Koko Kondo

Kazumi Matsui, right, mayor of Hiroshima, and the family of the deceased bow before they place the victims list of the Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima Memorial Cenotaph during the ceremony Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko

The morning of Aug. 6, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the world entering the nuclear age. From a clear blue sky, a B-29 dropped a bomb over the center of Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 people immediately and approximately 100,000 people over the following months. Three days later, another bombing followed in Nagasaki, killing thousands more.

After 75 years, we as a society do not think much about the effect of the bombings on the men, women and children in those two unfortunate cities. We can learn about the devastation wrought by these weapons from the direct experience of the hibakusha, the Japanese word for the survivors of the two nuclear attacks. Many hibakusha travel around the world sharing what happened to them the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, or Aug. 9, 1945, and in the days and weeks and months and years after the bombings. They relive the horrors of seeing family members burned to death, crushed by falling buildings or eliminated instantaneously by the explosion. The stories continue, as they recount days of watching loved ones suffer and die with an unidentified illness. Later on many faced their own challenges, not only with illness but also discrimination for being from one of the bombed cities.

Having a full appreciation of the consequences of nuclear weapons and their place in our society means learning from these stories. It means visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to witness careful displays of the artifacts and stories from the attack, the piecemeal remains of children’s school uniforms, lunch pails and tricycles. It means viewing several different drawings, created by survivors, of the same image, one that must have been seared into their minds in the days after the attack: a parent on the ground on hands and knees, cradling an infant underneath for protection, the two beings forever joined in a black, charred memorial to the best and worst of humanity. It also means learning from other survivors of nuclear explosions, those who lived and worked adjacent to testing sites in Algeria, French Polynesia, Australia, the United States, France, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Western China and Kazakhstan. Individuals from each of these locations are still suffering from the aftereffects of their experiences with nuclear weapons.

Many hibakusha and survivors of nuclear testing have worked to provide testimony about their experiences in hopes of promoting global nuclear disarmament. One hibakusha, Setsuko Thurlow, accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize along with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, for their efforts to bring attention to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and to promote a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 nations in July 2017. The treaty bans its members from possessing nuclear weapons and prohibits all activities related to these weapons, such as deploying them, assisting in their creation or threatening their use. It aims to stigmatize nuclear weapons, promoting the idea that they are unacceptable to possess because of their potential for significant and long-lasting damage to communities and the Earth. The treaty grew out of an explicitly humanitarian campaign, which called attention to the ways in which nuclear explosions affect bodies, communities and climates. This effort was unique in recognizing that victims of nuclear attacks and nuclear testing have their own expertise about nuclear weapons and that all of us, whether from countries that possess nuclear weapons or countries that do not, have a right to speak out about nuclear weapons.

Forty nations have ratified the treaty so far; 50 are required for its entry into force. No nuclear weapon-possessing nation or nation protected by extended nuclear deterrence has joined the treaty. The ban thus represents the great divide over the value placed on nuclear weapons between the world’s nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots. Those whose defense policies rely on nuclear deterrence – the United States and its allies, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – see these weapons as integral to their national security. Those in favor of banning nuclear weapons argue that humanity’s long-term security is better served by eliminating them.

Today the United States is engaged in a long-term plan to update its nuclear arsenal, spending as much as $500 billion over the next 10 years to maintain and modernize its nuclear platforms and the bombs they deliver. Over 30 years, the program is estimated to cost almost $2 trillion, with the new platforms expected to last through the 2080s. Despite this astounding cost and the trade-offs (for other guns or butter) necessitated by spending such vast sums, there is little public discussion in the United States about this expenditure or about U.S. nuclear policy. Nuclear weapons are mostly ignored today, although when asked, the majority of Americans favor nuclear disarmament. In contrast, after the Hiroshima bombing, the public learned in detail about the aftermath of the attack through John Hersey’s powerful piece in The New Yorker, published in August 1946. Nuclear weapons remained in the public consciousness with the advent of more powerful thermonuclear weapons and their megaton tests, global protests of nuclear weapons and, of course, the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1983, the American public was reminded of the terror of nuclear war by viewing ABC’s made-for-television film “The Day After.” Today, when I poll my college students about what they know about nuclear weapons and where they learned about them, the most common source of their knowledge is video games. Few know there are still over 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the majority of them significantly more destructive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Though most people rarely consider nuclear weapons today outside of news stories about North Korea or Iran, these weapons still exist and remain relevant to the national security policies of about 40 nations in the international system. Their vast destructive potential remains. For this reason, remembering Hiroshima and listening to the stories of nuclear survivors is more important than ever. Only with an understanding of these weapons and their effects can we have a much-needed public debate about their role in our society.

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