The perils of race wars in the atomic age

A visitor offers prayers at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.
A visitor offers prayers at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. AP

He wanted to start a race war.

That, you will recall, was what authorities say white supremacist Dylann Roof had in mind when he shot up a storied African-American church in June. It might have surprised him to learn that we’ve already had a race war.

No, that’s not how one typically thinks of World War II, but it takes only a cursory consideration of that war’s causes and effects to make the case. Germany killed 6 million Jews and rampaged through Poland and the Soviet Union because it considered Jews and Slavs subhuman. The Japanese stormed through China and other Asian outposts in the conviction that they were a superior people and that Americans, as a decadent and mongrel people, could do nothing about it.

So no, it is not a stretch to call that war a race war.

It ended on Aug. 15, 1945. V-J – Victory over Japan – Day was when the surrender was announced, the day of blissfully drunken revels from Times Square in New York to Market Street in San Francisco. But for all practical purposes, the war had actually ended nine days before – 70 years ago Thursday – in a noiseless flash of light over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One person who survived described it as a “sheet of sun.”

The destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb – Nagasaki followed three days later – did not just end the war. It also ushered in a new era: the nuclear age.

The world has seen plenty of race wars – meaning tribalistic violence – before and since 1945.

The difference 70 years ago was the scope of the thing – and that spectacular ending. For the first time, our species now had the ability to destroy itself.

This is the fearsome reality that has shadowed my generation down seven decades, from schoolchildren doing drop drills to grandparents watching grandchildren play in the park. And the idea that we might someday forge peace among the warring factions, find a way to help overcome tribal hatred before it’s too late, has perhaps come to seem idealistic, visionary, naive, a song John Lennon once sang that’s nice to listen to but not at all realistic.

Maybe it’s all those things.

Though 70 years after a flash of soundless light blasted away 60,000 lives, you have to wonder what better options we’ve got. But then, I’m biased.

You see, I have grandchildren playing in the park.

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