When he was told on August 6, 1945, that America’s new atom bomb had destroyed its first target, the Japanese city of Hiroshima, U.S. President Harry Truman declared “This is the greatest thing in history.” Three days later, on August 9, another atom bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki.

The coming of the bomb brought pain and death. A 1946 survey by the Hiroshima City Council found that from a civilian population of about 320,000 on the day of the explosion: over 118,000 were killed, over 30,000 seriously injured, with almost 49,000 slightly injured, and nearly 4,000 people were missing. In December 1945, the Nagasaki City Commission determined that because of the bombing there, almost 74,000 people had been killed and 75,000 injured. The injured continued to die for months and years later, one of the reasons being radiation sickness. Pregnant women who were affected produced children who were severely physically and mentally retarded. The Japanese created a new word — hibakusha, — a survivor of the atom bomb.

In the sixty years since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have been spared the horror of a nuclear weapon attack on another city. But nuclear weapons have grown in their destructive power; each can now be tens of times, or even hundreds of times, more powerful that those used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The number of nuclear weapons has grown; there are now tens of thousands. Where there was one country with the bomb, there are now perhaps nine (US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). There are many more political and military leaders who, like Truman in 1945, see the bomb as “the greatest thing in history”.

From the very beginning, there has also been opposition to the bomb. The French writer and activist Albert Camus wrote on August 6, 1945: “technological civilization has just reached its final degree of savagery… Faced with the terrifying perspectives which are opening up to humanity, we can perceive even better that peace is the only battle worth waging.”

The American sociologist and critic Lewis Mumford wrote: “We in America are living among madmen. Madmen govern our affairs in the name of order and security. The chief madmen claim the titles of general, admiral, senator, scientist, administrator, Secretary of State, even President.” There are many more of these madmen now. They all mumble the same nonsense about “threats,” and “national security,” and “nuclear deterrence,” and try to scare everyone around them.

Protest and resistance against the madness of nuclear weapons has brought together some of the greatest figures of our times with millions of ordinary men and women around the world. Albert Einstein and the philosopher Bertrand Russell gave the reason most simply and clearly. They published a manifesto in 1955 in which they identified the stark challenge created by nuclear weapons: “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

The only way forward for humanity, Einstein and Russell said, was that “We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give a military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?” Their 1955 manifesto led to the formation of the Pugwash movement of scientists. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work against nuclear weapons in 1995. There are now Pugwash groups in 50 countries, including in India and Pakistan.

Global protests eventually forced an end to nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere and under water. These explosions had been spewing radioactivity in the air, where it was blown around the world, poisoning land, water, food and people. But the “madmen” were blinded by the power of the ultimate weapon. They kept building more and bigger bombs and threatening to use them. They have been stopped from using them only by the determined efforts of peace movements and public pressure.

The bomb and the madmen came to South Asia too. India tested a bomb in 1974 and Pakistan set about trying to make one. There was protest too. In 1985, a small group of people in Islamabad organised an event for Hiroshima Day, August 6, at the Rawalpindi Press Club. There was a slide show and talk about nuclear weapons and their terrible effects, with pictures of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Every picture brought gasps of horror and revulsion from the packed audience. The posters and placards and banners on the walls carried messages about the need to end war, to reduce military spending and increase spending on education and health, and to make peace between India and Pakistan. A small, short-lived peace group was born, the Movement for Nuclear Disarmament.

That was twenty years ago. The Cold War is long over, the Soviet Union long gone, but there has been little relief. The United States still has five thousand weapons deployed, 2000 of which are ready to use within 15 minutes, and there are another five thousand in reserve. Russia has over 7000 weapons deployed and 9000 in reserve.

The UK, France, and China are estimated each to have several hundred warheads, Israel may have almost as many, and India and Pakistan have a hundred or fewer. North Korea may have a handful. And, leaders are still mad; they send armies to attack and occupy other countries, and kill and maim tens of thousands. In America, they plan for newer and more useable nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, India and Pakistan have also tested their nuclear weapons — which are about as powerful as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have threatened to use their weapons in every crisis since then. They are making more weapons and missiles as fast as they can. A nuclear war between Pakistan and India, in which they each used only five of their nuclear weapons, would likely kill about three million people and severely injure another one and a half million. What more proof is needed that we are ruled by madmen?

If South Asia is to survive its own nuclear age, we shall need to have strong peace movements in both Pakistan and India. A beginning has been made. The Pakistan Peace Coalition was founded in 1999; it is a national network of groups working for peace and justice. In 2000, Indian activists established the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. These movements will need all the help and support they can get to keep the generals and Prime Ministers in both countries in check. The leaders in both countries must be taught, over and over again, that the people will not allow a nuclear war to be fought. There should never be a word in any other language for hibakusha.

Zia Mian, peace activist, is a physicist at Princeton University.

A.H. Nayyar is a physicist, co-convener of Pugwash Pakistan, and president of the Pakistan Peace Coalition.

Originally published by The News International