We are again in the season of Hiroshima. Many will gather at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to remember that fateful day 60 years ago when an atomic weapon was first used on a human population and obliterated the city of Hiroshima.
In America, unfortunately, far too few individuals will take note of this anniversary. Many of those who do remember Hiroshima will recall it as an event of triumph, not disaster.
Throughout most of the world, the name Hiroshima has come to represent man’s technological capacity for massive destruction. Hiroshima was the culmination of the high-altitude bombing and long-range killing that came increasingly to characterize World War II.
Hiroshima opened the door upon a new world, a world in which it is possible for humanity to destroy itself by its own inventions of highly destructive weaponry. Hiroshima was the world’s first look at a technology that could destroy countries, end civilization, and foreclose a human future.
Following the bombing on August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was a wasteland. It might have been left this way as a monument and reminder of the new dangers confronting humanity. But that wasn’t to be.
The bombed Hiroshima is the Hiroshima of death. It is a harbinger of what may befall humanity. It is a warning, but a warning that seems far distant in our fast-moving, materialistic world.
The physical evidence of the crime has been largely covered over and a thriving new Hiroshima has been built from the ruins – a Hiroshima that demonstrates humanity’s capacity for healing and rebuilding. Sixty years after the bombing, Hiroshima itself is a place of hope. It is a city resurrected, and filled with life.
What remains of the destroyed Hiroshima can now be found in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and in the hearts of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings. They cling to the message, “Never Again! Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot co-exist.” They also cling to the hope that humanity can rise above its destructive impulses.
The rebirth of Hiroshima reflects the power of the human spirit, but the problem presented to humanity by Hiroshima has not gone away. As the leading scientists who signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto put it fifty years ago: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels?”
Many of the scientists who created nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project thought that they should not be used on human populations. They warned that if nuclear weapons were used on Japan, the result would be a nuclear arms race. They unsuccessfully tried to convince US political leaders that the atomic bomb should first be demonstrated to Japanese leaders in a remote, uninhabited place, in order to allow them a chance to surrender. But the pleas of the scientists were unsuccessful. They had lost control of their creation, and government leaders chose to use the bomb before the Soviets entered the war in the Pacific.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima occurred at the end of a terrible war, but it marked the beginning of a new collective madness that would result in the US and USSR each threatening the other with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Today the numbers of weapons is lower than at the height of the Cold War, but the collective insanity continues.
Fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US and Russia have friendly relations. Yet, each side still maintains more than 2,000 long-range nuclear weapons targeted on the other on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. Can this be described in any other way than collective madness?
Do the people of the world, particularly Americans and Russians, understand what this means? Opinion polls indicate that 85 to 90 percent of people everywhere would choose to eliminate nuclear weapons, so long as all countries do so. They understand that it would improve their security, as well as be morally and legally correct. But among politicians, there is little movement toward a nuclear weapons-free world.
In the year 2000, the parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed to 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament, including an “unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals….” It seemed to be a significant breakthrough. Yet, five years later, at the 2005 NPT Review Conference, the United States had fulfilled none of its obligations under the 13 Practical Steps, and refused to allow an agenda for the conference that even made reference to them.
The Bush administration wants funding for new nuclear weapons, particularly earth penetrating nuclear weapons or “bunker busters.” They want a world in which there is no place outside the range of their nuclear weapons. It is a frighteningly dangerous world in which the United States would remain reliant upon nuclear weapons and continue to threaten their use for the indefinite future.
At Hiroshima, the bomb dropped by the United States killed 140,000 people, mostly civilians, and it was celebrated in the US as a military victory. In doing so, the US made victims not only of the people of Hiroshima, but of all humanity, including ourselves. In today’s world, any city anywhere is subject to being destroyed at a moment’s notice.
It is painful, yet necessary, to recall details of that fateful day. On the morning of August 6, 1945, people in Hiroshima set off to work or school. Earlier a US plane had flown over the city, and an alarm had sounded. Then came the all-clear signal. Then another plane, this one the US B-29, Enola Gay. It dropped its single bomb, which fell for 43 seconds, and at 8:15 a.m. the city of Hiroshima was destroyed. Individuals close to the epicenter were incinerated. Those further away were killed by blast and fire. Many of the initial survivors developed “radiation sickness,” and died in the coming days, weeks, months and years of cancers and leukemias.
On August 9, 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki was bombed and destroyed with another atomic weapon. On the same day, Harry Truman told the American people about Hiroshima. He struck a religious note in talking about the bomb, “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
Herbert Hoover, a former American president, had a far different reaction: “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.”
Leading American generals and admirals were equally appalled by the use of atomic weapons. Eisenhower later said, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote: “…the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children….”
Nuclear weapons do not discriminate. They kill men, women and children. In this way, among others, they are illegal under International Humanitarian Law, as the International Court of Justice ruled in 1996.
Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon of cowards. Those who would possess nuclear weapons need only find men and women willing to make them, service them and press the button to release them.
Nuclear weapons destroy the destroyers. Reflecting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gandhi said, “What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see. Forces of nature act in a mysterious manner.”
As Americans look back at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we, too, should be reflecting on what has happened to our collective soul. We should be reflecting on who we are, as we cling to our weapons of massive destruction, and lead the world in opposing nuclear disarmament.
It may be a dangerous world, but our future lies in forgiveness and decency, not force of arms. In the US, we spend half of the world’s total military expenditure, more than $500 billion annually, and we still are not secure. We seek inexpensive sources of oil, and we pay the price in blood, our own but mostly that of others.
If we continue on the path we are on, an American Hiroshima will be in our future. It is inevitable. If the disillusioned and disaffected extremists of the world obtain nuclear weapons, they will use them and the US will be a likely target. The irony of this is that none of our thousands of nuclear weapons will make us any safer. In fact, they make us less secure by creating a situation in which others will also keep nuclear weapons and some of these may end up in the hands of extremists.
But when it comes to nuclear weapons, there are no moderates. All nuclear policies are dangerous and extreme, except those that contribute to the elimination of nuclear weapons. All possessors of nuclear weapons are extremists. If terrorism is threatening or killing innocent civilians, then nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon of terrorism and those who possess them are the ultimate terrorists.
How are we to change? Perhaps Hiroshima provides a place to begin. The horrors of Hiroshima are not only the past, but potentially in the future as well. We can begin with finding our sorrow. We can begin with recognizing the suffering we have caused and are causing still. We can begin with apologies and forgiveness.
Hiroshima has largely recovered from its wounds. The city has been rebuilt. The flowers have returned. The survivors have made it their mission to end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity. They have forgiven the crime.
But America will not heal from the trauma of the devastation we have caused and continue to cause until Americans say No to wanton power, No to nuclear weapons, No to war and No to leaders who lie us into war. Until we summon the power to resist, we will continue to be victims of our own massive and unbridled power. It is within our power to change, but not without ending our addiction to power and our double standards that support this addiction. America must reassert its commitment to decency, not destruction.
The 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto – issued ten years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as thermonuclear weapons were being developed and tested – concluded with these words: “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
We have a choice, and where there is choice there is hope. If we do nothing, we will remain on the path of universal death. If we choose to change the world, it is within our power to do so. Hiroshima is our past; it doesn’t need to be our future. We can join with the survivors of Hiroshima in committing ourselves to assuring that atomic weapons will never again be used by taking the sensible and reasonable step of abolishing these instruments of genocide.
Unfortunately what is reasonable is not always possible. To end the threat to humanity and other forms of life created by nuclear weapons, there are two different sets of problems to be solved. The first is to articulate what needs to be done. The second is to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of accomplishing these goals.
Let us look first at what needs to be done. At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we have proposed the following eight commitments by the nuclear weapons states.
- Commitment to good faith negotiations to achieve total nuclear disarmament.
- Commitment to a timeframe for marking progress and achieving the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
- Commitment to No First Use of nuclear weapons against other nuclear weapons states and to No Use against non-nuclear weapons states.
- Commitment to irreversibility and verifiability of disarmament measures.
- Commitment to standing down nuclear forces, removing them from high alert status.
- Commitment to create no new nuclear weapons.
- Commitment to a verifiable ban on the production of fissile materials, and placing existing materials under strict international control.
- Commitment to accounting, transparency and reporting to build confidence and allow for verification of the disarmament process.
We view these as a minimal level of commitment to demonstrate the “good faith” effort to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons that is required by international law. Other commitments could be added to these, such as support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and agreement to refrain from weaponizing outer space.
Essentially, the international community knows what needs to be done to achieve the phased elimination of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the larger problem is with not what is needed but what is politically possible. This leaves behind the realm of what is reasonable and sensible, and enters the realm of prerogatives of political decision makers.
Despite the threat to humanity and despite reason, none of the commitments above have been acted on by the United States, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapons state. Without US commitment to these goals, it is unlikely that less powerful nuclear weapons states will commit to them. Thus, progress on nuclear disarmament is stalled by US intransigency. The US is not the leader in nuclear disarmament, but rather its major obstacle. This was apparent at the 2005 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, where the US pointed the finger at others, such as Iran and North Korea, but was unwilling even to discuss its own obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament under the treaty and under international law in general.
Within the US, democracy is the province of the people and their representatives, with the mass media playing a critical role in educating the people so that they may make reasoned political choices and give their informed consent to the actions of leaders. It is the political leaders of the US who have been the obstacle to global nuclear disarmament, and for the most part the people are unaware of this because they do not learn about it from the mass media.
The only way to change the policies of the government is for the people to voice their concerns, but largely the people are not informed of the positions of their government on nuclear issues. Nor are they given reasonable analyses of the pros and cons of US nuclear policies because the media has been lax in doing its job.
Humanity’s best hope for ending the nuclear weapons threat that confronts us all is for the American people to engage this issue as if their lives depended upon its outcome. The truth is that our lives, and those of people throughout the world, do depend upon US nuclear policies. We cannot wait for leaders who will recognize and solve these problems for us. We must speak up and we must educate our neighbors and our elected officials.
The choices are clear. One way is to continue on the disastrous path we are on, a path on which our nuclear arsenal plays a pivotal role in providing a false sense of security. Or we can change the direction of our policies, with the US seeking to strengthen its own security and global security by providing leadership to achieve the phased and total elimination of nuclear weapons. To move to this path, the American people are going to have to wake up and demand that their government, acting in their names, end its reliance on nuclear weapons and fulfill its moral and legal obligations to end the nuclear weapons era.
David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author of Today Is Not a Good Day for War.