscience popular at the time even in America, to wipe jews out to make the world safe for altruism. Little is said about England’s production of opium for forcible export to China, in which trade she competed with Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and even the US and Switzerland to a lesser extent–before forming an alliance with Japan to continue the sale of those drugs in China. That both world wars grew out of this competition for markets in addictive narcotics distributed among primitive people is conveniently played down in the history books and movies–and totally absent from government-licensed teevee. History isn’t always a pretty thing, but we ignore it at our peril. Those physicists were using science to combat genocidal superstition and I am immensely proud of their accomplishment: they defeated imperial socialism root and branch forever. The lesson is still sinking in that that was humanity’s decisive struggle, and totalitarianism lost.

    2. Napier, the warmonger who invented simple rules for solving spherical triangles–to the delight of mapmakers–was charged with enforcing similar laws among the Mohammedans in British India. The quaint practice of murdering even old women on religious pretexts–not altogether different from those advanced by conservatives in America to justify coercing women and killing doctors–was religious freedom. Napier explained that they could murder all the ladies they cared to, but that rounding them up and hanging them after the fact was an exercise of British religious religious observance no less free than their own. Steven Pinkert tells it better than I do, but the message does appear to have gotten across. Pity we cannot communicate so plainly with our native-grown mystical bigots. But the historian is in for some rough sledding to convince this audience that solidarity with Nanking rather than exasperation over the attack on Hawaii prompted using the weapon on Japan. It was developed by Jewish scientists for use against Germany–a partner with Japan at the time in the exploitation of Asian weakness for acetylated morphine.

    3. Soviet altruism did indeed come up with a “moral” argument to the effect that it is OK to attack Indiana Jones with 9th Century weapons but immoral for Indiana Jones to respond with a modern firearm. This was answered in a 1952 Scientific American article by Louis Rindenour, a physicist not enthusiastic about hydrogen bomb development. “Once it is decided that people are to be killed,” he reminded readers, “the moral issue is fully settled, for the instruments of that killing are not affected with any moral or humane questions or considerations.” Collectivist ethicists were horrified, but the man had stated a simple fact. Just as simple was the fact that at the time, aircraft were lucky to be able to hit a city with a bomb, and only the US was covered with suitable targets in the form of large cities. Counterforce strategies, way more ethical than genocidal attacks on civilians, eventually supplanted these barbaric approaches once the technology was in hand.

      1. That’s a lot of words to communicate very little substance. Are you a fan of Postmodernism, by any chance?

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  10. The Day The Bomb Dropped is undoubtedly the last historical project that will attempt such a thing, given that almost everybody who appears on screen is in their 80s or 90s.

    Interesting that someone who survived the radiation exposure somehow managed to live to their 80s and 90s. Yet we’re told that any exposure is deadly. I guess if they don’t live to 115 it means their lives were shortened by radiation exposure.

    1. Good observation. Everything is radioactive forever. Never believe a word on the subject from anyone who cannot answer in a second how many seconds there are in a year.

  11. “In short, it’s the world that my parents’ generation was pretty sure their Baby Boomer kids would devolve us into. Time to apologize, Greatest Generation. It wasn’t your children who ruined America. It was your grandchildren.”

    UMMM…noThe disaster that is America started with the generation that is the 60’s baby boomers. The greatest generation’s tolerance and sparing of the rod produced a generation that introduced America to free love, feminism, communes, and all other upside-down social experiments. Oh yeah, the instigator of Roe vs. Wade happened to be a 1940’s BB…the most loathsome of the BBs.

    During my formative years, the BBs were teachers whose authority was assigned to them. School had little to do with indoctrination and more to do with learning the three R’s. BBs are now in charge at ALL levels of education! Our younger citizens are now subjected to an education system concocted by BBs. Coincidentally, of course, such crazy ideas such as Ebonics, New Math, socialism, and political correctness on ALL campuses have appeared on the BB’s watch.

  12. (continued)

    No…BBs were spoiled from their Gerber days to their high school proms. The “Greatest Generation” gave everything and more to their children so that BBs would not “suffer” through their post WWII childhood. Our out-of-control government is infested with BBs with no structured backbone endowed to them by their parents. They spend taxpayer money like they squandered their unearned allowance.

    Each generation is a product of the former generation. The ’60s never ended. We shoulder the social disasters that BBs are solely responsible for. The faster we can get the BBs six feet under, the better off we will be as a nation.

    1. You need to look at the economic reasons for the Balkan Wars, WWI and WWII. A lot of these problems have festered for years and even to this day primitives are exploited by more “civilized” polities like so many children in a socialist slum. The USA did not participate “much” in drugging Asia with opiates–mainly because there was a huge market to be had right here if only that pesky marijuana and comparatively harmless psychedelics could be done away with. Also, by staying out of other people’s opium wars and selling them supplies instead, the US did profit from the suicidal stupidity of Europe’s monarchical empires. So tell me, by what standard was that a bad move?

  13. No documentary will ever move me like the book Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker. I can’t even begin to describe the emotional acrobatics that book put me through. It will also make you hate every history class and every history teacher you have ever been subjected to.

    1. Have you tried “Hiroshima,” by John Hersey? This most gifted writer is from that part of the world and familiar with its languages and history. But why do we not find scientific or lay literature covering Nagasaki–the Sodom and Gomorrah, or Gay Paris of Japanese culture thumbing its nose at America’s puritanical prohibitionism throughout the interwar period?

  14. Now I’m wondering if the navigator being six seconds late had anything to do with the title of “Six Seconds in Dallas”…

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