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Letters discuss fallout of atomic bomb

topic posted Sat, August 13, 2005 - 11:17 PM by  Richard
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01:00 AM EDT on Saturday, August 13, 2005

BY BRYAN ROURKE
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- It was about this time 60 years ago that the world waited, and wondered.

Would Japan surrender?

Two atomic bombs decimated the country. World War II was coming to a close. And American women fretted about the future.

"They commented about how powerful the bombs were," says Judy Barrett Litoff, professor of history at Bryant University. "They understood that the atomic age was very different than everything that came before it."

Litoff keeps the thoughts of these women, more than 1,500 of them, in boxes and drawers, and revisits often to plumb insights from the past.

"Back then, government reports, popular magazines or politicians, who were mostly men, would say what women should do," Litoff says. "As a historian, I don't want to begin with the prescribed literature. I want to go to the actual reality."

Litoff means her letters. She has roughly 30,000 of them, sent from American women to American soldiers during World War II. She obtained them in 1987 after placing notices in every daily newspaper in the country, asking women if they would share their war-time correspondence with her.

From the letters, Litoff has looked at World War II from many angles: its effect on families, on children, and, most notably, on women suddenly working outside the home, and managing homes alone.

"I'm trying to give voice to ordinary women," Litoff says. "I think if we're living in a democratic country, we need to hear the stories of ordinary people. If we hear the point of view of only the rich and powerful, we don't have the full texture."

So far, the letters have contributed to seven books Litoff has written with David C. Smith, a historian at the University of Maine, about World War II. Next year, she says, the letters will support an eighth, yet-to-be-titled book about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of World War II.

"As far as the atomic bomb is concerned, my Darling, I can see where the end of fighting for us might be sooner, but it's a great sacrifice, my Darling, for this really seems to be the beginning of the end of all civilization."

-- From Edna Golan of New York City to her husband, John, Aug. 9, 1945.

What is most remarkable about the letters, Litoff says, is the insightfulness of their writers, who generally were not well educated, but intelligent nonetheless.

"It's not that powerful people didn't understand the consequences," Litoff says. "But these women were saying their conerns long before [J. Robert] Oppenheimer [director of America's Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb] was talking publicly. They got it."

And, Litoff notes, they got it immediately, demonstrating a "degree of political sensitivity and sophistication.

"It was not 10 years later after books had been written," she says. "This was their immediate response, from the heart."

Overall, American womenresponded to the atomic bombings of Japan with ambivalence, Litoff says, pleased they ended the war and saved American lives, but troubled of what they portended.

"In the destruction are men, women and children. Is this civilization? I know it can be justified by arguing that if we do not destroy [them], they will destroy us. We know that two wrongs don't make a right and . . . [we] cannot help feeling immoral in justifying it . . . It's so easy to justify what we do, but this kind of warfare perhaps will make pacificts of all the world."

-- A letter to Christine DiPompo, stationed at Fort Deven in Massachusetts, from her parents.

Another woman wrote about how the war and the creation of atomic weapons had turned allies into adversaries: the Cold War.

"Over the radio yesterday . . . I heard the starting of another war! All about how the U.S. was developing new and secret weapons and how we should keep our secrets from the Russians!"

-- From Constance Hope Jones of Kirkwood, Md., to her future husband, Donald C. Swartzbaugh.

Ultimately, the letters talk about irrevocable change.

"One thing is sure -- we will never be the naive innocents we were at home -- none of us."

-- Army nurse Marjorie LaPalme, who was stationed in Europe, in a letter to her parents.

Women, Litoff says, proved themselves capable of maintaining jobs and sustaining families during World War II, and of comprehending the signifiant consequences of science and politics in its aftermath.

"So often in history we look at ordinary people as sort of passive, just doing what they're told," Litoff says. "These letters show that women have been agents of change, a force in history."

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