I first visited Hiroshima and its Peace Memorial Museum when I was 21 years old. The visit changed the course of my life.
I was in Japan on an exchange program, and the program included a trip to Hiroshima around Hiroshima Day in 1963. I was apprehensive about going to Hiroshima. I thought the people of Hiroshima would be angry with Americans, probably hostile and perhaps even violent. After all, we Americans had dropped an atomic bomb on the city just 18 years before, killing well over 100,000 people.
My fears proved to be unfounded. If the people of Hiroshima were hostile to Americans, they didn’t show it. They were kind and welcoming to young Americans, as were people throughout Japan.
Here is what I had learned in high school and college about Hiroshima: The American military dropped an atomic bomb on the city, followed by the dropping of another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and these bombings brought World War II to an end.
Here is what I learned at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum when I was 21 years old: There were people under that bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. Most were civilians. The bomb slaughtered its victims, killing men, women and children indiscriminately. I also learned that many of the people killed by the bomb were burned alive, some were incinerated. These were powerful details – details that were certainly not emphasized in the story we learned in school in the United States.
One of the strongest impressions on me was the shadow on the wall that was left behind where someone had been sitting at the time the bomb was dropped. The person was incinerated and only his shadow remained.
Visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had a strong influence on my views on war, and particularly nuclear war. The museum, which was filled with artifacts and photographs, powerfully demonstrated the futility of nuclear warfare. Hiroshima’s past was eloquent testimony to an intolerable future.
The course of my life made a subtle shift. I was set on a course of wanting to do something to end the tragedy of war. Later, when I returned to the United States, other events would solidify the shift in my life, particularly my experience in the army and my fight in court against orders to go to Vietnam.
Some 20 years later I was a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, where I have served as president for almost 20 years. Hiroshima has never left my mind. I have written many poems and articles about the tragedy that occurred there and its meaning for our lives. I have worked for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I have done all that I can to further this goal. I was a founder of Abolition 2000, now a global network of over 2000 organizations working to abolish nuclear weapons. I have traveled around the world speaking out for realizing the dream of Hiroshima and the survivors of the bombing — the abolition of nuclear weapons.
I believe that museums matter. They capture moments in time and freeze them for the future to examine. Of course, it is important for museums to be honest. It is possible for museums to be deceptive by overt acts or by omission. There is a museum about the first atomic bombs that I visited at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That museum celebrates only the technology. There are no photographs or displays of the people who were killed and injured in the bombings. The museum is steely and antiseptic. In visiting this museum, one would have no emotional connection with or even knowledge of the suffering and death caused by the bombings.
It would be more than 35 years before I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum again. When I did return in 1998, it was to give a speech at the museum. I began my speech with these words: “It is with profound appreciation and gratitude that I return to this city of peace, this sacred city of Hiroshima. This city was made sacred not by the tragedy which befell it, but by the rebirth of hope which emerged from that tragedy. From the ashes of Hiroshima, flowers of hope have blossomed, bringing forth a renewed spirit of possibility, of peace, to a world in which hope has been too often crushed for too many.”
In another visit to the museum early in the year 2000, the museum director, Minoru Hataguchi, showed my wife and me through the museum. He was carrying with him a small box. At one point, he stopped and opened the box. He told us that this was the first time he had shared the contents of the box with visitors to the museum. The box contained the pocket watch and belt buckle of his father. Mr. Hataguchi had been in utero when the bomb fell. His father had been a train conductor, and had been near ground zero. The pocket watch and belt buckle were all that his mother recovered. We were very moved that he shared his father’s story and the artifacts with us.
In Fall 2000, our Foundation sponsored an exhibit in Santa Barbara, California from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Memorial Museums. Mr. Hataguchi was one of the representatives of the two cities that came to Santa Barbara to open the exhibit. By bringing the exhibit to our city, we were able to share with members of our community an important perspective on Hiroshima with which many were unacquainted.
In 1995, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by creating a peace garden in our community. We called it Sadako Peace Garden after Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who had been exposed to the bombing of Hiroshima at age 2 and had died at age 12 of leukemia. Sadako had been inspired by the Japanese legend that one’s wish will come true if one folds 1,000 paper cranes, and she had attempted to fold paper cranes to regain her health and to further world peace. She wrote: “I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.” Each year on August 6th, the Foundation holds a public event at Sadako Peace Garden to commemorate the anniversary of Hiroshima with music, poetry and reflection.
I am quite certain that my first visit to Hiroshima at the age of 21 left a strong enough impression on me to guide the course of my life. I am dedicated to ending the nuclear weapons era, and bringing the spirit of Hiroshima and its survivors, the hibakusha, to people everywhere.
If a visit to the Peace Memorial Museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a requirement of office for all leaders of nuclear weapons states, it just might change the world.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.